A dark trip to the heart of human rights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 1998, 12:00am

In a series of letters written to Prosecutor V O Shespak of the Ukraine, Hong Kong Baptist University professor of English and humanities Peter Stambler aims to explore the concept of human rights in various guises.

We are told that Shespak made the state's case against a Jehovah's witness, Vasily Vishnikov, who is now serving five years' hard labour for practising an unapproved religion. Stambler tells us Vishnikov has been locked into the brutal Ukrainian prison system for handing out leaflets on street corners - the kind of activity which elsewhere, including Hong Kong, would have earned him little more than glares from passers-by.

The author writes from Wisconsin as part of an Amnesty International programme to free political prisoners by bombarding their captors with an endless torrent of formal letters.

Stambler is an Amnesty International member and vice-president of the Hong Kong chapter of Pen International, heading its Writers in Prison Committee, according to the blurb of his book. Curiously, the author of the fictional letters to Shespak signs himself simply P S, leaving the reader wondering how close to the truth any of this is: has Stambler sent similar letters about a 'Vishnikov' to a 'Shespak', or does he perhaps wish he had? If he had, one wonders what such a Shespak would have made of them, since this slim volume is written almost entirely in poetry. Stambler's previous publications reveal a strong leaning towards modern verse, and he has indulged both his passions in The Shespak Letters.

It is unclear at whom Stambler is aiming this work. It seems an obscure way of trying to increase awareness of human rights or their violations - unless he feels that the alternative would be a heavy treatise with even less sales potential. Yet poetry buffs might find the political overtones or dark introspective mood difficult to fathom.

To aim for a bestseller, or even a work of reasonably wide appeal, with 70 pages of poetry sent to a shadowy prosecutor in the Ukraine would be folly. But Stambler appears content to publish on subjects close to his heart without regard for print runs or financial returns. (This work by an unknown publisher is distributed through Asia 2000.) As Stambler points out in the foreword, one reason why P S sends so many letters into the icy black void of the Ukrainian prison system is to find a source of human rights he himself can understand. He asks: what are human rights? P S' first communication is a formal letter asking whether Vishnikov's sentence and treatment are fair and seeking the address of a relative of Vishnikov to whom food and comfort can be sent. As he continues to write without response, the epistles begin to drift from their original focus.

P S examines his childhood, his parents' relationship, his family and the environments, smells and sounds of his youth, as well as turning points in his marriage. The mood is heavy, weighed down by conscience over global and family events.

To the average reader wondering where this can be leading, the letters and P S' musings to Shespak seem introspective and overly self-indulgent. Perhaps he is questioning his own and the world's human rights violations against others, or theirs against himself. It is difficult to know.

Two letters are datelined Ukraine, addressed to P S and signed Shespak. But are these really meant to be poetic replies from the grey target of all these outpourings, or are they meant as self-penned foils for P S' further musings? Eleven years ago, Stambler won the Quarterly Review of Literature's International Poetry Prize. The Shespak Letters will appeal to those interested in modern poetry with a sombre, introspective bent.

The Shespak Letters by Peter Stambler Abiko Literary Press, $80