I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.
Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies.
Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell
their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers
and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in
that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling them.
Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he
creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the
critics. Why should that be?
My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies -
which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true - the
novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light
on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in
its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab
its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to
a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order
to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth
lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good
Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as
honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage
in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.
So let me tell you the truth. A fair number of people advised me
not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me
they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came.
The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle
that was raging in Gaza. The UN reported that more than a thousand
people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them
unarmed citizens - children and old people.
Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked
myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a
literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create
the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I
endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its
overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I
would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not
support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books
subjected to a boycott.
Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to
come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people
advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to
do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me - and
especially if they are warning me - "don't go there," "don't do that,"
I tend to want to "go there" and "do that." It's in my nature, you
might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot
genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or
touched with their own hands.
And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay
away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to
speak to you rather than to say nothing.
This is not to say that I am here to deliver a political message.
To make judgments about right and wrong is one of the novelist's most
important duties, of course.
It is left to each writer, however, to decide upon the form in
which he or she will convey those judgments to others. I myself prefer
to transform them into stories - stories that tend toward the surreal.
Which is why I do not intend to stand before you today delivering a
direct political message.
Please do, however, allow me to deliver one very personal message.
It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction.
I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste
it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it
goes something like this:
"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."
Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I
will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right
and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a
novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall,
of what value would such works be?
What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too
simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus
shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians
who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the
This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it
this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique,
irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and
it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser
degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is
The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it
takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us
to kill others - coldly, efficiently, systematically.
I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the
dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon
it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light
trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in
its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist's job to
keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by
writing stories - stories of life and death, stories of love, stories
that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This
is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter
My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher
and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was
drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after
the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up
long, deeply-felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time
I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the
people who had died in the war.
He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and
enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to
feel the shadow of death hovering around him.
My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I
can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains
in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and
one of the most important.
I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all
human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and
religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To
all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too
strong - and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will
have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and
irreplaceability of our own and others' souls and from the warmth we
gain by joining souls together.
Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible,
living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow The System
to exploit us. We must not allow The System to take on a life of its
own. The System did not make us: We made The System.
That is all I have to say to you.
I am grateful to have been awarded the Jerusalem Prize. I am
grateful that my books are being read by people in many parts of the
world. And I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak to you here