A refresher course in courage.
11 October, 2013
When, as a teenager, I first got hold of a Rushdie novel (it was 'The Ground beneath her feet'), I read it 'in hiding'; pun very much intended. By 'in hiding', I of course mean that I consciously made an effort to conceal from my parents the fact that I was reading Rushdie. In retrospect, I realize I needn't have done that. My parents probably were as clueless about the reasons behind the furore involving the author as most people were. And, like in all civilized homes, would have encouraged me to find out myself, if I was interested.
Unfortunately though, that is not the impression one gets about the atmosphere in most homes (including the so-called 'liberal' ones), once one reads this triumphant memoir. One of the greatest achievements of this rather long, but very satisfying, book is that it is as much about the world in general, as it is about the man in the centre of the storm: as the author himself puts it, a non-existent demonized version of himself.
Rushdie writes, as opposed to the unstated rule of writing an autobiographical work in first person, in third person; and the effect is that of a memoir, essentially a work of non-fiction, reading like a piece of fiction, a novel. It distances Rushdie from the protagonist of the book, i.e. Joseph Anton, thus enabling him to offer certain liberties of exaggeration, self-lionization and glorification to himself, without it appearing pompous.
It is appalling that a senile old man from a theocratic nation can take offence at a book that he hasn't even cared to read; and can decree, from thousands of miles away, that the author of the book has to die for it. It is even more disgusting that he is taken seriously by millions of people around the world. What Rushdie achieves in the pages of this seminal work, is a bit-by-bit an shred-by-shred dissection of that disgust. He tells us just how disgusting it indeed is, and shames us into accepting that just a superficial denouncement of intellectual terrorism does almost as big a disservice to humanity that active endorsement of it does.
Rushdie is prophetic right from the early pages of the book, in the lead up to the fatwa. He predicts an upswing in the militant version of radicalised Islamic fundamentalism that we, indeed, witnessed growing through the nineties to culminate in one of the most horrifying tragedies in recent memory: 9/11. It reminds one of the observations that V S Naipaul made in his books such as 'Among the believers', which Rushdie, incidentally and interestingly, had dismissed as a 'superficial' book, full of over-simplifications and 'sins of omission' in a 1981 book- review,
The nom de plume 'Joseph Anton' that Salman Rushdie went by in his years in hiding, we are told, is derived from the names of two of the writer's biggest influences: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. The presence of these stalwarts in the narrative is subtly apparent, and the author recounts their work in multiple places. However, it is the constant visitation of the narrative by many, actually most, of the celebrated writers of recent times, that really brightens it up. In the pages of the book, among others, writers as illustrious as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, James Fenton, Susan Sontag, Czeslaw Milosz, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Vaclav Havel, Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, and Mario Vargas Llosa display their admirable courage an dedication to the cause of art in general, and literature, in particular. Bill Buford, of Granta, is very endearing, as is the great Graham Greene, in the brief appearance that he makes in the story. Those who do not get agreeable portrayals are: Marrianne Wiggins (the author's ex-wife), Roald Dahl, Peter Mayer and the top brass of the British politics of the time, in addition to the obvious real antagonists (the fatwa faction).
Even though the work is very serious, the author manages to bring out the dark comedy of the entire scenario. He is genuinely funny at times, for example when he addresses the Ayatollah Sanei as 'Sanei of the bounty' every time he mentions him. Also funny are the imagined letters that the author writes to addressees both real and imaginary.
The last word, of course, has to go to the protectors: the uniformed men who took it upon themselves, day after day, the cause of free expression (when their jobs, as a matter of fact, involved staying as quiet as possible: a direct contradiction). Mr. Rushdie never fails to communicate Mr. Joseph Anton's undying gratitude to the men and women who not only did their job with perfection, but also made it a point to let their sympathy known to their 'principal', their 'protectee', amidst condemnation of the entire 'Protect Rushdie' campaign from all quarters of the society.
This is a really immersing book, and you repeatedly find yourself engrossed in the state of affairs. So much so, that the author's agonies become your own agonies, and his little triumphs become yours too. At the end of it, you heave a sigh of relief almost as deep as the author himself does, when the fatwa is lifted. You are prepared to forego the selfish pleasures the great author takes sometimes, the 'self-aggrandizements', as a police officer refers to it on one occasion (as does the author himself, mockingly, in a typical Rushdie-fashion).
The reading of the book, I think, is incomplete without reading the speeches the author mentions in the book, namely 'Is nothing sacred?', 'In good faith', 'In god we trust', and 'One thousand days in the balloon': all of which can be found in Rushdie' collection of non-fiction 'Imaginary Homelands'.
Purchase this book because it is, despite what people might count as its flaws, an essential reading for our times. Read it not only for the pleasure of reading, but also for the continued existence of the freedom of expression, and of course, the freedom of reading what one chooses to.
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