Salman Rushdie is a champion of imagination, ambiguity and freedom

Salman Rushdie was attacked by an Islamic fundamentalist while giving a lecture in New York (Getty Images)
Salman Rushdie was attacked by an Islamic fundamentalist while giving a lecture in New York (Getty Images)

Salman Rushdie he has been tenaciously resistant since childhood. In 1949, at the age of two, he fell seriously ill with typhus and his father visited the pharmacies of mumbai to find a new drug that would save his life. In 1984, a bout of double pneumonia landed him in the hospital in London. After 1989, when the Ayatollah khomeinisupreme leader of Iranissued a fatwa calling for his assassination, British security services thwarted several assassination plots. In March 2020, the writer, then 72 and asthmatic, spent weeks seriously ill with COVID-19. Now recovering from ten knife wounds to the eyes, neck and torso inflicted on him on August 12 in a literary act in Chautauqua, New York. Sir salman is persevering once again.

That fight against pneumonia helped him quit smoking. A doctor compared his unfortunate coughing fits to a movie trailer about lung cancer and asked if “would you like to see the movie”. No thanks, said sir salman, and the author believes that the metaphor saved his life. Yet the metaphors that drive his fiction – with their exuberant leaps between real and figurative meanings, realism and fantasy, the sacred and the profane – have also put it in jeopardy.

Literalists, especially religious fundamentalists, have found in Sir salman an embodiment of all who mistrust art that dances between creeds, principles and dogmas and pursues multiplicity and ambiguity as virtues in themselves. Outraged critics, most of whom have never read his work, dismiss his carnivalesque manner as satire and speculation as insult and blasphemy.. For Sir Salman, the novel is “the form created to discuss the fragmentation of truth.” His emblematic essay “Is Nothing Sacred?” he praises fiction as the place where “different languages, values ​​and narratives fight”, but do so in peace.

Sir salman was attacked in the Chautauqua Institution during a debate on the meanings of home: a central theme for the author born in the India and educated in cambridgethat lives in Manhattan. “the satanic verses”, the novel that motivated the fatwa, dwells much more on migration than on religion. The wandering Indian-American hero of “Quichote”, his most recent book, deals with the “broken people” displaced by poverty or war as “bright shards that reflect the truth” about the time of the mass riots. He has stated that “crossing borders, language, geography and culture“, the “permeable border” between fact and imagination, and the reduction of the barriers erected by “the many different kinds of thought police in the world” have been the center of his “literary project”.

Yet for three decades it has served as a target for those for whom change brings with it fear and resentment. In the “era of simplification” that results from this reaction, the doubt, the game and the metaphor must bow to the partisan or religious line. Although radical Islamists have threatened his work and his life, Sir salman makes it clear that no faith has a monopoly on hate. Free discussion flourished between his Muslim family from Cashmere on the India post-independence. Evoke “the blurring of boundaries between religious cultures in that truly secularist old Bombay“with nostalgic affection, in contrast to the present”bitter, suffocated and censorious” of the India.

As the world darkened, he continued to slide into spiteful sectarianism. His novelRage”, published a few days before the attacks of September 11, 2001, imagine New York like a multidirectional hotbed of rage. “The whole world burned with a shorter fuse. There was a knife twisting in each gut, a whip for each back“, write. “We were all seriously provoked”. In his works of fiction, essays, and speeches, he has warned against the lure of righteous groupthink. He urges readers to question “the straitjacket of a one-dimensional national, ethnic, religious or tribal identity” and sees such conformism as “the evil from which all other evils of our time emanate.”

Freedom of expression, on the other hand, is not a Western luxury, but “the right without which all other rights disappear”. In the West, however, the wrong ones thrive. He maintains that “It is a historical error of the progressive left: the feeling that people who say they are offended have the right to have their offense calmed down.”.

In his revealing novel, “Midnight’sChildren” (1981), Mr. salman staged the historical events of his hero, Saleem, born when it was time for Indian freedom. Since 1989 he has framed his own situation not as a single misfortune, but as part of a historical pattern. In the memories of the years of escape from him after the fatwajoseph anton”, published in 2012, compares his conviction to the first ominous blackbird announcing the fatal flock in the film Alfred Hitchcock Birds”. He thinks of his persecution as “a kind of early harbinger of what later became a storm”.

His response to this unsought status as a human weather vane was not retreat but defiance. Even in the 1990s, when the fatwa was a clear and present danger, he became a public face of artistic freedom. He made speeches, taught students, and later directed American Pen, not only acting as president of the group, but also launching and directing its global literature festival. He supported other persecuted authors, such as Taslima Nasrin, exiled Bangladeshi feminist. In 2005 she campaigned prominently against a British bill against “incitement to religious hatred”, contributing to attenuate its censorious nature.

His commencement speeches to American students – a minor genre of Rushdie itself – urged them to resist obedience and orthodoxy, and to heed “the rebels and refuseniks of the world”. And his very presence in Chautauqua witnessed a decades-long refusal to be silent or invisible. Even at the height of the danger of the fatwaentertained the literary dinners while his protection agents of the Metropolitan Police They watched closely.

Sir salman is a determined defender of what he calls “the provisional nature of all truths, the mutability of all character, the uncertainty of all times and places”. History, and chance, have dealt another blow to believers in simplistic facts, not playful, polyphonic words. A magazine once asked Sir salman: “What do you consider your greatest achievement?”. His reply: “have continued”.

© 2022, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.


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