A religious tyrant decides that Salman Rushdie should die for writing a “blasphemous” book. For ten years he is forced to flee from one safe-house to another with no one for company but his bodyguards and an increasingly estranged wife. How does he pass the time?
How about video games?
In his newly released memoir Joseph Anton, which is narrated in the third person, Rushdie briefly describes how he went through a phase when he found himself immersed in Super Mario Bros, the popular Nintendo game that his son Zafar taught him to play.
Those were dark days for the 41-year-old writer. Every morning brought fresh reports of either The Satanic Verses being burnt or him being burnt in effigy. Then came the chilling news that the police had foiled a group of assassins dispatched from overseas to execute the fatwa. If it sounded straight out of a bigoted video game, well, it wasn’t – or not yet, at least. But more on that later.
Given Rushdie’s lonely and claustrophobic circumstances in what his late friend Christopher Hitchens called “the time of the toad,” it was scarcely surprising that the fantasy-loving novelist whose favorite childhood stories were The Wizard of Oz and The Arabian Nights should occasionally transform himself into Mario the mustachioed plumber and run away to Mushroom Kingdom. The magic console was the next best thing to a magic carpet or magic lamp, and it quickly became the “Genie-come-lately” in his fantasy arsenal. It helped that in this digital world of magical mushrooms and fire flowers, he was hunter rather than hunted. A vital role reversal, even if his wife didn’t think so.
Marianne came around and scolded him for playing video games. Thanks to Zafar, he had grown fond of Mario the plumber and his brother Luigi and sometimes Super Mario World felt like a happy alternative to the one he lived in the rest of the time. “Read a good book,” his wife told him scornfully. “Give it up.” He lost his temper. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” he exploded, and she made a grand exit.
And, gleefully, a few days later:
Alone at Hermitage Lane he reached the end of his Super Mario game, defeating the big bad Bowser himself and rescuing the insufferably pink Princess Toadstool. He was glad Marianne was not there to witness his triumph.
Rushdie’s triumph must have dissipated quite rapidly, however, when reality intruded with cruel irony in the form of a flesh-and-blood West Indian plumber who showed up at the shoddy safe-house to fix the central heating, forcing him to scurry out of sight and “hide in the bathroom for several hours, drenched in the now habitual sweat of shame.”
But no experience is wasted on a writer who is a compulsive memory-miner, and Rushdie put his video-game expertise to good use in the two children’s novels he wrote for his sons, though the second, Luka and the Fire of Life, is more directly indebted to Mario and Luigi than the first. The first, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was dedicated to Zafar and written during the fatwa years, investing it with an immediacy that gave it a haunting power. Easily the most enchanting of Rushdie’s many novels, this allegorical tale about the war between Storytelling and Silence was an acutely topical portrayal of the synchronous real-world battle between free speech and fanaticism. In the novel, one of young Haroun’s tasks is to rescue the talkative and tuneless Princess Batcheat (baatcheat is the Urdu word for conversation) from Khattam-Shud, the emperor of Silence. Was the chatterbox Princess a reincarnation of the “insufferably pink Princess Toadstool?” And did Mario inspire the character of the mustachioed water genie Iff, who uses his plumber’s wrench to turn on and turn off the faucet through which the Stream of Stories flows via “a P2C2E” (Process too Complicated to Explain)?
It certainly seems like it. But where the impact of Super Mario bursts forth in full bloom is in Luka and the Fire of Life, which Rushdie wrote for younger son, Milan. (Incidentally, Rushdie, with an over 4,00,000 Twitter following, is quite the Geek Dad. He plays Angry Birds on his iPhone and when asked by the Wall Street Journal how he, living in New York, had managed to tell his boys in London bedtime stories, he replied, “There’s Skype and Apple’s Facetime.”) Luka is an Arabian Nights-meets-Nintendo novel in which “Super-Luka” is cast as a modern-day Prometheus who sets out to execute “the most deliciously Disrespectful Deed in All of Time.” Namely, to steal the fire of life and carry it back home in order to wake his beloved storyteller father Rashid Khalifa from his fatal coma-like sleep.
The young boy’s quest is constructed almost exactly like a Super Mario video game. He is given 999 lives, and has to pass through several levels of increasing difficulty to reach the magic fire. Each level is given a suitably video game-sounding title – the Respectorate of Rats, the Mists of Time, the Great Stagnation, the Inescapable Whirlpool, the Trillion and One Forking Paths and the Great Rings of Fire. Each time an enemy pots him with a loud BLLLAAARRRTT!, Luka loses one or more of his lives and bursts into “millions of shiny fragments” that join up again with “loud sucking noises.” Each time he clears a level, he saves his progress by punching a gold ball, which makes a loud and satisfying Ding. Eventually, after going through many “bouncing, burning, twisting, bubbling levels” and P2C2Es and magical M2C2D (Machines too Complicated to Describe), the plucky fire-thief and his friends ding their way to victory.
Naturally, a punster like Rushdie couldn’t pass up the temptation to game with the word “console.” Early in the novel, Luka’s mother, Soraya, who disapproves strongly of her son’s love of video games, angrily asks her husband if all these “hedgehogs and plumbers” will help improve their son’s poor handwriting. Rashid, a genial stand-in for Rushdie, is actually quite sympathetic about Luka’s gaming passion. Which is bad enough as far as his wife as is concerned, but then he makes the additional mistake of correcting her mid-rant to say that the right term for the “pisps” and “wees” her son is addicted to – “Such names! They sound like going to the bathroom or what” – is console. At which point, she stages a grand exit from the room (like Marianne?) declaring over her shoulder: “I am in-console-able.”
On a more serious note, video games seem to hold a special appeal for Rushdie for reasons that go the very heart of his writing. First, as glorious purveyors of an “infinite number of parallel realities,” they fit perfectly into his exuberant mosaic of magical realism in which everything from the mythological and historical to tabloid headlines jostle for space. Which other writer can give you Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Akbar, and Angelina Jolie in one line? And what other game allows the player to become a “plumber” or a “zooming hedgehog” or even an “Intergalactic Penguin named after a member of the Beatles?”
The other reason is the discursive narrative architecture of a video game, a non-linearity which he finds fascinating. Rushdie’s elliptical, story-within-story, detour-friendly, digression-heavy style is anything but linear. It can be maddening when he overdoes it, and he often does, but also richly rewarding if one just goes along for the ride. His books are not clean, blue Olympic swimming pools where each story has the good manners to stick to its own lane. Rather, they are an unruly and inquisitive and shape-shifting Ocean of Stories, into which hundreds of rivulets from different centuries and cultures – or streams of our collective sub-conscious, if you like – pour to pollute and mingle and fertilize one another.
Over the last few decades, with the exponential growth in the popularity of video games, writers have often been asked about the impact of these games on the future of the novel. Few have responded with as much insight as Rushdie did two years ago in this excellent Big Think interview. It’s worth listening to it in full. While he agreed that the concerns are legitimate and that too much gaming could have a dumbing-down effect and perhaps even erode man’s ancient attachment to the story, he made a powerful case for the new form. It interested him, he said, because of “the much looser structure of the game and the much greater agency the player has to choose how he will explore and inhabit the world that is provided. He doesn’t really have to follow the main narrative line of the game at all for long periods of time. There are all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose to go on and find mini stories to stories to participate in instead of the big story, the macro story. I think that really interests me as a storyteller…To tell the story sideways.”
It’s no coincidence that one of the trickiest levels that Luka has to pass through is called The Trillion and One Forking Paths. This was Rushdie doffing his cap to Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” widely credited with having predicted hypertext on the Internet. “I’ve always thought of the Borges story of the garden of the forking paths as a kind of model,” Rushdie said in the same interview.
It’s a story whose author has gone mad because what he’s tried to do is to offer every possible variation of every moment. So boy meets girl, they fall in love or they don’t fall in love. That’s the first fork. And he wants to tell both those stories and every variation of every moment down both those lines. And of course it’s like nuclear fission. The possibilities explode into millions and billions of possibilities and it becomes impossible to write the book. It seems to me, the internet is the garden of forking paths where you can have myriad possibilities offered at the same level of authority, if you like. I think that’s one of the ways storytelling could move. These games, these more free-form games, where the player can make choices of what the game is going to become, is a kind of gaming equivalent of that narrative possibility.
To loop back to the fatwa years where it all began, it’s quite strange that video games should continue to pop up in the relationship between Rushdie and Iran. Though the fatwa was lifted more than ten years ago, the present government evidently has no qualms about stoking the old death diktat. Earlier this year, the government-sponsored Islamic Students Association in Iran, as if determined to prove that history repeats itself as farce, announced that it had completed initial production on a video game called The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict. Two years ago, Rushdie told Big Think that in his opinion the great conflict in the world today is not so much the conflict between the West and the Islamic world but the conflict within Islam, between modernity and tradition, between the youth and the greybeard mullahs. This held true for Iran too, he said, and joked: “I often think the best way to liberate Iran is to drop Nintendo consoles from the air.” On second thought, perhaps not.
Publicity image via nintendo
In the fifth episode of the hit sitcom New Girl, a self-styled stud tries to impress an Indian-American woman by declaring that he loves India. When pressed for details, he stumbles his way through the following catalogue:
I love Slumdog. I love naan. I love pepper. I love Ben Kingsley, the stories of Rudyard Kipling. I have respect for cows, of course. I love the Taj Mahal, Deepak Chopra, anyone named Patel. I love monsoons. I love cobras in baskets…I love mango chutney, really, any type of chutney.
The point is clear: the average American’s knowledge of Indian culture is superficial, stereotypical, and offensive. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the joke — and an Indian-American woman in a leading role on primetime TV — confirms how much Indian culture has permeated American pop culture. This should not be surprising: With a population that increased to 2.8 million from 1.7 million between 2000 and 2010, Indians are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America. They may also be one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in literary fiction — in America and the larger Anglophone world.
Fiction written in English by authors of Indian descent has been critically acclaimed and commercially successful for decades. Now a new wave of talent has arrived: In 2012, the Indian-American writers Rajesh Parameswaran and Tania James published their debut short story collections — I Am An Executioner: Love Stories and Aerogrammes, respectively — while British-Indian author Hari Kunzru published his fourth novel, Gods Without Men: While it may be too soon for these authors to have achieved the heavyweight status of a Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, their imaginative, provocative, and well-crafted books suggest the continuation of a literary legacy and a move into “post-post-colonial,” “post-ethnic” territory.
Parameswaran, James, and Kunzru inherit three decades of Anglo-Indian literary success. Rushdie’s magical realist novel Midnight’s Children, about a boy born on the precise moment of Indian Independence, won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. His most notorious novel The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death threat from Ayatollah Khomeini that sparked international controversy and massive sales, an experience upon which he reflects in his memoir Joseph Anton, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. In recent years, the Booker has gone to Arundati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, a hybrid of Invisible Man and Native Son set on the subcontinent. And as recently announced, the six authors shortlisted for the 2012 Booker includes Jeet Thayil, born in India, raised in Hong Kong, India and the U.S., and the author of the novel Narcopolis, about a 1970s opium den.
The new wave is also indebted to Lahiri, who rocked the American lit establishment — and book clubs nationwide — with Interpreter of Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect short story collection that captured the domestic dramas and existential malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by the novel, The Namesake, later a Mira Nair-directed movie, and Unaccustomed Earth, another stunning and more ambitious story collection that cemented Lahiri’s reputation as the marquee Indian-American fiction writer and a master of short fiction.
Beyond heritage, Parameswaran, Kunzru, and James have similar pedigrees. Parameswaran went to Yale for college and law school, Kunzru went to Oxford, and James went to college at Harvard and grad school at Columbia. (Rushdie went to Cambridge). Too old to be wunderkind, all are still young by literary standards: James is 31, Parameswaran is 40, and Kunzru is 43. And while they hail from Michigan and Texas, Kentucky, and London, all three now live in the New York area. Perhaps a brunch is in order?
True to their heritage, all three address issues of Indian identity. In the central storyline of Gods, an Indian-American man marries a Jewish-American woman and the incipient tensions in their marriage combust after their son disappears. In “Ethnic Ken,” a story in Aerogrammes, an Indian-American girl plays with a brown-skinned version of Barbie’s boyfriend; the doll apparently cost half the price of the “regular” Ken. In one of the many tragicomic stories in Executioner, an unemployed Indian computer salesman pretends to be a doctor — the paradigmatic profession for high-status Indian Americans — with ghastly consequences. In their treatment of ethnicity, all three books join Lahiri in a subgenre that one of James’s characters, an aspiring screenwriter, calls “not quite Bollywood, not quite Hollywood: Indians in America or England Torn Between Identities.”
Nevertheless, all three authors transcend the stereotypical expectations of “ethnic” fiction, including the notion that characters must share their author’s ethnicity.
Several stories in Executioner and Aerogrammes feature non-Indian characters. And the Indian-American protagonist in Gods shares a stage with non-Indians including an 18th-century Spaniard, a 19th-century Mormon, and a contemporary (Caucasian) British rock star. Even among the Indian characters, there is diversity: James’s Indian characters speak Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala, Kunzru’s Indian characters speak Punjabi, spoken in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, and Parameswaran’s titular executioner speaks in a parody of Indian-accented English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors.” Such simple differences may remind Western readers that India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot and internationally engaged country, not a monolithic, homogenous, insular place.
As if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors experiment with non-human characters. The narrator of one story in Executioner is an elephant; another is a murderous, guilt-stricken tiger, a literal version of Adiga’s titular “white tiger.” A story in Aerogrammes concerns a chimpanzee that nearly convinces a woman he is human. Strangest of all, Gods opens with a cryptic fable with characters named Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster, Southern Fox, and the protagonist Coyote, who sets up a meth lab in the desert. Take that, Kipling.
Regardless of species, all three books grapple with physical, emotional, and existential despair, albeit in different tones and moods. Gods is cerebral, somber, and grim. As he did in the reverse outsourcing fable Transmission, Kunzru assaults his characters until they break, and relents only after they have lost nearly everything. (For the film, perhaps Werner Herzog or P.T. Anderson could direct?) By contrast, Aerogrammes is sweet, sad, and painfully earnest. Characters are naïve, blind, or delusional, whether it’s the Indian wrestlers who don’t realize the sport is supposed to be fake, or the boy who refuses accept his mother’s new husband. There’s pain suffering in Executioner, too but it’s often undercut by humor or an authorial wink, either implied or in meta-fictional parentheses or footnotes.
While Aerogrammes essentially falls into the category of realist fiction, Parameswaran and Kunzru flirt with other genres. Besides the two talking animal stories, Executioner includes a spy thriller, “Narrative of Agent 974702,” and a science fiction tale, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319).” Perhaps most fantastical — yet paradoxically most credible — is the cult at the center of Gods, a desert commune that fuses Christianity, Buddhism, New Age, and Alien Worship into an explosive whole. Then again, as Kunzru semi-subtly implies, such a group is not so different than the Europeans who Christianized Native Americans or Mormons who found Zion in the American West.
While fundamentally contemporary, all three books derive depth from history. In Executioner, the meta-fictional tale “Four Rajeshes” concerns a railway clerk in colonial India at the turn of the 20th century and his version of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. The opening story in Aerogrammes features a pair of Indian wrestlers who arrive in England in 1910 to engage in literal and figurative battles with their colonial overlords. Perhaps because it is a novel, Gods is even more historically ambitious, with a storyline that spans more than 200 years. Ultimately, all three authors use history to transcend personal experience, shattering the expectation that “ethnic” fiction must be autobiographical. In a way, they all respond to the question that Rushdie poses in Joseph Anton when recalling his inspiration for writing The Satanic Verses:
The great question of how the world joins up — not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live.
In terms of style and structure, Aerogrammes is the most conventional of the three. The plainspoken prose obeys the aesthetic in which the writer’s voice is secondary to the story. The nine stories are more or less uniform length, each about 20 pages. Ultimately, James seems to value cohesion and consistency over shock and surprise. Parameswaran takes the opposite tack. His voice is always strong and varies widely from story to story; some seem like the work of different authors. If the books were Beatles albums, Aerogrammes would be Rubber Soul, the harmonious whole with songs of essentially equal weight, and Executioner would be The White Album, a hectic hodgepodge of competing voices. (Speaking of The Beatles, didn’t they help bring Indian music and spirituality into Western popular culture?)
Gods splits the difference between these two extremes. Like Executioner, it’s grandiose, sprawling, and dense. With its multiple points of view, multiple settings, and non-linear structure, it often reads like a collection of loosely linked stories. Some plots literally converge; others merely inform each other. Yet over 369 pages, Kunzru maintains cohesion. Part of this may stem from his use of the close third person point of view (which James does in most of her stories). It may also be a matter of experience; perhaps on their fourth books, James and Parameswaran may find a similar balance of ambition and unity.
For all the merits of these books, the question remains: is this literary boomlet an anomaly, a coincidence, or a harbinger? Will these books be a curiosity or a gateway to wider American interest in Indian culture? Will more Indian Americans join Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley as high-profile politicians? Will we see more Indians Americans in popular entertainment: TV, movies, sports?
In a poignant scene in Interpreter of Maladies that sums up the cultural barriers at the heart of the book, an American woman tries to buy Hot Mix, an Indian snack. The Indian clerk dismisses her with four words: “Too spicy for you.” Perhaps one day, that scene will seem outmoded, if not unfathomable.
“Salman was the messenger.”
— Christopher Hitchens
Ayatollah Khomeini had not read The Satanic Verses at the time his fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie was proclaimed. After all on February 14, 1989, the novel had yet to be translated into Arabic, let alone Farsi. Rather, the Iranian leadership had witnessed on television the immolation of a copy of Rushdie’s book by a council of Muslims in Bradford, which triggered a succession of replicate demonstrations of ire and rage across parts of the Islamic world. Heine’s assertion, “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen,” was thus eerily appropriate – “Wherever they burn books, they also burn people in the end.”
“The Rushdie case,” as it was dismissively referred to at the time, has been pushed back into the public consciousness with the release of Rushdie’s memoirs, Joseph Anton, and his torture has come to be seen as a forewarning. The order of Rushdie’s execution by a theocratic dictator in Iran, the assassination of the novel’s translators, the bullying and intimidation of publishers, the destruction of bookstores, and the burning of books – all for the offense of writing a literary novel – was not an isolated incident. As recent events in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have demonstrated, vociferous reaction of this type is a phenomenon which affects the world still.
But as important as the physical consequences of the fatwa was the test it placed on our most fundamental, inalienable right, that of freedom of speech. For, at the time of publication and reaction, there were a good number of cultural and political commentators who deemed that Rushdie had made a rod for his own back by daring to write a novel which played with themes pertaining to the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad.
John Berger, the Marxist critic and novelist, suggested in The Guardian in February 1989 that Rushdie should self-censor and withdraw the book from circulation, “not because of the threat of his own life, but because of the threat to the lives of those who are innocent of either writing or reading the book,” in essence accusing him of starting “a unique 20th-century holy war, with its terrifying righteousness on both sides.” President Carter, concurring with Berger, entered the dispute via a New York Times op-ed in March of that year. Rushdie, Carter wrote, “must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world,” adding that Westerners “tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Muslims whose sacred beliefs have been violated.”
When faced with such hostility, this willingness to undermine essential Enlightenment values to avoid confrontation was then and remains now very dangerous indeed. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks William Roper if he would be satisfied to “cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” A particularly vigorous prosecutor, Roper answers, “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!” “Oh?” More replies, advancing on Roper. “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”
In other words, when the free speech of another is violated such as Rushdie’s wont to write and publish without prior restraint, the violators and those who aid and abet them make themselves hostage to their own reckless actions. The question has to be asked of individuals as diverse as Berger, Carter, and Charles Krauthammer who condemned Rushdie at the time: What would happen when the book burners and the Bible bashers turn up in your neighborhood, your rights to answer back having been suppressed, “the laws all being flat?”
If anything, the Rushdie affair remains an absolute affirmation of the essential character of the First Amendment to the Constitution, in defiance of the sort of cultural and moral relativism which would grant exceptions to the universal principle of freedom of speech on religious grounds. The fatwa confirms the correctness not only of the lack of law “abridging the freedom of speech,” but any edict “respecting an establishment of religion.” The most awful consequences of the latter are on display all around the world, nowhere more so than at this time than in Pakistan, where the Constitution mandates Islam as the official religion of state, and the application of their draconian and anti-pluralistic blasphemy law had authorities imprison a mentally deficient 14-year-old girl, accused of defiling the Qur’an.
Jefferson’s wall of separation and the principle as dictated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that no civil authority ought to “restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency” are not without their unfortunate consequences. But the right to free speech, including on matters of faith, means nothing unless it protects the right to dissent. “Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden,” Rosa Luxemburg once wrote – freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently.
So that the publication of Rushdie’s memoir should introduce this story to those yet to hear it, and remind those who have forgotten it, willfully or otherwise, is no bad thing at all, if it serves to reaffirm in the popular imagination the essential and unalterable nature of the freedom of speech and the Establishment Clause, and the importance of protecting those rights not just for ourselves but those who require the shelter such civil liberties afford us. “Mutato nomine et de te fabula narrator,” Christopher Hitchens concludes of Rushdie’s ordeal. “Change only the name and this story is about you.”
New this week: Salman Rushdie’s much talked about memoir Joseph Anton, T.C. Boyle’s San Miguel, The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore, and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting prequel Skagboys. Also new this week: Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, Sylvie Simmons’s biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, and n+1 vet Marco Roth’s memoir The Scientists.
The New Yorker has published the chapter of Salman Rushdie’s forthcoming memoir, Joseph Anton, that describes the circumstances of his life immediately after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s spiritual leader in 1989, called for his execution by proclaiming a fatwā on the writer, after the controversial treatment of Islamic history and the Prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses. PEN American, by the way, accepts donations online.