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Politics, freedom, and literature

IT'S somehow symbolic that a political dispute should break out even before this week's 48th International PEN Congress opened in New York. Many recent works that officially present themselves as fiction are heavily political -- from those of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Gunter Grass to Isabel Allende, to name but three contemporary authors. Like individual authors, PEN itself also deals in part with controversy: Its concerns include the support of writers imprisoned or suppressed by their governments. PEN strongly defends human rights and authors' freedom of expression -- two essential components of democracy.

That Secretary of State George Shultz should have been permitted to address the Congress, after his controversial invitation, offers another kind of symbolism: The freedom to think and express ideas that are unpopular is central to many an author's work.

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Cynics sometimes dismiss writings as just words. Some writers at times do retreat into a world of isolation and self-indulgence.

But the best writings, like speeches, revolve around ideas, and can be more feared than armies. Over the centuries able writers from a variety of cultures have spun images of want and repression, and of new paths to tread. In poems, plays, novels, and a variety of other literary forms their messages have done powerful work in leading humanity toward freedoms of many kinds. But many writings were considered so radical in their times as to bring persecution for their authors.

Not surprisingly, then, the first two days of this week's PEN Congress focused on political issues, from the Reagan administration and the address by Secretary Shultz to ``Star Wars'' to US policy in Nicaragua. The conference's overall theme is ``The writer's imagination and the imagination of the state.''

But the meetings deal as well with literary issues: One session, for instance, is on ``Translating Whitman.''

Hanging over this conference on written expression is not only international politics but the relationship with a quite different medium: television. What is the future role of lengthy written works, such as novels, in a visually oriented society increasingly accustomed to gaining its knowledge in small gulps?

Solzhenitsyn's novels in 90-second spurts? The PEN Congress reminds us that words of conscience still require enduring forms in these impatient times. ----30--{et

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