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The Age of Outrage

Literature’s ‘fearless daring’: Outrage and Outrageousness in Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton and Luka and the Fire of Life

« L’intrépide audace des transgressions littéraires » : l’outrage et l’outrance dans Joseph Anton et Luka and the Fire of Life de Salman Rushdie
Catherine Pesso-Miquel


Cet article examine les deux derniers textes en date de Salman Rushdie sous l’angle de l’outrage, commis ou subi. Bien que l’un soit un mémoire en partie autobiographique et l’autre un conte pour enfants, les deux textes se rejoignent dans les idées qu’ils expriment, même si la forme diffère grandement. L’article commence par analyser comment Rushdie a mené sa défense et son apologie des Versets sataniques dans Joseph Anton, ainsi que la nature et la provenance des attaques menées contre lui par des partisans de bords politiques très divers. Il se concentre ensuite sur le traitement ludique et irrévérencieux du thème de l’outrage dans Luka, avant de donner quelques exemples de l’esthétique des deux textes, qui déploient non seulement diverses formes, plus ou moins outrées, de la provocation satirique, mais également (et de façon plus inattendue chez Rushdie) un style dépouillé d’une sincérité quasiment humble dans la mise à nu des angoisses et de la vulnérabilité de l’homme et de l’écrivain qu’il est.

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1Salman Rushdie, dubbed Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth in 2007 for his services to literature, is considered one of the bright lights in the firmament of contemporary British fiction, even if he is still persona non grata at the literary festivals of his native country (see Dalrymple). Although the Iranians, in 1998, finally stated that though they could not annul the fatwa they would not carry it out, his life is still potentially under threat, and Rushdie is still arch villain number 1: if the Danes decided to draw cartoons of the Prophet, of course it was his fault, because if he had been killed in time it would have dissuaded others from blasphemy, or so the Iranian worthies argued (see Young).

2Ever since 1988, Rushdie has been at the centre of a web of conflict which the two words ‘outrage’ and ‘outrageousness’ best summarise, because he has been constantly both the source and the butt of ‘outrage’. The Satanic Verses was deemed outrageously offensive, but the reactions of outrage to the novel became themselves outrageous, since its author was sentenced to death, without any semblance of a trial, by a foreign government.

3Voltaire, Rushdie reminds us (Rushdie 2002, 215), encouraged writers to live near a border just in case one of their books annoyed the church too much, and he liked to keep safely close to Switzerland, or to jump onto a ship across the English Channel if the need arose. But Rushdie had unleashed a state-sponsored terrorism that reached across oceans, and for which, as he says, the new concept of ‘extraterritoriality’ applied (Rushdie 2012, 15). Graham Swift had once diagnosed in Out of This World, in relation to IRA bombings, ‘the sense of a new, barbarous world encroaching, a world no longer keeping to its former demarcations, its former protocol’ (Swift 1988, 92), and this once theoretical idea had crawled out of fictional pages to become terrifyingly real. Thereafter Rushdie was caught in a kind of double bind: he felt the need to defend his novel and his ideas publicly, in essays and articles, but over the years commentators have tended to dissect and attack his public comments more than his books, and to consider him as a kind of political pawn rather than a writer. In the wake of 9/11 he has been accused of veering from a roughly left-liberal and postcolonial stance to a much more radicalised position: pro-America and anti-faith, anti religion, as opposed to anti fundamentalism (Ranasinha 54–55).

4It is the aim of this paper to analyse the last two texts so far published by Salman Rushdie, even if they might at first seem difficult to consider jointly, since Joseph Anton is an autobiographical memoir, while Luka and the Fire of Life belongs to children’s literature. Yet, when examined in the light of the topic of ‘outrage’, they turn out to voice the same concerns and ideas, albeit in different modes. Indeed, like many good books for children, Luka is full of details aimed at the adult reader. Both books bring insights into the debate fuelled by the questions that the Rushdie case has raised: those of freedom of expression, censorship of art, and self-censorship by the author. Is Rushdie more sinned against than sinner, more rightfully outraged than he is outrageous? Should the state, or its legal system, be allowed to curtail a citizen’s freedom of speech? Should artists, writers, journalists, and cartoonists censor their creativity and satirical wit every time the issue is deemed ‘sensitive’? Can outrage negotiate with outrageousness?

5I will first attempt to show how Rushdie defends the good faith and literary worth of The Satanic Verses in Joseph Anton, then analyse the provenance and nature of the attacks levelled at Rushdie from all sides of the political spectrum. A second section is devoted to the playful treatment of the themes of outrage and outrageousness in Luka, while the end of the paper examines the aesthetics of both works: is the theme of the artist’s freedom to shock expressed by Rushdie in a form that is itself consistently ‘outrageous’?

6In Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie adamantly denies ever having ‘insulted Islam’. Unlike Voltaire, whose anticlericalism was notorious, he did not set out to provoke. When he wrote The Satanic Verses he was ambitiously trying to write a ‘serious novel’ (albeit an often comic one), that is a work of art. If his aim had been to insult Islam, as he often remarks, he would not have needed half a million words to do so. On the contrary one could say that Rushdie in his youth was a serious student of Islam from a historical point of view. In his final year at Cambridge (1967–68), he was the only student who chose a special subject offered for the first time that year: ‘Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the Early Caliphate’ (Rushdie 2012, 39). It was while studying under the supervision of the medievalist Arthur Hibbert that Rushdie ‘learned a world’, in which ‘one of the great religions was being born’ (40) and heard for the first time about the incident of the satanic verses, told in ‘most of the major collections of Hadith’ about the life of the Prophet (43). He had done his homework well, yet ironically this erudition would become a bane when wily politicians started manipulating ignorant masses who had not read the traditions. Another irony is that the story of Mahound, Jahilia and the satanic verses was only one of the multiple threads of a novel which, while he was writing it, ‘felt like his most formally and intellectually ambitious book’ (79), ‘the least political book of the three [written at the time]’ (74). The main subject of The Satanic Verses, in his creator’s mind, concerned the experiences of migrants within a racist England, but the attacks on his novel changed it, and changed its reception. He was accused of deliberately provoking Muslims for fame and money, and the result was that,

for many years, The Satanic Verses was denied the ordinary life of a novel. It became something smaller and uglier: an insult. There was something surreally comical about this metamorphosis of a novel about angelic and satanic metamorphoses into a devil-version of itself, and he could think of a few black jokes to make about it. . . . As his book became simply an insult, so he became the Insulter; not only in Muslim eyes, but in the opinion of the public at large. (Rushdie 2012, 115)

7As Rushdie sees it, and his analysis is very convincing, the initiators of the attacks within the Muslim world had a political agenda: this was visible again at the literary festival of Jaipur in January of 2012, where Muslim politicians preparing for a local election thought a little anti-Rushdie agitation would bring out the community vote. The same kind of political calculations had motivated the banning of The Satanic Verses in India (116–117), as well as Khomeini’s fatwa. Accused of outraging a religion, accused of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’, Rushdie felt that he too had been branded with a scarlet A, standing not for Adulteress but for Apostate (184). He felt a deep sense of outrage against an attack that in his eyes smacked of Puritanism, or even more sinisterly of medieval times and the Inquisition.

8Ever since the beginning of the Rushdie affair, this unfortunate writer has had to contend with at least three groups of brashly vocal opponents: angry Muslims across the world (claiming to speak for all Muslims), politicians or supporters of right-wing politics in Britain, and people belonging to left-wing, anti-imperialist political families. As far as the first group is concerned, Jatinder Verma, of the Tara Arts group, told Rushdie that British Muslims like her were being subjected to ‘heavy intimidation’ and ‘political pressure by the Council of Mosques’ (179), even if leaders of opinion did not all endorse the fatwa and the calls to murder, as did Kalim Siddiqui, whom Rushdie, using the weapon of ridicule to fight back, called ‘the Muslim Institute’s loquacious garden gnome’ (263) or the ‘Iranian lapdog’ (274), who liked to ‘[speak] up from under his toadstool’ (321) to argue that Rushdie ‘should pay with his life’ (263).

9Rushdie makes his reader aware of the constructed, instrumentalised nature of outrage, especially when the media are present to allow for dramatisation and instant-mix celebrity. On the day of the announced (and therefore staged) Bradford burnings of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie could not avoid the event on the evening news: he saw ‘perhaps a thousand people in the demonstration, and all of them were male. Their faces were angry, or to be precise, their faces were performing anger for the camera’ (128). The irony for Rushdie was that the Muslim world would not have noticed his novel if he had not allowed ‘a journalist he thought of as a friend, Madhu Jain of India Today’ to publish an extract ‘nine days before the book’s publication, at a time when not a single copy had arrived in India’ (113).

10The second group comprised ultra-rightist British conservative MPs like Rupert Allason, who said Rushdie had deceived his publishers and did not deserve to be protected on public money, and the tabloid press, collectively nicknamed The Daily Insult by Rushdie (484). The attacks were always centred on Rushdie’s ‘arrogance’, his ‘ingratitude’, his appetite for ‘self-aggrandizement’, and on the fact that he deserved the treatment he got and cost the nation too much money, when he had rendered the nation no service and produced an unreadable book. Why? Ostensibly because, wantonly and unnecessarily, Rushdie was endangering the salesgirls behind the counter in bookshops and the staff in the publishers’ offices; in reality the Conservatives never forgave him for his satirical portrayal of ‘Mrs Torture’ in The Satanic Verses, his aesthetics of mongrelisation and hybridity, his celebration of rootlessness, multiple identities, and migrations. The tabloid press, with a conservative and populist readership to pander to, needs to represent Rushdie as too leftist, and un-English because too ‘brown’, a sort of unfairly successful ‘wog’. Interestingly, Graham Swift was one of the writers who discreetly stood by Rushdie during the decade of ‘the Plague Years’, inviting him and his current wife to spend Christmas with him and his partner Candice, every year. Swift narrated this in an essay entitled ‘Santa Again: Christmas with Mr Brown, 1989–99’. The ‘Mr Brown’ of the title designates Salman, because when Swift and their friend Caz Phillips arranged to meet Rushdie secretly, the three writers were known, ‘for reasons not entirely to do with security’, as ‘Mr Black, Mr White and Mr Brown’ (Swift 2009, 274).

11What’s in a name? Obviously in The Daily Mail Salman Rushdie is more easily associated with the ‘Mr Browns’ of this world than with English roses. In September 2012, The Daily Mail first greeted the publication of Joseph Anton with a relatively neutral piece written by Geordie Greig and consisting mostly of a summary of the memoir that focused on Rushdie’s love life more than on his work, but this was followed six days later by a very venomous article signed Geoffrey Levy, containing the usual sly, loaded questions about Rushdie’s alleged bid for fame, and the usual spiteful remarks about the ‘unreadable’ quality of The Satanic Verses and the ungratefulness of Rushdie towards the British police (which in fact Rushdie never stops thanking in his memoir, see for instance 175 and 636). Our current situation is paradoxical: in some countries there are laws that allow writers of racist attacks to be prosecuted, but we live in an age when the technology of tweets and internet, ‘that brothel of irresponsibility’ as Rushdie calls it (Rushdie 2002, 330), makes instant, anonymous, vicious attacks by multiple people possible, and legal action almost impossible. Outrageousness is rampant, and in 2001, in the wake of the release of the Bulger killers, Rushdie argued that the ‘rabble-rousing behaviour’ of the British tabloids had made ‘even lifetime free-speech stalwarts’ say that ‘the free speech argument [was] harder and harder to sustain’ (2002, 330).

  • 1 See Malik’s account of the controversy over the filming of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, and Germaine Gr (...)

12The third hostile group, perhaps more surprisingly, belonged to the left: in 1997 the home secretary Jack Straw, ‘always keen to ingratiate himself with his Islamic constituents’, tried to extend the archaic blasphemy law, valid for the Church of England, to include Islam and other religions (Rushdie 2012, 521), and certain Labour MPs expressed quite openly their dislike of Rushdie’s writings, like Gerald Kaufman (350), and intellectuals like Paul Gilroy accused him of having ‘misjudged the people’ (179) but what hurt Rushdie most were gibes from his fellow authors: Roald Dahl, John Le Carré, and above all John Berger’s ‘bitter attack on his work and motives’ (262). Some people within this group used concepts such as cultural relativism, which Rushdie defines as ‘the death of ethical thought’ (187), or multiculturalism, to defend the idea that we should not impose our distorted, Eurocentric notions of ‘enlightenment’ on postcolonial people, that we should ‘respect their culture’.1 They accused Rushdie of deliberately provoking Muslims in his novel, using a series of arguments summarised and rejected by the author in Joseph Anton, where he attempts to deny and correct common assumptions and confusions concerning The Satanic Verses (114–115).

13Slavoj Žižek, in a paradoxical formulation, warns society against the repressive tolerance of multiculturalism, which makes certain intellectuals very reluctant to condemn gross violations of human rights for the simple reason that they do not wish to impose on the Other the (Western) values that are not his (Žižek 80). Caroline Fourest, a French journalist who analyses Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms, calls this attitude ‘the temptation of obscurantism’ (Fourest). Kenan Malik warns that the Rushdie affair has brought about ‘a fundamental change in the meaning of “tolerance”’, a word which now no longer designates ‘the acceptance that others have a right to promote ideas you don’t like’, but instead ‘the insistence that you have the right to force others not to promote ideas you don’t like’ (Malik 2012). Rushdie is wary of the term Islamophobia, used by the cultural relativists. He scorns the word and ridicules it relentlessly. In Joseph Anton he writes: ‘“Islamophobia” was an addition to the vocabulary of Humpty Dumpty Newspeak. It took the language of analysis, reason and dispute, and stood it on its head’ (Rushdie 2012, 346).

14From time to time in his memoir Rushdie fleetingly but movingly mentions the very dark moments during ‘the Plague years’ when he could not avoid the temptation of compromise and appeasement. Two years into the fatwa, at a time when British hostages were used as an instrument of blackmail, he was under great pressure from the British government to give a small gesture of appeasement. So he agreed to meet six men presented as ‘moderate Muslim leaders’. Expecting an informal round-table conversation, Rushdie found that ‘the room had been set up by the Muslim worthies as a courtroom’ and he was to be put on trial (Rushdie 2012, 273). He had imprudently wandered out of his own fictional world into that of Kafka. Hoping to buy his freedom he let himself be persuaded to publish an essay entitled ‘Why I Have Embraced Islam’. The essay was also published in the first edition of Imaginary Homelands, but because most of the six men (274) reneged on the agreement (277), its author felt deeply shamed, and decided to have the piece taken out of the paperback edition of his first collection of essays.

15This episode made him feel as if he had torn his own tongue out. A few years later when he tentatively tried to get the American government to act in his favour, and had to plead his own cause across the Atlantic, he realised that the language of political speeches was alien to him.

He believed in pushing language, making it mean as much as he could make it mean, listening to the meaning of its music as well as is words; but now he was supposed to speak plainly. . . . Did it matter if a writer was denuded in this way, stripped of the richness of language? Yes, it did . . . Beauty mattered because beauty was joy and joy was the reason he did what he did, his joy in words and in using them to tell tales, to create worlds, to sing. And beauty, now, was being treated as a  uxury he should do without; as a luxury; as a lie. Ugliness was truth. (329)

16Rushdie vigorously defended himself in his non fiction, but the themes of freedom and repression are everywhere in his fiction, even in the two children’s books he wrote for his sons, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Luka and the Fire of Life (2010). One of the main themes in Haroun is precisely a denunciation of simplistic binary oppositions, and a celebration of a balanced state in which contraries can happily interact with one another, in which ‘creatures of darkness could be as lovely as the children of the light’ (Rushdie 1990, 125). Michel Morel, in an article published in 1999, was surprised by the straightforward, Manichean way in which Haroun was received, and he argued convincingly that Rushdie’s tale was much richer and filled with complex nuances; he pleaded at the time for an art that would keep contraries in constant tension, an art celebrating ‘the desire to spell the wonders of the endless balancing act of life’ (Morel 109).

17Haroun is Zafar Rushdie’s middle name, and Rushdie’s second son, eighteen years younger than his half brother, is called Milan Luka. Luka and the Fire of Life, published in 2010, is presented as the sequel of Haroun, since Luka is Haroun’s little brother, but this time it is Milan’s turn to be (vicariously) the hero. The name Milan, Rushdie tells us, had been chosen ‘for Kundera’, but also because its root is a Hindi verb meaning ‘to mingle’ (Rushdie 2012, 506). And yet it could be argued at first that Luka and the Fire of Life is a much more simplistically binary tale than Haroun, a decidedly ‘Western’ one also, because it is modelled on a video game, and because this time the main enemies are totally devoid of the ambiguous ‘grace and beauty’ that the shadow warriors possessed in Haroun: they are the unfeeling, inhuman Aalim, weavers of destiny like the three Fates (Rushdie 2010, 199), and also the giant rats who have infested part of the Magic World and sealed it behind ‘high barbed wire fences’ with ‘scary-looking border post[s]’, called collectively the O-Fence (69). Their territory, called the ‘Respectorate of I’ is a place where the commitment of outrage is very dangerous indeed: “The O-Fence goes all around the Respectorate of I—it gives the place, you could say, its I-dentity—and, as the sign [‘Mind your Manners’] warns you many of its present occupants take Offence very sharply indeed.” (70) The Respectorate is ruled by a self-chosen Over-Rat (reminiscent of Nazi titles beginning with the prefix ‘Ober’) who ‘chooses himself over and over again’ ‘because he likes doing it so much. It’s known as being Over-Rat-ed’ (72). The Over-Rat, Luka thinks, looks exactly like Ratshit, the school bully. The Respectorate has banned all colours because each of them is offensive to some Rat or other, and therefore they live in a dreary grey world (reminiscent of life beyond the Iron Curtain), where bakeries can offer nothing more than ‘stale bread and unappetizing-looking buns covered in grey icing’ (77). Rushdie mentioned H. L. Mencken in Joseph Anton, who defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy’ (Rushdie 2012, 346), and the rats in Luka are Puritan killjoys in that sense. The Respectorate of I is a place where, according to the national song, everybody says ‘I’ (that is no one dissents, everyone is expected to say aye and never nay), and where the Inquisition Rat soothingly and hissingly tries to persuade you that ‘there’s no need to argue, no need to suspect,/ No need to think when you’ve got Ressspect’ (75).

18In his fight against the respectful rats, Luka appeals to the Otters for help. The so–called Otters belong to ‘the unusual land of Oh-Tee-Tee’ (77), and they are constantly ‘Over The Top’ indeed, because they enjoy nothing more than excess in all things, including over the top insults, or of course, out–rage, rage that is beyond the proper limit, i.e. over the top. Otters ‘have all grown so thick-skinned that nobody minds what anyone else says’ (77), whereas the Rats of I are ‘famously thin-skinned’ (88): ‘when you prick [them], [they] bleed’ (71).

19This imagery of a pathological sensitiveness is taken up in Joseph Anton when Rushdie explains that he was ‘genuinely perplexed’ when The Satanic Verses was accused of being offensive, because ‘he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation’ that he deemed totally inoffensive, but ‘the thin-skinned years of rage-defined identity politics that followed’ taught him how wrong he had been (Rushdie 2012, 74; emphasis added).

20In Luka the queen of the Otters, who is ‘gorgeous when she’s angry’, is called not the Sultana but the ‘Insultana’ ‘because she respects nobody and nothing’ (2010, 78), and she embodies the land of Ott, the ‘Disrespectorate’ where ‘dissing is unquestionably what they do best’ (78). The inhabitants of Ott are the sworn enemies of the rats, and the Insultana’s rhyming war cry is ‘we expectorate on the Respectorate!’

  • 2 Like the singer Sama Al-Masri, whose irreverent video-clips mock President Morsi and the Muslim Bro (...)

21Is Luka a tale of simplistic binaries, good vs evil, excess vs miserliness, censorship vs free speech, tyranny vs freedom? Of course it is. Do those poles represent the free west on the one hand, and a medieval Islamic world on the other? Of course they do not. Salman Rushdie has always condemned, with great emphasis, Samuel Huntington’s vision of ‘a clash of civilizations’, and he continues to do so. When writers in the Muslim world are attacked or killed, like Naguib Mahfouz or Tahar Djaout, Rushdie is the one who writes about it in the Western media, attracting ‘only a little interest’ (Rushdie 2012, 386). He is duly proud of, and grateful for, the support and praise that one hundred Arab and Muslim writers expressed in Pour Rushdie (410). He constantly warns Westerners against the temptation of giving a monolithic representation of Islam, and warns us that censoring the right to freely criticise Islam in our societies is a sure way of muzzling dissent within Muslim societies, which is exactly what Islamists are busy doing in countries where an ‘Arab Spring’ occurred, as they ‘steal’ a revolution. ‘Oh, for the voices of Muslim women to be heard!’ Rushdie often sighs (Rushdie 2002, 340). And some Muslim women still do dissent, loudly and courageously.2

22He deeply admires, and claims as his heritage, enlightened Mughal Muslims like Emperor Akbar, fictionalised in the Enchantress of Florence, and the refined civilisation of Al Andalus, whose death is lamented in The Moor’s Last Sigh. But Rushdie is also very wary of the changes occurring within the Islamic world, and the rise of various bigoted forms of Islamism. He argues in Joseph Anton that ‘the decision to place the House of Saud on the Thone That Sits Over the Oil might well look like the greatest foreign policy error of the Western powers’ (Rushdie 2012, 345), because the wealthy Saudis built schools churning out ‘generations of narrow-eyed men with hairy chins and easily clenched fists’ (345), and extremist ideologues poured out of their frontiers to intimidate Muslims around the world and cow them into submission. This, argues Rushdie, was not the Islamic civilisation of his youth, and Islamists ought not to be called ‘fundamentalists’ because they had invented their own form of Islam, they had not returned to any fundamental creed or text: ‘Islam [had] moved a long way away from its origins while claiming to be returning to its roots’ (345–346). Not that there was really any ‘fundamental’ text to turn to; what made Rushdie so angry against the Quranic literalists was that there was no canonical text; there were ‘more than seven variant texts extant’: ‘human fallibility had been present at the birth of the book’, and ‘the idea that there existed an ur-text, the perfect and immutable word of God, was simply inaccurate’ (213). The Salafis strongly oppose intellectual curiosity and investigation. Their followers are required to learn what they are taught and not to ask questions, like Rushdie’s rats, whose national anthem begs others to ‘please stop asking what, how and why’ (Rushdie 2010, 75). Like Wahhabi Islamism, the rats trespass over their borders into the whole world of magic, which now ‘is in danger of being strangled by an excess of respect’ (82). In 2002, an ‘angry’ Rushdie, ‘ashamed and disgusted’, protesting against the mass slaughter of Muslims orchestrated by extremist Hindu organisations like the VHP, had already warned against the violent hatred that religion can inspire: ‘religion is the poison in the blood’, and we should cease ‘speaking of religion in the fashionable language of “respect”’ (Rushdie 2002, 346).

23‘Respect’ v. dissent: such are also the terms of Rushdie’s passionate plea, in Joseph Anton, for freedom of speech and criticism. To those who want to protect the rights of minorities by frowning on ‘islamophobia’ and attacking the right to satirise freely, Rushdie answers that religion is ‘not a race’ but ‘an idea’, and strong ideas do not need to be ‘shielded’ from criticism to survive:

Strong ideas welcomed dissent. ‘He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill,’ wrote Edmund Burke. ‘Our antagonist is our helper.’ Only the weak and the authoritarian turned away from their opponents and called them names and sometimes wished to do them harm. (Rushdie 2012, 345)

24Luka and the Fire of Life is a dramatisation, for children, of a war which is not waged against Muslims but against all bigots, and all censorship-happy Puritans or witch-hunters like Matthew Hopkins (344).

25As for Rushdie’s name, it is a homage paid to enlightened Islam and its values of scientific and spiritual enquiry, since his father, Anis, who bore an Old Delhi name that was ‘quite a mouthful’ chose to call himself after Ibn Rushd, twelfth-century Arab-Andalusian philosopher, the translator and commentator of Aristotle, known to the West as ‘Averroes’ (Rushdie 2012, 22). (Salman Rushdie, when creating Saleem Sinai, imitated his father by naming his hero after Ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna, who lived in the 11th Century [Rushdie 2012, 54]). Rushdie consoled himself with the thought that he was fighting his would-be assassins under the flag of Ibn Rushd, ‘which stood for the freedom of philosophy and learning from the shackles of theology, for human reason and against blind faith, submission, acceptance and stagnation’ (23).

26Luka and the Fire of Life is about impertinence, irreverence, or blasphemy, if one will, but of a comical, good-natured sort, prudently aimed at all categories of gods: Luka snaps his fingers at the Aalim, the Lords of Time, and rejoices to see their fortress crumble, and all the mythological gods rise against them. The Otter Queen wonders if the fortress is under attack of her Otter Air Force, but the Old Boy with the scarred belly (Rushdie’s version of Sisyphus) exclaims with comic ambiguity: ‘The gods are revolting’ (201). Therefore Luka and the Fire of Life can be read as a defiant assertion that compromise and appeasement are not necessary against bigotry, or, to take up the language of Joseph Anton again, that ‘Nothing was off-limits. There were no taboos’ (Rushdie 2012, 25).

27In his defence of his friend and of The Satanic Verses, Graham Swift had presented Rushdie as ‘an overt enjoyer, a master of revels’ following the tradition ‘of the novelist as a lord of misrule’ (Swift 2009, 276), who had set out to be joyfully outrageous from the start, by placing his literary efforts and ambitions in the rich manner of Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne. The ideas expressed in both Joseph Anton and Luka and the Fire of Life celebrate misrule and dissent, but are those two books as innovative and challenging, as ‘outrageous’ in their respective forms and styles, as Rushdie’s previous novels had been?

  • 3 See Tristram Shandy, VIII, 1.

28The main mood of the two books is characterised by the zest, energy and excess that constitute Rushdie’s trademark style, and both books adhere to Rushdie’s irreverent aesthetics of hybridity and mongrelisation. Luka was written for children of the post-modern age yet it is unmistakeably ‘Rushdian’, because wonderfully impure, filled with those ‘bastardly digressions’ that so delighted Laurence Sterne,3 one of Rushdie’s acknowledged models: the language of video games is hybridised with tales of a huge multitude of gods belonging to almost all the mythologies in the world, as well as elements borrowed from the Arabian Nights, or ‘the age of flying carpets and wonderful lamps’ (Rushdie 2012, 123). As for the gods and goddesses of the mythologies, they are constantly humanised and derided, cut down to size, no longer larger than life or formidable: Prometheus is comically introduced as ‘The Old Boy’, in Coyote’s clipped Yankee tones (Rushdie 2010, 190), and Venus, ‘eliminated early’ from a vulgar fight between goddesses, ‘stagger[s] from the hall, reattaching her severed arms as she [goes]’, cartoon-style (134). Like other Roman gods (‘just imitation of the Greeks’), she suffers from a lack of recognition, for ‘who wants to watch second-rate remakes when you can see the original movies for free?’ (135).

29Even if Rushdie insists that both Haroun and Luka were written ‘in the language of the fable’, because ‘fables’, in ‘very simple language’, explore ‘things that are not necessarily simple’ (Taylor), one can see in all his works (not only those for children) the unmistakeable influence of the rich wordplay and imaginative fantasy of writers like Lewis Carroll (Alice’s rabbit puts in an appearance in Luka [61]). The universe of videogames is given due place; nevertheless one can easily argue that it is kept in its place, and subordinated to the world of writing. Indeed the ‘hunting of lives’ is expressed in charming and fanciful literary language by Rushdie, who thus emphatically gives precedence again to the verbal over the graphic (50).

30An irreverent, satirical spirit colours the narratives: when Luka and his friends, Dog the bear and Bear the dog, arrive in the Respectorate, a Border Rat bristles at the thought that one of them could be a ‘she’, betraying all the repressed hatred and suspicion almost always unleashed by Puritanism against femininity. The very fact of not being male becomes a potential offence, expressed in ‘OTT’ or ‘over the top’ wordplay: ‘“Are any of you female?” the Border Rat abruptly demanded. ‘That dog, is she a bitch? That bear, is she a . . . bearess? A bearina? A bearette?”’ (71). Later Rushdie literalises the common phrase ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ by creating an attack of Rain Cats, ‘made of the rain itself, enchanted by the Aalim and turned into sabre-toothed Wildcats’, joyfully multiplying and diversifying his portmanteau words, ‘raintigers and rainlions, rainjaguars and raincheetahs, Water Felines of every spot and stripe’ (203). But the frightening enemy is soon ridiculed by an allusion that turns the nightmarish fairy-tale elements into the comic, reassuring world of cartoons and comic strips, as Bear the dog scornfully calls the attackers ‘Fraidy Cats’, conjuring up harmless images of Tom and Jerry or Garfield, or the cartoon series shown on Uncle Crock’s Block.

31Joseph Anton also constantly mixes references, registers, and language codes. The memoir is often extremely well-written, and an episode in Australia when Rushdie and his family almost died provides a good example of Rushdie’s width of range, as it ends in hilarious comedy (476) after beginning ominously, with enigmatic warnings of doom creating a tragic dramatisation (473–474) The memoir is built with alluring cliff-hangers, in keeping with Rushdie’s cinema aesthetics of ‘trailers’, or ‘coming soon’ promises of a good story, like the terrible comment that ends Part II, ‘It was Valentine’s Day’ (Rushdie 2012, 135), or this isolated sentence emphasized by a blank space: ‘Two days after Elizabeth and he delivered the anthology, the police almost killed someone’ (501). Joseph Anton is often more novel than memoir, and is often fast-paced: reviewers, even those who complain that it is too long, and filled, in the second half especially, with name-dropping allusions to celebrities, immodest revelations about his marriages, and various trivia, like Rifkind, agree that the early sections at least are ‘as gripping as any spy story’ (Drabble). In Luka also Rushdie uses the technique of the trailer (first developed in Midnight’s Children): the Rain Cats of the end (Rushdie 2010, 203) are teasingly foretold in the very first chapter (9).

32The art of the cinema is never very far from a Rushdian text. In Joseph Anton, Rushdie uses Hitchcock’s film The Birds as a structuring element: the fatwa is represented as the first blackbird of ill omen, announcing the later catastrophe of 9/11; in Luka there is an abundance of (implicit or explicit) references to films like The Wizard of Oz and to cartoons (like those featuring Wile E. Coyote). The influence of other media (like graphic novels and comic strips) is noticeable in the amusing use of ‘hieroglyphs’ and a fancy ‘Sumerian’ script (178, 184), but the literary intertext is very much present too. Rushdie, who has always claimed to be the heir of Rabelais, Cervantes, Gogol, and other promoters of comedy and satire, obviously wanted to pay homage to a long tradition of burlesque humour when he explicitly alluded to Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (62), but the intertext far exceeds the comic register. The portmanteau word ‘Nobodaddy’ contains ‘nobody’ as well as ‘daddy’, and Nobody and Nonsense happen to be the names given to the two tickling hands of Luka’s father (15, 27, 210), an old joke that carries us back to Homer, to the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus. ‘Nobodaddy’ is also a reference to Blake’s poem ‘To Nobodaddy’ (the name given in the poem to the dour, ‘silent and invisible’ God figure, ‘Father of jealousy’), but the details of this ‘death-in-life’ figure as developed by Rushdie show that he was also inspired by characters from the universe of J. K. Rowling, Voldemort of course, but also the Dementors created in the third (and best) novel in her series. The cold, hooded figures of the Aalim [197] also hark back to Rowling’s Dementors, just as the icy prison of Sniffelheim reflects that of Astrakhan. Rashid once admitted to Luka that he had stolen one of his stories from his wife, adding a piece of advice which for the adult reader functions as a humorous self-reflexive remark: ‘if you’re going to be a thief, steal the good stuff’ (197).

33In Joseph Anton Rushdie’s humour often urges him to adopt an outrageously funny satirical tone, as in the imaginary letters that he could not address to their recipients because the police had asked him ‘not to make further inflammatory statements’ (Rushdie 2012, 187). The letters, scattered here and there among the hundreds of pages, break the codes of the autobiographical genre, in brilliant displays of wit that also function as earnest contributions to intellectual debates. The letter to ‘Dear God’ in particular shows that Rushdie was fearlessly and unashamedly adopting a rhetoric that might very well be deemed ‘blasphemous’ (282). The letter is comical and irreverent, but tightly argued and most logical. Rushdie’s imaginary letters defend dissent and plurality by using comedy and demonstrating the untenable absurdity of some opinions. ‘Writing’ to ‘Dear Reader’, he asks him whether or not he wants to keep his freedom to read, instead of having his reading ‘selected, vetted and censored for [him] by any priesthood or Outraged Community’ (316). Elsewhere he has a solemn, more intellectual way of asking the same ‘question of profound importance’: ‘Who shall have control over the story?’ (360). Kenan Malik puts it very clearly: ‘We cannot have it both ways. If we invite the state to define the boundaries of acceptable speech, we cannot complain if it is not just speech to which we object that gets curtailed’ (Malik 2009, 191).

34In Luka the choice of rats as embodiments of bigoted fascists can probably be explained in terms of the sinister universe created by George Orwell’s 1984, in which rats represent Winston’s Smith personal version of hell (Rushdie 2012, 158). As for the outrageous ‘otters’, ‘the rudest creatures in the world’, who do everything ‘too much’ (Rushdie 2010, 77) they might have been conceived as a defiant answer to an atrocious pun in one of the threatening pieces of hate mail that Rushdie receives regularly, because in 1995, along with the usual ‘happy fatwah, see you soon, Islamic Jihad’ greeting cards, he received a photograph of otters topped by a speech balloon that read: ‘you shouldn’t otter done it’ (Rushdie 2012, 444).

35In Joseph Anton images taken from the animal world often concentrate on birds, and Rushdie’s bitterness about the six Muslim worthies who forced him to humiliate himself by declaring he had ‘embraced Islam’ is expressed by means of a bird imagery that goes far beyond a servile exploitation of allusions to Hitchcock. Although Rushdie readily admits the ‘shamelessness of the literary imagination’ (381) in filching stories from real life (20) or ideas from previous artists, his use of language transmutes what he borrows:

Compromise destroyed the compromiser and did not placate the uncompromising foe. You did not become a blackbird by painting your wings black, but like an oil-slicked gull you lost the power of flight. The greatest danger of the growing menace was that good men would commit intellectual suicide and call it peace. Good men would give in to fear and call it respect. (341)

  • 4 On the subjects of censorship and book-burning, see Pesso-Miquel and Stierstorfer vii–xix.

36Rushdie often insists on the literary nature and quality of his memoir, which he obviously conceived in osmosis with his life and with his fiction. Its title is eminently literary; and explicit references, like the one to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (184) are typical of Rushdie’s constant wish to ground his work in a literary context. He knows that he is no longer simply a man of letters, but one who stands in the company of writers threatened with an autodafé, like Heine, Brecht or Thomas Mann, whose books the Nazis burnt on May 10th, 1933, on Berlin’s Opern Platz (127).4

37This being said, one could also argue that in both works, the moods and the registers go far beyond burlesque, satire and outrageousness. Rushdie’s range is wide and varied, and he demonstrates his ability to write restrained introspective self-criticism. Rushdie evidently tried to treat the autobiographical revelations in Joseph Anton ‘in a spirit of truth’, as Philippe Lejeune puts it (Lejeune 31). But one could also argue that the autobiographical elements in Luka reveal Rushdie’s willingness to show his own vulnerability and weakness. ‘Salman Rushdie’ plays a part in Luka, since Rashid Khalifa, the ‘Shah of Blah’, is a humorous figure of the tale-telling author, and in Joseph Anton Salman is also the central character, a person whose private and public selves have to be distinguished from the contemptible portrayals of ‘Rushdie’ engendered in the media by the Rushdie affair (Rushdie 2002, 265). In Luka the very intimate game between Rashid Khalifa and his deathly double, his dark side, as it were, symbolises Rushdie’s fears that he was himself killing the artist inside him. Indeed the Nobody/Nobodaddy pun carries all the anxiety of an author who in Joseph Anton admitted he was often too busy defending his own life to find time to write: he ‘had turned away from the sweet recesses of the mind where fiction lurked’, running the risk of ‘diminishing himself in the word’s eyes as well as his own’: ‘[h]e had gone from Salman to Rushdie to Joseph Anton and now, perhaps, he was making a nobody of himself. He was a lobbyist lobbying for an empty space that no longer contained a man’ (Rushdie 2012, 398), just as Nobodaddy grows and strengthens every time Rashid loses a little substance.

38Joseph Anton is written in the third person, but is deeply personal, even if it does often read as a piece of fiction. Rushdie treats himself as a fictional character, providing a form of half-humorous, half-bitter soul-searching, which explains why, when Amanda Craig decided to list both the heroes and the villains in this memoir, she set down ‘Rushdie’ at the head of both lists (Craig). Rushdie has succeeded in telling the full story of the ‘Plague Years’ (Rushdie 2002, 211) like a novel, but often in an understated, un-melodramatic way, with a mixture of dignity and humour, where the frequent moments of despair and gloom that he must have endured are soon glossed over and minimised.

39Joseph Anton is written mostly as a linear, chronological narrative, but from a retrospective, reflexive viewpoint, a ‘Dickensian, let’s-tie-up-the-loose-strings seat in the future’ (Rushdie 2012, 630). When Rushdie had spoken to Kate Taylor about Luka in 2010 he was already in the process of writing his memoir, and he had commented: ‘I needed to wait until I had proper creative distance from the material so I could look at it objectively, and turn it into a book of mine instead of some emotional confession, a blurt’ (in Taylor). The sad but simple, understated way in which he comments on the end of his love affair and marriage with Padma Lakshmi is typical of the restrained distance he succeeded in achieving (see the erratum to page 617). Nevertheless, many reviewers stayed fixated on Rushdie’s alleged posturing and self-mythologising, failing to detect Rushdie’s tone of sincerity, and his moving willingness to drop all protective pretence.

40In both works, the ‘Rushdie figure’ appears more fragile, much less arrogant than he has sometimes been (for instance in the autobiographical elements of his novel Fury, especially in the character of Malik Solanka, a kind of alter ego). A few reviewers of Luka complained about the inclusion, within a story for children, of elements taken from the rules and aesthetics of video games, like Gurdon, who finds it ‘hard to get emotionally invested in [this] narrative world,’ where it does not matter if you lose a few lives. But he fails to see the real point of the story, linked to the simple fact that Rushdie, being fifty years old when Milan was born, felt concerned about his own mortality and his son’s future, as he himself explained:

The engine that moves this story is that his father, who has only one life, will lose that life and not be able to have another one. On the one hand, you have this sense of life being very, very precious, singular and fragile and against that you have this world where lives are to be found behind every bush and can be spent casually and renewed. (in Taylor).

41As Nobodaddy puts it, it is ‘[n]ever just a game. It’s a matter of life and death’ (Rushdie 2010, 195; original emphasis).

42By privileging in his art the promotion of a limitless freedom of expression and dissent, regardless of any ‘sensitive issues’, Rushdie continues to people of very diverse political leanings. But unlike Ruvani Ravasinha, we should not worry about the alleged incorrectness of Rushdie’s current political opinions. Readers should only obey his plea that we read his books as seriously as they were written, and ‘defend the text’ (Rushdie 2012, 115) against the grey ‘Inquisition Rats’ of this world: ‘Amid the cacophony of the . . . professionally offended,’ Rushdie asks, ‘may a voice still be heard celebrating literature, . . . its fierce-minded rebuke to dogma and power, and its trespassers’ fearless daring?’ (Rushdie 2002, 266). Luka, a harmless-seeming tale for children, and Joseph Anton, idiosyncratic memoir, both testify to Rushdie’s unimpaired creativity, and enjoin us, in masterly prose that can be as understatedly classical as it can be witty, punning and richly inventive, to beware ‘respect’ and celebrate the unruly, disorderly power of dissent.

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1 See Malik’s account of the controversy over the filming of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, and Germaine Greer’s aggressive demands of respect for ‘the community’, countered by Ali’s questioning of the monolithic concept of ‘community’, which is defined by ‘the loudest voices’ at the expense of dissenting minority voices within ‘the community’ (Malik 2009, 166–170).

2 Like the singer Sama Al-Masri, whose irreverent video-clips mock President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. (retrieved December 20, 2012).Yet some reviewers still blindly describe Joseph Anton as if it propagated a Huntingtonian conflict, like Amanda Craig: ‘This is a story of the clash between the Enlightenment and religious fundamentalism, between friendship and fearfulness, between West and East’ (Craig).

3 See Tristram Shandy, VIII, 1.

4 On the subjects of censorship and book-burning, see Pesso-Miquel and Stierstorfer vii–xix.

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Catherine Pesso-Miquel, « Literature’s ‘fearless daring’: Outrage and Outrageousness in Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton and Luka and the Fire of Life »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Pesso-Miquel

Université Lumière — Lyon 2
Catherine Pesso-Miquel est professeur émérite de littérature anglophone contemporaine à l’université de Lyon. Sa recherche porte sur le roman contemporain de langue anglaise et la littérature de voyage, explorant des problématiques liées à l’identité, l’intertextualité, la narratologie, et la réécriture du canon. Elle a publié des ouvrages et des articles sur des romanciers tels que Salman Rushdie et Graham Swift, et dirigé des ouvrages collectifs, dont le dernier, en collaboration avec Klaus Stierstorfer, s’intitule Burning Books: Negotiations Between Fundamentalism and Literature.

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