Monday, December 03, 2007

R is for Rushdie

We arrived in Calcutta on the train from Bhubaneshwar one morning in the summer of 1995, for a one night stopover on the way to somewhere else. We were expecting a seething mass of humanity, but instead the streets were eerily silent. We found a taxi to take us to a hotel, and it was the closest I have ever felt to The Day of the Triffids. The middle of Calcutta after all looks pretty much like 1950s London would look if it had been left at the mercy of the elements for a few years. The streets were eerily silent, the driver told us, because it was an election day and people were staying at home to avoid bomb throwers. It wasn’t a national election, or even a state election, just a city council election.

After we got settled in the hotel I went out into the streets and meandered about. As the day wore on they grew more and more alive. It was one of the best meandering abouts in my life. I met a nice man who had lost his job in a factory injection-molding polyethylene and was living on the streets trying to save up for a train ticket to Bangalore to find work. I wandered around the museum for a while, which was a marvelous 19th century wonderland with endless cases of beetles and whole temples taken apart and rebuilt inside. In comparison to Delhi, which had seemed brash and American and stupid, Calcutta seemed restrained and English and intelligent. Street vendors in Delhi had tried to sell me all kinds of mindless tourist trash. A street vendor in Calcutta tried to sell me A Brief History of Time. I already had one; but then he moved on to Midnight’s Children, and I bought one. I am very fond of my copy of Midnight’s Children.

I have already quoted the bit of The Satanic Verses that I carried around in my wallet for years. Twice. So I won’t again, I guess.

This first question of Gibreel’s is really just a fine piece of Clamly emoting which can’t be said to have changed me, just sunk in and reinforced what was already there.

The second question, in case I have only mentioned it on comments on other blogs is more or less: How do you treat other ideas when you do change the world? I am sure it is expressed in a better way in the book, but I am too lazy to look up the proper words. This second question of Gibreel’s has hung around in my head as a sort of goad to conservatism, making me wary of novel ideologies. If I want to know how Catholic states answered this question, or how the Caliphate did, or Communists, or the Conservative Party, or a Jewish state, I can google it. If I want to know how the Inspiring New Movement with Noble Rhetoric will answer this question, I have to carefully read between the lines and try to figure out what they might get up to should they manage to answer the first question. Better just to keep my distance from the Baha’i’s, or from the Greens, no matter how superficially attractive they might seem from time to time.

Another thing I have carried around in my head for ages, colouring my worldview in a minor way, is Rushdie’s characterization of Adelaide as the sort of place where Steven King novels happen. Every couple of years something weird and ghastly happens to set me nodding in agreement with this insight again.

Besides that- well, the sudden elevation of Rushdie to super-celebrity fugitive status happened when I was an easily influenced undergraduate. It was exciting, in an age of proverbial undergraduate apathy, for there to be a book around which reading was in some way a political act. I’m still not sure whether Rushdie blundered in without meaning to cause offence, or whether he set out to cause offence. At any rate, revisiting what he said is a stark reminder of how much easier it is to give offence nowadays. The title ‘The Satanic Verses’ was translated into several languages using a word that means specifically ‘verses of the Qur’an’, hence ‘The Satanic Qur’an’, which in striking at the very source of authority in Islam is practically the worst thing you can say. Inside, this is reinforced by the explicit suggestion that the holiest thing in the world, the uncreated Qur’an, was composed fraudulently. Publishing all that was an act of unparalled audacity. (All chaotic people ought to feel some admiration for the audacity, even if you think it was wholly reprehensible, in the same way we admired the audacity of the 9/11 plotters.) It now seems obvious that millions of people would want to kill you for writing such things. Nowadays, of course, all you have to give the wrong name to a teddy bear.
Androoo will have forgotten this anecdote, I am sure. Once upon that time he said he thought fundamentalist Islam was the most dangerous religion for the world, and I disagreed with him, saying the Evangelical Christians were far more likely to cause trouble and regurgitating some trivial anecdote about Marilyn Quayle. Have we swapped places? That I am not sure about.

I found out by reading the paper the next day that it had been a peaceful election. That is, nobody had been killed. There had been bomb throwing incidents at polling booths X, Y, Z, etc., but all in all it had been a fine example of a peaceful democratic process. Interestingly- the paper said, putting no more spin on it than that- the wards the incumbent party won (it was returned) it mostly won by quite narrow margins, while the wards the opposition won they romped in. Curious coincidence, eh?


Dave said...

A couple of thoughts:

1) He was right about Adelaide. It's Maine-creepy.

2) I used to think it was fundamentalist Christianity that was the greater threat, but now I have a more balanced view, I think: foaming-mouthed jihadist mediaevalist Islam and righteous armageddon-obssessed Christianity are both kind of tolerably hideous, but each is made orders of magnitude worse by the existence of the other. I see them in much the same codependently destructive feedback loop as the Cold War US/USSR relationship.

(I also think that America's self-absorption and obsessive need to righteously oppose some evil Enemy is an accelerant in the conflagration, but that's a side point. I imagine there are similar delusional self-image constructs on the opposing side of the equation that I'm not as familiar with).

Marco said...

I was hoping R would be for some some non-controversial science fiction writer like Kim Stanley Robinson.

Dr. Clam said...

I was talking about those "Colour Mars" books once with Dave- I think it was Dave ;) - and we both only liked the one character, a fun-loving Russian guy, and he was killed by explosive decompression in the first volume. I couldn't go on after he died. I did read a Kim Stanley Robinson book once about Antarctica- called, I think "Antarctica"- and it was okay, but no more thought-provoking than a stick of gum. If I am walking in the darkness here, please enlighten me with your own post about the many good things you have found in the works of KSR! :D

Marco said...

I read Green Mars first, quite by accident, it being on special at Woolies. I think it is still my favourite of the three. Admittedly, it was at a time that I believed humanity's future was about an onward rush onto Mars and into space in general.

Dave said...

Yah, taht would have been me. Well, if it wasn't me, then I am in agreement with whomever. The Russian guy was cool, and I remember exactly nobody else in that series. I have no idea whether I even read Blue.

I haven't reread the Mars books, or anything else by KSR. I seem to recall finding the writing overly dry and inclined to the technical. It's possible my tastes have changed somewhat, so if I stumble across a copy I will give them another shot.

Marco said...

That is the weirdest thing! I just can't remember the guy you are talking about (there were plenty of Russians in the novels, mind you). I guess the dry technical nature of the colour Mars series was exactly what I did like. It was right on the cutting edge of science knowledge without having to fantasise progress to unrealistic levels. Sax was my favourite character, and the "Constitutional convention" of the Mars rebels in Green Mars was quite a high point for me.

Dr. Clam said...

Arkady Bogdanov is the man.

Marco said...

He died. Get over it. He's alive and kicking for most of Red Mars anyhow. His legacy lived on amongst the Bogdanovists on Mars anyway. I like him too, but he doesn't get to die until 2061:)