sun 04/12/2016

Imagine: The Fatwa - Salman's Story, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Imagine: The Fatwa - Salman's Story, BBC One

Imagine: The Fatwa - Salman's Story, BBC One

The author of The Satanic Verses gets the Alan Yentob treatment

Salman Rushdie with Cambridge historian Arthur Hibbert, who inspired the writing of The Satanic VersesCredit: BBC/Daniel Meyers

There’s nothing like having a fatwa hanging over you to find out who your friends are, for those who might be taken for natural allies may surprise you. And so it was when Salman Rushdie received his death warrant 23 years ago on St Valentine’s Day: there were those who proved their mettle, or at least found common cause with the imperilled writer. And then there were those whose instincts did not lie in the advocacy of free speech but in maintaining, as they saw it, a diplomatic pragmatism. Their principles, it seems, were flexible enough to allow them to spill ink for the British press in order to tell the world that Rushdie had only himself to blame.

It may have disappointed those who would maintain the freedom to roam of the imagination as an over-riding principle, that there were those who, if you will, all but sided with the book-burners, if not by positively embracing them than by refusing to condemn them. Writers like John Le Carré had, in their eyes, become apologists, which was not a nice thing to be – a traitor to the cause of liberty? – for what better principle is worth fighting for than the one that Rushdie was testing? Had they forgotten their JS Mill, that “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered”?

He told us that he was not allowed to go to the toilet alone for the first four years

Le Carré may have disappointed, but the vicious words of the late historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, recalled in last night’s Imagine, were perhaps somewhat more predictable: "I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude,” he’d opined, just months after the fatwa was issued. “Not too comfortably I hope ... I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”

These were surely thuggish, brutish sentiments, and it would not be too unkind to suggest that perhaps the embittered Trevor-Roper was still smarting over his part in the Hitler Diaries, though by all accounts viciousness ran through him like the lettering in a stick of Brighton rock.

But whether friend or foe, one might still baulk at Paul Theroux’s display of gallows’ humour, expressed aptly or inaptly depending on your point of view, at the funeral of a mutual friend. On the morning Rushdie first learned that his life would never be the same he attended the funeral of Bruce Chatwin and here he recalled Theroux’s quip – it would hardly be easy to forget it – as the American writer leaned over in his pew to say, “I suppose we’ll be here for you next week.” At the time Rushdie was 41 and did not believe he would live to see 42.

The point of the 80-minute documentary was to publicise Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton, named after the pseudonym Rushdie chose on the advice of police. He was thereafter known as Joe by his ever-changing team of protection officers, much to Rushdie’s apparent annoyance, though why he should be annoyed was never made clear in Imagine’s soft publicity vehicle. Perhaps the diminutive was too familiar for comfort, since not only did Rushdie have to contend with an enforced physical proximity that he could never have been psychologically prepared for – he told us that he was not allowed to go to the toilet alone for the first four years – but the faux chumminess may have seemed like a double assault on his autonomy – an intimacy, in other words, which appeared more like an affront, since it had not been earned in the ordinary way. Or perhaps he simply likes to be addressed as Sir, since there’s no getting away from the fact that Rushdie’s main problem is that he often appears so annoyingly smug and grand. Today, perception is everything and principle can go hang.

It would have been a far meatier documentary had the voices of one or two of his more sensible detractors been allowed

The documentary didn’t help on that front, since it felt more like a This is Your Life scenario, with Ian McEwan, Hanif Kureishi and others popping up to add to the anecdote count and voice their admiration. Members of the protection team also appeared, and one just needed the appearance of that big red book and a few reunion hugs amid tears.

But then, it’s easy to be cynical, since few of us have lived through such an experience. We can acknowledge the truth of this, but still wonder at these woolly celebrations of authors which leave out all the hard stuff. It would have been a far meatier documentary had the voices of one or two of his more sensible detractors been allowed. After all, we live in a country where free speech is supposedly cherished, but often threatened, and the publication of The Satanic Verses threw up some chewy ethical issues which certainly haven’t gone away. And lest we forget, cynicism can cut both ways. Rushdie’s capitulation in the form of his public “conversion” to Islam was not, after all, a case of Stockholm Syndrome but an attempt to prostrate himself before the uncompromising mullahs of Iran in a less than appetising plea-bargain. That particular episode was painful to watch, but it didn’t make you want to hug Rushdie, particularly. 

There were those who all but sided with the book-burners, if not by positively embracing them than by refusing to condemn

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters