Some of us in Marcellus have spent most of our lives reading endless amounts of books – both fiction and non-fiction. For better or for worse, our reading has made us who we are and, at many levels, reading is what we do to earn a living. Our reading has included most of Salman Rushdie’s books including the ones for which he has been condemned to rot in hell. Using rational yardsticks (eg. originality of thought, imagination, quality of writing), we judge him to be one of the finest writers in the post-World War II period – you show us a better work of fiction centred around modern India than “Midnight’s Children” and we will buy you as many meals as you want in Café Noorani in Tardeo, the sort of eatery where Rushdie’s Mumbai comes alive and reminds you what a privilege it is to live in the ‘Maximum City’ (see https://www.zomato.com/mumbai/
Given that Rushdie’s origins lie in the city we call home, we identify with his depiction of the world we live in i.e. cities such as Mumbai and London, landscapes such as the Malabar coast and eras such as post-Independence India. Therefore, we watch closely how the world treats him because it is a good indicator for us of how the world will eventually treat people like us. To that end, we found this essay by French philosopher, activist and writer, Bernard-Henri Lévy, on how various powerful men have treated Rushdie over the years to be very interesting.
Levy begins with an anecdote which he believes underscores the fan base Rushdie enjoys: “…there was a private trip to Nice, in the mid-1990s. Air Inter blocked off the first row. As I recall, he boarded at the last minute with his security detail, just before the doors closed, after we had witnessed a mysterious ballet of police, service vehicles, and flashing lights on the runway. On this occasion, too, when he appeared on the plane, there was generalized shock. One woman claimed that she was ill. Another woman demanded to be let off the plane. The rest of the passengers, once the initial surprise wore off, broke into sustained applause.”
And then begins the roll call of spineless men in positions of power: “Another cowardly soul comes to mind. This one was once France’s foreign minister, Roland Dumas. La Règle du jeu, a literary magazine that Salman and I and some others founded in 1990, invited Salman to come to France to meet up with some of his Parisian friends. As I remember, the minister behaved shamefully, decreeing that Salman, a citizen of Europe, needed a visa to enter France. Then he denied the visa on the grounds that he couldn’t guarantee Salman’s security. Dumas’s own colleague, Minister of Culture Jack Lang, protested. My friend the businessman François Pinault offered to lend us a plane and to provide the necessary protection. President François Mitterrand himself had to settle the matter. And lo, the France that was hoping for trade deals and arms sales yielded to the spirit of Voltaire. Bienvenue, Monsieur Salman.”
Next up is the heir apparent to the British throne: “Yet another spineless individual: Prince Charles. In 1993, I met him at a lunch hosted by the British embassy in Paris. “Salman is not a good writer,” growled the prince when I asked him what he thought of the whole affair, adding that “protecting him costs England’s crown dearly.” On this, Martin Amis, another of Salman’s friends, later remarked: “It costs a lot more to protect the Prince of Wales, who has not, as far as I know, produced anything of interest.””
The author then lines up a UN Secretary-General who has now been consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’: “I remember the trip to Sarajevo we planned in 1993. Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović, welcomed the visit in principle. Salman wanted to go. Far from being the Islamophobe the lowest of his critics make him out to be, he is a friend and ally of moderate Islam. Was he not the defender of a Quran that fights on the side of enlightenment, as were those defending Sarajevo? But a certain Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then the secretary-general of the United Nations (before falling, deservedly, into the dustbin of history), opposed the trip on spurious pretexts. We had to abandon the plan.”
Levy ends the essay by highlighting the central issue in all of this – the need for rational people to stand up to the persecution of ideas and ideologues: “And Salman will have to get used to the idea, one that always petrified him, of being a human symbol, a hostage in a war of the worlds in which, like it or not, his own life and death have become everybody’s business….
This act of terror against his body and his books is an absolute act of terror against all the world’s books. Such an outrage against freedom of expression calls for a ringing response.
Individual nations will have their say. The international community, too, must signal to the sponsors of this crime that this Salman Rushdie affair has created a new division, a time before and a time after.
As for his friends, his peers, media, and others for whom public opinion counts for something, we all have a commitment to make…To see that, in the name of all his fellow authors and in his own name, Salman Rushdie receives the Nobel Prize in Literature that is due to be awarded in a few weeks.”
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