The Unfair Crucifixion of Salman Rushdie

I have discussed the issue of banned books before, and while it is a terribly subjective thing to ban a book, it is also mostly a misguided thing. One of the prime examples of an unnecessarily banned book is Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a book banned in several countries for challenging core Islamic beliefs. This book is now back in the spotlight after four authors were asked to leave the Jaipur Literary Festival because they read extracts from Satanic Verses. The advisors suggested that they leave because they faced arrest for reading from a banned book during a festival celebrating Indian and international literature.

This is where it gets messy, and where I am willing to wade in because I have no sacred cows. A literary festival should be a celebration of literature beyond borders and comfort zones. As someone who does not subscribe to a religion, and hasn’t since the age of twelve, I find it ridiculous to ban a book simply because it does not agree with what someone considers sacrosanct to their imaginary BFF. I think most people haven’t read Satanic Verses, and the fact that many Christians called for Rushdie’s death in 1998 without any kind of context other than “everyone else is doing it” shows the vast misunderstanding going on here. Satanic Verses deals with more than just the supposed verses in the Koran attributed to Muhammad’s short time being influenced by pagan influences. Because these verses stand contrary to the rest of the teachings, they have been labelled the Satanic verses to explain them away. Convenient, but flimsy.

Anyway, that aside, Satanic Verses deals with the scope of life and death, Bollywood films, utterly destructive love and romance (the mother pushing her children out of a building and following them), sin and lust and climbing Everest. It is a work broad in its material and eloquent in its execution and about so much more than just a few misguided verses. To mark this book as unfit and unacceptable just because a few people are offended is an insult to those of us who don’t share the same belief systems. I do not appreciate any group making decisions for others; I especially find those decisions distasteful when based on belief systems rather than tangible objections. Censorship is an ugly thing as it is; we saw the fallout over SOPA/PIPA last week, especially with the arrests of the founders of MegaUpload.com. Whether it is coming from multinationals or churches or governments, censorship is nearly always incorrectly applied.

I’d like to share another example; please bear with me for this slight segue. With the furore over the reprinting of Mein Kampf in Germany, we see that minorities have just as much sway as majorities as getting a book banned or a show pulled. I understand that many Jewish groups might not want to see Mein Kampf being sold on shelves, but would it not be better if it could be annotated and challenged by historians in a public setting? It might go towards explaining the horror of the Holocaust, and how a nation was able to condone it in a variety of ways. (Hitler’s Willing Executioners deals with this in better detail than I can manage  here.) Suppose that publically challenging and understanding Mein Kampf could bring closure to that dark period in history? Just as we in South Africa should try read the materials, however uncomfortable, of the TRC hearings, of the writings of the racist forerunners in our attempts to understand and therefore make peace, surely the German people should be given the opportunity to do the same?

Which brings me back to Rushdie. When he challenged a set of ideals (and not even with particular vitriol, I feel), he was using his art to lay out a set of discussions. Telling him that he should be beheaded for raising an opinion is as backwards as it is saddening. I don’t care that the book stood on some toes; if we cannot even raise objections in fiction, how are we to do them elsewhere? And how dare a country tell its authors what to do, and exile them if they don’t toe the line? This is much bigger than critical objection; this is censorship and totalitarianism in its most subversive form. How can India ever claim to be a world player when religions can dictate to its policy? PEN, the international organisation working for the most important rights of writers, has this to say about the threats to Salman Rushdie’s life:

PEN International is appalled to learn that the author Salman Rushdie has once again been the subject of a death threat; we condemn this criminal attempt to silence an international exponent of free speech.

Read more here

I feel that this best approaches my feeling on the subject. India should protect its citizens, and not allow religious groups to drive them into hiding in other countries. Just as it is South Africa’s duty to protect Zapiro from fatwa, it is up to India to do the same. But India’s failure to do so speaks to a government held ransom by the religious, and especially by the worst example of a particular group of people. A lot of people associate any criticism of Islam with racism, a defence as facile as it is insulting. My condemnation of Islamic religious leaders has nothing to do with Muslims, whatever my disagreements with their chosen beliefs. As a writer, as a bookseller, as a citizen, I cannot tolerate the destruction of free speech even if it is not in my home country. Salman Rushdie is not the first to suffer for his views; Jyllands-Posten for the Muhammad cartoons, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the bombed offices of French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, our own Zapiro; all of them have been attacked for their views. And anyone who agrees with them is labelled racist in the most childish defense possible.

By all means, let there be responses. But those responses should not involve death threats and exile. They should especially not include governments siding with one vocal group at the expense of that country’s growth and integrity.

Review of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I realise that this review is several months too late to capitalise on the buzz this book generated with the Man Booker award, but it still worth discussing.

The first half of this book could have been narrated by Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame. It is literary in the sense that any book that doesn’t have a car chase in it has become labelled literary; it deals with the popular undergrad topics of memory and unresolved endings. Tony Webster discusses his friends, his uneventful life, his divorce and his mostly comfortable relationship with his ex-wife. The plot hook is provided by a friend’s suicide and a lawyer’s letter stating that some items of the deceased were left to him in spite of years of failed communication. The usual spiteful interactions between old enemies with shared relationships ensue, an admittedly decent twist is revealed and the novel ends with a rumbling “there is great unrest.”

Honestly, I haven’t read any of the other Man Booker candidates, as many of them are not available in South Africa and Sense was given to me as a proof copy, slipped amongst the usual crime thrillers that publishing houses give out like candy to drum up support. But if this was considered the best of the bunch, I’m not so sure that they should have given out the prize at all. I’ve discussed the Man Booker before; I’m still less than enamoured of book prizes for their refusal to admit to their subjectivity and therefore shortcomings. Many of the judges in these competitions aren’t even authors, unaware of the backbreaking work that can go into a great novel only for it to be dismissed as too mainstream or literary. I’m just a humble blogger that has minimal impact on a book, and none on the industry. But there’s a difference between myself and panel dishing out tens of thousands in Euros. I am not making and breaking careers, and I am not subject to politics.

The reason why I don’t think this book is that groundbreaking is because it reads like a pastiche of all the setworks foisted upon English literature undergrads. There’s the fallible narrator with his dodgy memory, and who is a part-time focuser for the character of suicidal Adrian. (Ian McEwan was triumphant in this with Atonement.) There are the endless literary allusions that makes people like me smug for catching them and other people bored. Its obviousness makes it ham-handed compared to Salman Rushdie’s masterful handling of intertextual allusion (see the Milton references in The Satanic Verses), or TS Eliot’s for that matter. I did enjoy the posturing of the young men as they aspired to endless wit and glamorously tragic deaths, as much as it painfully reminded me of my first year self. (I’m not entirely sure such unwarranted posturing ever stopped.)

I feel that Sense of an Ending is literary, but it is obviously so. Since literary is now a label attached to anything that isn’t crime, romance or non-fiction and has a serious topic, it fails to mean anything. What I consider literary is considered nigh unreadable by most, and my understanding of it usually excludes the general publishing perspective. Language of Flowers was marketed as the literary answer to Eat, Pray, Love; I still found it as mainstream as the latter. I will never apologise for my taste in books, but I freely admit to my strange and obscure tastes. Sense did interest me on some levels; the pretentious undergrad in me will never die, but my postgrad self found the protagonist as interesting as dried toast. Tony was surrounded by far more interesting characters, and perhaps it was the author’s point. Not everyone in the world is fascinating or charming or even mildly entertaining. Tony is a middle-aged, lonely, unambitious man who has some drama thrust upon him and some scathing altercations. By the end he is unchanged, nothing is solved and I imagine it is one of the points that has had it labelled as literary and therefore for the attention of the Man Booker panel. I know that a literary title will have an open or unclear ending and sometimes it is superbly done (consider Bee Season) but to just say ‘and he went on and nothing changed’ is boring. He contemplates what-ifs, which is more like a misery memoir than actually thought-provoking.

In short, Sense is a short, mostly pretentious read that deals with memory, suicide and human interactions. It had the potential to be something of Catcher in the Rye calibre, but ended up being a bit pretentious and boring. Like a corporate cocktail party with one or two good speeches and some nice drinks but little more than that.

For a much less forgiving review, go here to the Geoff Dyer review in the New York Times, and read the John Crace Digested Read here