After one of his periodic silences, Salman Rushdie has returned to the fray of public debate, with the publication of the French translation of his latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Deux ans, huit mois et vingt-huit nuits, tr. Gérard Meudel, Arles: Actes Sud, 2016).
To coincide with the book’s launch, Rushdie has given two major interviews, to the weeklies Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Point:
‘Salman Rushdie : L’État islamique va disparaître’, interview with Didier Jacob, Le Nouvel Observateur, 25-31 August 2016, pp. 78-82 – http://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/rentree-litteraire/20160824.OBS6805/europe-daech-trump-les-predictions-de-salman-rushdie.html
‘Rushdie: « Le sexe n’est pas le mal »’, interview with Michel Schneider, Le Point, 25 August 2016, pp. 50-54 – http://www.lepoint.fr/livres/rushdie-un-peu-partout-la-religion-s-infiltre-dans-la-politique-25-08-2016-2063631_37.php (subscribers only)
The Anglo-Indian author is treated with maximum respect by both publications and their interviewers: indeed, Le Nouvel Observateur dedicates its front-page photo to Rushdie, and goes so far as to call the now New York-resident writer an icon of freedom on a par with the Statue of Liberty : ‘Salman Rushdie a plus que jamais l’étoffe d’un héros, en ces temps où la liberté d’expression est partout menacée. Depuis qu’il s’est installé il y a 17 ans à New York, la ville compte une deuxième statue de la liberté’ (‘Salman Rushdie now has more than ever the stuff of a hero, in these times when freedom of expression is under threat everywhere. Since he moved to New York 17 years ago, the city has had a second Statue of Liberty’ – Didier Jacob, p. 79).
In the interviews, Rushdie, as the titles suggest, opines on subjects ranging from politics to sex, and expresses his satisfaction with his new opus, indeed describing it to Le Nouvel Observateur as his great American novel (p. 81). Inevitably, he also returns to the ‘Satanic Verses’ issue, making the rueful but by now familiar point to ‘Le Point’ that (the reader may deduce, thanks to bien-pensant cultural relativism and Western intellectuals’ abandonment of their own culture’s values), he would not receive the same support that he benefited from at the time: ‘I would be taxed with attacking a cultural minority’ (‘Le Point’ p. 52; here and elsewhere I retro-translate Rushdie’s remarks from the French text, though of course I am aware his original English may have read differently).
Rushdie repeats another of his well-worn positions, namely that race and religion are not the same thing and it is not racist to criticise any particular religion: ‘religion is a belief, skin colour is a fact’ (Le Point, p. 52). Rushdie’s admirers may here welcome his intellectual consistency and refusal to change his mind, but it could be argued that he is today in a minority among intellectuals in the west, though possibly more in line with non-intellectual public opinion.
It is noteworthy that on the question of race and religion Rushdie evokes the memory of ‘my much-missed friend Christopher Hitchens’ (‘Le Point’, p. 52). The respective lines of the late Hitchens and the very much alive Rushdie are indeed very similar, and it is curious that Rushdie should recall his friend on the eve of the canonisation of Mother Teresa – a figure on whose image of sanctity Hitchens carried out a remarkable demolition job in his book of 1995, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.
The secularist positions defended by Rushdie are likely to resonate more in France than in, say, the UK, given the continued strength – as demonstrated over the Charlie Hebdo issue – of secularism in French intellectual milieux (albeit France has its pro-censorship relativists too). Rushdie pulls no punches in his comments on ‘Charlie Hebdo’, dissociating himself from those fellow writers like Peter Carey who refused to support the French magazine (‘Frankly, I don’t understand their position’ – ‘Le Nouvel Observateur’, p. 82), and stating out loud that ‘the aim of the terrorists is to stop us thinking’ and that ‘the Charlie Hebdo journalists were killed in the name of Allah and to avenge the Prophet’ (‘Le Point’, pp. 50, 52).
The entire free speech issue – as I have earlier mentioned on this blog (entry for 3 August 2016) – has recently been raised with massive urgency by Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash in his web-linked opus Free Speech. Meanwhile, with the iconic Salman Rushdie clearly in form and out to defend and promote his latest book, the evidence from these interviews is that anti-theocracy remains alive – at least in Paris, and New York.