Predrag Matvejevitch Must Not Go to Prison!

Today, I am joining my efforts with those of ten European writers and intellectuals who are more or less directly related to my review, La Regle du Jeu. Together, we sound a cry of alarm concerning the fate of one of Europe's great intellectuals who is presently threatened with imprisonment in his own country, Croatia, for an offense of opinion. Can this be Europe? Has European genius fallen so low that we can simply accept this imminent outrage, without any reaction whatsoever?

Predrag Matvejevitch Must Not Go to Prison!

On July 28th, at the age of 78, the Croatian writer Predrag Matvejevitch will perhaps spend his first night in prison, a singular destiny for a university professor who once taught at the Sorbonne, whose only crime is to have openly expressed clear-cut opinions.

October 3rd, 2005, marked the inauguration of negotiations for Croatia's admission to the European Union. By a coincidence of dates -- but was it really that? -- scarcely a month later, on November 2nd, Predrag Matvejevitch, one of Croatia's finest intellectuals, was condemned by the municipal court of Zagreb, the country's capital, to two years in prison, five months of that term without remission, for defamation. There was an aspect of bitter irony about this, for the same Predrag Matvejevitch once held the European chair at the Collège de France, in Paris, in 1997.

The international press, in particular French, English and Italian, then took up the cause of this professor, specialist of comparative literature and a man of courageous political convictions: the son of a Croatian Catholic mother and a Russian Jewish father, in 1991 he sided with predominantly Muslim Bosnia against the Serbian and Croatian nationalists who dreamed of carving up the country.

His position was by no means easy to assume at the time. He was subjected to insults and defamation of all kinds; shots were fired into his pigeonhole at the University of Zagreb, where he was director of studies of French literature. It was the beginning of an exile that led him to Paris, Rome, and then Trieste.

During all the wars that have bathed ex-Yugoslavia in blood and since then, he has unfailingly fought against nationalism, against extremism, against the hard-liners on all sides and of all origins, expressing his love for a fraternal and pacific Mediterranean in his works, the most famous of which is his Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape (Fayard, 1992), translated into more than twenty languages and, already, a classic.

In keeping with his combat for another vision of ex-Yugoslavia, for the work of memory, and against the harm that has resulted from ethnic purification, in 2001, at the invitation of the Centre français André-Malraux, he went to Sarajevo with staff and crews of Arte television channel. His stay there inspired him to write a text which appeared in the Croatian daily Jutarnji List, entitled "Our Talibans".

This text belongs to the literary tradition of travel narratives, but with the melancholy of one who finds himself in the setting of a tragedy he tried, with the means at his disposal, to prevent. Along the thread of his thoughts are a few lines pointing out a certain number of Croatian ultranationalist writers Predrag Matvejevitch deems responsible in part for the disasters of ex-Yugoslavia.

One of them, a poet by profession, considered the term "Christian talibans" (the title of the article as it appeared in Italy) calumnious and filed suit against the author before the municipal tribunal of Zagreb. As libel remains a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment without a suspended sentence in Croatia today, the Croatian intellectual was condemned to serve time.
Judging the sentence iniquitous and unworthy of a State of law, pleading for freedom of opinion and speech, rebelling, in a word, against what he terms an "offense of metaphor", Matvejevitch has refused to lodge an appeal. The Croatian Prime Minister himself, observing the rising tide of international disapproval, has declared that he is personally opposed to the execution of the sentence. The Court of Appeal took the case before the Supreme Court of Croatia and the latter rendered its verdict scarcely a month ago, confirming the sentence of the magistrate's court: on July 28th, at the age of 78, Predrag Matvejevitch will sleep in prison.
What a strange destiny for this encyclopedic, polyglot mind! What a scandal for this Croatian George Steiner (for that is the reputation he immediately earned when he came to France)! What a singular fate for this impressive European intellectual whose first published works would inspire Sartre and so many others! His combat, in the dark History of the end of the 20th century, was always that of a free and politically committed spirit, in the very same tradition as Sartre -- whom, as a matter of fact, he knew well. His courage honors a European mind which is, at this very moment, so methodically dishonored. And nevertheless, on July 28th, at the age of 78, he will sleep in prison.

"One does not imprison Voltaire," General de Gaulle said, once again in reference to Jean-Paul Sartre. Of course. But can one, in all conscience, allow Predrag Matvejevitch, a man inspired by the heritage of Voltaire and of Sartre, to be imprisoned? Is Croatian law and the manner in which it is applied compatible with the demands of contemporary law and freedom of expression that are the distinctive features of democracies?

Is it acceptable that, in a country so close to adhering to the European Union, a person guilty of the simple offense of having taken a stand publicly against a poet of civil society (whose ultranationalist positions are known to all) can be treated as a delinquent? And this Croatian left-over of Yugoslavia's authoritarian past, can it be soluble in Europe?

In the meantime, as we search for an answer to these questions, on July 28th, at the age of 78, Predrag Matvejevitch will sleep in prison.

Umberto Eco, writer, philosopher, professor emeritus at the University of Bologna
Michaël Foessel, philosopher, editorial consultant at «Esprit»
Donatien Grau, critic
Nedim Gürsel, writer, research director at the CNRS ;
Gilles Hertzog, writer, publication director of "La Règle du jeu"
Bernard-Henri Lévy, writer, philosopher, director of "La Règle du jeu"
Claudio Magris, writer, professor emeritus at the University of Trieste and member of the editorial committee of «La Règle du jeu»
Olivier Py, writer, director, director of the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe
Salman Rushdie, writer and member of the editorial committee of «La Règle du jeu»
Peter Sloterdijk, philosopher, rector of the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung de Karlsruh, professor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts
Pierre Zaoui, philosopher, lecturer at the Université de Paris-Diderot, programme director at the Collège international de philosophie