Oh no! I spoke too soon. In one of my earlier columns, I had circulated the rumour that Salman Rushdie’s forthcoming children’s novel marks the return to form of a major writer who, in recent years, has failed to live up to his initial promise. But now Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life is out, and it has been savaged by many Indian reviewers. British and American reviewers have been kinder. There was always a gap between Rushdie’s reception in India and his reception abroad: One can argue both for and against such a slant.
What one cannot argue against is the impact that the so-called fatwa by Khomeini had on Rushdie’s writing. By isolating him spatially and ideologically, it left him with little space for manoeuvre. Now, when the fatwa does not exist any longer (though one should never underestimate the danger posed by crazed fanatics), Rushdie is isolated within a kind of discourse in the West that is radical only when it comes to the non-West. He resists it at times, but he is just as imprisoned by that discourse as he was exiled by the fatwa. It is a strange discourse: this radicalism aimed at the other. In the past, it would have been called colonialist, imperialist or at least patronizing. Now, thanks partly to Islamist militancy, it is seen as the only radical position by many in the West. But, of course, the fact remains that any radicalism which does not inconvenience you in your own space is, finally, something else.
The day Rushdie realizes that his books, because he is primarily a Western writer, have to be radical in a Western context first of all, will be the day when he will resume the mantle of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Those were books that were radical, and hence significant, in the other two major discursive spaces that he had inherited; now he has to square up to the third (for him the most enabling and dominant) of his spaces: that of the Anglophone West.
Uninspired? Salman Rushdie. Timothy Greenfield/Cape/Bloomberg
I read Andrea Levy’s prize-winning Small Island with great admiration. Her latest novel, The Long Song, shortlisted for the Booker this year, is also worth a read. Told by a mother, who is narrating a book for her son to print, the novel goes back to Jamaica’s years of slavery and the Baptist War of 1831. It is beautifully written, touching and often captivating. If it disappoints a bit, particularly in comparison to Small Island, it is because slavery has been so easily bracketed in modern Western history as something that took place “once upon a time”, rather than something that affects many people and societies even today. It is this later, uncomfortable, aspect that Levy fails to highlight in her novel.
If she had managed to do so, it would have added depth to the narrative and made it a richly uncomfortable reading experience for many. But then, perhaps, it might not have been shortlisted for the Booker!
Loss of decency
I met Erik Stinus only three or four times: A respected Danish writer and poet, he had an Indian wife (Sara Mathai, aunt of poet Anna Sujatha Mathai). They had been Communists in the past and continued to believe in radical socialism despite the temptations and taunts of rampant capitalism in “new” Denmark. Author of about 30 books, he was also a friend of Indian literatures and of Indians in Copenhagen. Some years ago, his wife passed away; now Stinus has left us too. For me, it is like the passing away of an age: an age that, whatever its defects, believed in hope and decency.
Tabish Khair is an Indian writer based in Denmark. His latest novel is The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org