A perhaps historic literary consensus emerged today among the poets, novelists and critics attending the 48th International PEN Congress.
It is now bad form to mention George Shultz.
The name of the secretary of state has been bandied about long, loud and often at the congress ever since his speech to the assembled literati at the New York Public Library Sunday night.
Monday, invocations of the secretary, and the flap caused by American PEN President Norman Mailer's impromptu speaking invitation to him, dominated the proceedings at the Essex House. But this morning at a panel treating "Alienation and the State," Shultz's name was nowhere to be heard.
"What happened Sunday night at the library" was as far as panel leader Susan Sontag would go.
"Shh!" British novelist Salman Rushdie persisted in saying when he felt the urge to refer to the secretary.
Rushdie later elaborated on his "Shh!," coming perilously close to the real thing.
"That man whose name begins with a secret and ends in a gulp," he said.
The week-long congress is an occasion that forces wildly different chemistries into unexpected proximity, offering at least the hope of an occasional literary fusion reaction.
There appeared to be just such a potential Monday at a lunch for the world's writers thrown by Harper's magazine at the Russian Tea Room. There, novelist Wang Meng of the People's Republic of China shared a table with novelist Claude Simon, the 1985 Nobel Prize-winner from France.
At it turned out, though, the lack of a common language somewhat dampened their colloquy. It was all they could do to smile at each other and pass the salt and pepper.
"It is a wall, language," Wang lamented in fractured but eager English. He is a sad-eyed man with a philosophical grin, the author of "The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department," "Kite Streamers," "The Butterfly" and "Voices of Spring."
He is 51, given to much laughter and clearly at home with things western. He wears this affinity on his sleeve, from his clothes -- a beige suit -- to his friends. "I know John Hersey," said Wang, an enthusiastic world traveler. "I saw him in Martha Vineyard. I met Lillian Hellman. She funny. Funny lady. And we go sailing. Wooo!"
For Wang life wasn't always so.
"I write first about youth in 1950s, then after 1957, I have to keep silent," said Wang, who in 1963 was rusticated from Peking to China's northeastern border, his career nipped in the bud, and forced to become a farmer during the Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-tung. "I have to drop my pen because it was dangerous, very dangerous. I have to save myself and my wife and children. I drive a plow with a horse. Sixteen years.
"I was not a good farmer. The people feel pity for me and help me. I was sad and lonely, but I learn a lot of knowledge of life. It's too crazy, political crazy, and not rational. But I always believe the situation will change."
Wang, sipping white wine in the Tea Room -- or, as he called it, "Tea House" -- said the situation did indeed change after Mao's death in 1976 and the resulting cultural thaw. By 1979 he had returned to Peking and was prolifically writing away.
"My subject will be about youth, Chinese revolution, success and failure, good and bad, the bureaucracy," he said. "I like to try every style to write. I like to make game with my readers. They don't know the next thing I write. I change my subject. It is a good way."
Across the table, the diminutive Claude Simon, the Swedish Academy's surprise choice for the literature prize last year, savored a skinny Cuban cigar.
"I got it in France," said the balding, white-haired author of "Georgics" and "Triptych," pulling a box of them out of his leather jacket and offering them around. He spoke his own brand of English, in a slow basso profundo.
"It is all interesting to see people speak politics and not literature -- always to me a surprise at a meeting of writers," he said, giving his assessment of the congress so far.
"Yes, I hear a lot of ideas today," he agreed. "But writing is not the ideas. Writing is the words. To write for me is to search for something, not to 'express ideas.' "
In the congress the writers come and go, talking of Nicaragua. And the delegation from that country is much in demand.
Omar Cabezas, author of "Fire From the Mountain," a memoir of his life as a guerrilla, and "chief of political direction at the ministry of interior for the Sandinista government," among other weighty titles, has been giving an extended series of press interviews in the coffee shop of the St. Moritz.
"Communism, capitalism, it's all a bunch of bunk," he said (or very nearly) during one such encounter among the pink tablecloths. He added that his book, soon to be out in paperback, is a best seller in Nicaragua as well as Los Angeles, where he'll be next week to meet with Hollywood executives over a possible movie deal.
"I don't know how much money, but I hear it's a lot," Cabezas said about all this activity, grinning from head to toe.
Also making a big splash was Nicaraguan first lady Rosario Murillo, a prolific poet as well as the wife of President Daniel Ortega. Trailed by an aide and two serious-looking men in matching brown suits, she appeared at Gracie Mansion Monday night for Mayor Ed Koch's PEN party.
As she wended her way through the crowd, hobnobbing with such old friends as Gu nter Grass and such new ones as Norman Mailer, Murillo was taken aside by Herb Rickman, special assistant to the mayor. "It was a sad story, it was a silly story," Rickman told her, referring to a report, during the United Nations 40th anniversary celebration last October, that Murillo and her husband bought $3,000 worth of designer eyeglasses at a New York optical store.
Rickman then offered, on behalf of the mayor's office, to help her shop "quietly" on this visit. Today, Rickman had no comment on the offer, and Murillo, in any case, had yet to take him up on it.
"I had no idea how much a pair of glasses could cost," she said of the original incident. "Absolutely no idea. I'd never been shopping in New York."