MIDWAY : Sir Salman’s long journey
From Indianness to Englishness, speculates the narrator of The Satanic Verses, is an immeasurable distance. For Sir Salman Rushdie, “humbled to receive this great honour” from the monarch of a nation he once compared to “a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones”, that journey has culminated in a knighthood. There’ll be predictably impassioned defences.
This is not, ultimately, about one man’s oddly bathetic “gratitude” or even the meaning of being knighted in this day and age. Recognition from on high is thrilling to even the most jaded among us. More interesting is the question of why this “honour” comes now and what Rushdie’s alacrity in accepting it tell us about letters in our times.
To see the knighthood as “belated” endorsement by the British establishment is to miss the point entirely. Until, and even after, the vicious death sentence pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini, Rushdie could not possibly have been endorsed by an establishment he had committed himself to undermining in merciless prose. Rushdie wrote powerful essays about institutional racism, cultural condescension, anti-immigrant legislation, Raj nostalgia and a sham multiculturalism where a “black man could only become integrated when he started behaving like a white man”.
Sir Salman, on the other hand, is partly the creation of the fatwa that played its role in strengthening the self-fulfilling “clash of civilisations” that both Bush and Osama bin Laden find so handy. Vociferously supporting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, condemning criticism of the war on terror as “petulant anti-Americanism” and above all, aligning tyranny and violence solely with Islam, Rushdie has abdicated his own understanding of the novelist’s task as “giving the lie to official facts”. Now he recalls his own creation Baal, the talented poet who becomes a giggling hack corralled into attacking his ruler’s enemies.
Denuded of texture and complexity, it is no accident that this fiction since the early 90s has disappeared into a critical wasteland. The mutation of this relevant and stentorian writer into a pallid chorister is a tragic allegory of our benighted times, of the kind he once narrated so vividly.