Saturday, 28 July 2007

Fury - Salman Rushdie

Unfortunately when the name Salman Rushdie is brought up, controversy is not always far behind ever since “that” episode of The Satanic Verses (which was actually hard to digest and frankly, boring). I remembered the riots in Dhaka, Bangladesh when I landed there in 1989…and I almost bumped into the man himself in Cologne, Germany in the summer of 1993, seeing him looking over his shoulder in fear for his life. Being a highly educated and intelligent man from a Muslim household, he certainly knew there would be trouble for his shit-stirring but I guess even he did not expect such a violent paroxysm from parts of the Muslim world. Back then (and still now) I thought all the brouhaha of death threats and book burnings were OTT hate-mongering and showed the behaviour of certain Muslims in a very bad light.

The recent controversy surrounding the knighthood of Salman Rushdie is an exercise in irony deficiency in some quarters of the Muslim world. It’s immature to blame and threaten Salman Rushdie with renewed threats of death – he did not ask for the “honour”. Nor should one blame the Queen or then Prime Minister, Tony Blair – they did not choose him but they are certainly free to agree or disagree on who are suitable candidates. Suitable candidates are actually put forward by a cabinet committee and one can legitimately argue that such awards may have a political element to it. For example, what can be construed as worthy of debate is whether the quality of Rushdie’s literary works merit a knighthood when there are other talented authors out there, like Ian McEwan. So why him now? For those who find his knighthood award an insult, perhaps they should take note the awarding of a knighthood in 2005 to Iqbal Sacranie, who then served as the General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. He famously did not retract his statement in interviews conducted as late as 2006 that Salman Rushdie deserved to die, despite the fatwa now being officially retracted. This merely shows that the British establishment can award knighthoods regardless of candidates’ religious or personal persuasions. Nor should critics of the Muslim world fail to forget that the late Dr Zaki Badawi, a well-respected Islamic scholar, publicly offered sanctuary to Salman Rushdie. That plus the fact that most Muslims don’t really give a hoot about Rushdie’s knighthood is hardly newsworthy of course.

Nevertheless, I chose to read Fury from a casual wandering in the library simply due to its short title and slim volume. Based for the large part in the cusp of the Third Millenium New York (a city that “boiled with money”), the story arc concerned Malik Solanka, a 55 year-old academic and passionate doll maker born in Bombay, educated in King’s College, Cambridge and who, despairing the infighting that plagued the academic world and his own insecurities, decided to leave his wife and son in London for a new life in the USA where he ultimately gave birth to a huge show business franchise from a doll called “Little Brain” and getting entangled unwittingly with beautiful women who may yet turn out to be poisoned chalices. As he gets assaulted by despairing phone-calls from his wife and heart rending pleas from his four year old son Asmaan to return, he has to deal with a troublesome simpleton Polish housekeeper and a no-nonsense anti-Semitic plumber amidst an on-going sensationalist serial murders of the privileged daughters of Americana.

It’s a love story. It’s a who-dunnit story. It’s a soul-searching story. It’s also mighty tempting to make out that Malik is Salman’s alter-ego as the reader is taken on a whirlwind furious journey of the protagonist’s thoughts in the body of the narrative where I noticed women in the story were invariably projected as terrifyingly distant beautiful trophies laced with poisonous stings (the allusion to mythological Furies could not be clearer). The tone veers between melancholic tragedy and farcical comedy, between hyperrealism and deft surrealism. The multiple layers of meanings are intellectually stimulating in an accessible way and the dextrous word-play yields surprising delights to the eye and mind.

Salman Rushdie is undeniably a very gifted writer but somehow comes across as a pretentious author with his penchant to name-dropping, allusions to mythologies and pop-cultural and literary references, which he overshoots occasionally (the fact he needed to “explain” a reference to one of my favourite stories by W.W. Jacobs, is to me an overshoot). The ending in a fictional South Pacific Third World country was rather melodramatic and odd, but he makes very excellent insights into human relationships, in particular the questions most people think about but rarely openly ask, particularly concerning marriage and separation.

I think, yes, on the strength of this novella, I would definitely return for further readings of his works.

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