After a hiatus of nearly half a year I am finally nearing the start of another novel. My last, The Silence of All Things, was a hedonistic affair, dealing with two main characters enjoying separate holidays in Valencia, two wildly different people forced together by the machinations of time. It was a novel about the bravery people need to make their questionable dreams come true. As proud as I am of it I am proud to put it behind me and delve deep into a new world of my own making.
A writer has no obligation to a cause nor to any philosophy or creed. He has obligations only to his own art. But, some of the greatest novelists have found themselves drawn to the magnetic pull of historical events whirling past around them. Even Nabokov, a writer who said he preferred butterflies over politics, wrote two politically-driven novels (Bend Sinister and Glory). And now I too find myself – I who am far more interested in drinking men than power-men – drawn to the historical epoch known as the now century, and the rise to global consciousness of the Arab and Arabised culture.
Being a writer means you look at things from a macro viewpoint. I can see what the history books will one day say about the first decades of the 21st century; just as the 19th century was dominated by the great political dictatorships (from Nazism to Stalinism to North Korea), so our age’s story will put centre-stage the war against religious fascism that takes the guise not only of Islamic fundamentalism, but Christian and Jewish too (yes, the attacks that killed 9 people in that American abortion clinic is Christian terrorism, just as is the Zionist expansionism of Israelis on the West Bank is Jewish terrorism).
The way and manner in which a writer is drawn to a political cause, or historical event, is by no means straightforward. I am not interested in the political nuances, the failed diplomacies, abortive wars, the West vs. East rhetoric… leave the chess games to the chess players. I am interested, have always been interested, by what drives people to religion and now, what drives them to extremism. These notions cannot be taken in a vacuum. Behind every terrorist and every terrorist’s mother there is a story in itself richer and more humbling than any story told in scriptures. In these stories there are underlying currents of what has always irrevocably intrigued writers and readers alike. The meaning of life: how do we make the most of our time on earth? Happiness: what is it and where do we even begin to pursue it? Death: what happens after we die, and how does it affect how we live?
But hold on. Let me take a step back. Let’s be critical for a moment and self-doubting. What do I, who live in (thus far) sheltered Malta, who have never experienced war, suffering, torture, fundamentalism (let alone Islamic fundamentalism!)… what do I know, what right do I have to even pretend to know any of the intimacies of what’s going on? How dare I, to put it thusly, throw myself into Syria for a novel when there are beleaguered Syrians desperate to escape Syria? If I ever wrote a novel about Syria and it’s plight, and it were published, how would I feel showing it to Syrians who have been there and done that? It has an air of condescension about it.
And another objection comes to mind, a little Jinn on my shoulders warning me away from political writing. One of the greatest novels of our time, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a product of its time and of the near-future, forever changed the life of its author and everyone associated with it (sounds like a bad blurb to a bad novel!). I say it’s one of the greatest novels, in actuality, not because of its subject matter, but because of the way it is exploding with stories, some fantastic, some downright chavy, others utterly poetic. I admire Rushdie’s particular brand of magic-realism because they always leave one with that infantile, even Dickensian feeling that stories and magic is indeed everywhere, even if you are a secularist. His stories tell us you don’t have to be religious (Rushdie is a finely-woven atheist cut from threadbare Muslim cloth) to appreciate the surreal, the fantastic, the magical. All his novels, especially Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, have the feel of timeless stories, written contemporarily unto posterity.
But after ten years of living in hiding, the big fat Fatwa looming over him, with violent rallies held all over Britain and the sub-continent against him, several book-burnings and burning effigies: was it all worth it? It is easy for me, a mere reader, to say yes. But am I being selfish? I would love to ask Rushdie that question one day, should the fates will it: if you could travel back in time, knowing what you now know, would you stop yourself writing The Satanic Verses?
In a sly footnote, it must be added, that what happened to Rushdie might be seen as a Franz Ferdinand moment (the Duke, not the band). The unprecedented Fatwa issued against him by the senile, illiterate self-styled spiritual leader of Iran, the hopeless Khomeini, was that shot in the dark, that starter pistol, that kicked off this new Cold War we are living in. Shame on us, however, for not having the foresight to take notice.
We are in a war, make no mistake, and not that cold one at that (could it ever be as it is a war inspired by desert-dwellers?). It is a war were the cast of enemy and ally is not clearly laid out. We know Daesh are the enemy. But what of Turkey and Russia, what of Muslims and Shias and Kurds and Yazidis? (Of course Kurds and Yazidis and a vast majority of Muslims are our allies – but listening to word on the street it sure doesn’t feel that way.) But in times of war, what is a writer’s responsibility? As I said before, the writer is and must not be under any obligation to align his or herself with any cause or movement. But can he remain idle?
Rushdie did not write in a time of war. But his was a novel that made his life a living hell. And just think: if The Satanic Verses had been published today, how much worse would it have been for Rushdie! It might not even have been published. So, does that mean that it needs to be written even more now, or even less? The answer is not so clear-cut. At least, not for a novelist like myself.
The kind of literature I admire is the kind of literature that is timeless, not rooted to a time or cause. Few people know much of Richard III’s reign, but they know of Shakespeare’s play. People seldom realise the social-realist commentary of Dickens, but they all remember the eloquence of tales like David Copperfield and Hard Times. And what of the beauty of Byron and Shelley’s poetry – they are a-historical as well as apolitical. And Oscar Wilde’s haunting fable The Picture of Dorian Gray: now that is art! It is art, no less, that ennobles the human condition without it having asked to be ennobled. There is far greater beauty and morality in literature in art than there is in all religion and even philosophy. There is something naturally foreboding in literature too, like the haunting Lolita or dark Crime and Punishment.
All the aforementioned works may have been inspired by their times and the hot potatoes of the day, but they produce something that is eternally relevant and poetic. The Satanic Verses have been denied that privilege. It is a timeless work. Endlessly beautiful. But, even if Rushdie didn’t intend it (how could he have, really?) it will forever be chained up to the politics that surrounded it and loudly preceded it. It has been exiled from the Parnassus of the Muses. Unjustly. That is the worst crime committed by those book-burners in Bradford and Bombay: their burning of beauty in favour of the eternal self-righteous flames. And you know what, I don’t want my novel to go through that ordeal. Give me the fires of inspiration not the flames of pestilential austerity.
So my new novel will, inevitably, be a product of its time. It will feature religious indoctrination, a background smatter of the booms of war, but deep down, it shall be a deeper look into something that has always fascinated humanity: the inner lives of children. Something I have been privileged enough to learn about first-hand in the last few years. More than that, I will use modern issues as a launching pad into timeless quandary. How do we deal with death, children especially? Is there such a thing as too much hedonism? What about religion, is it an enabler or a joy-kill?
There are two quotes that are driving this novel along. Quotes, uttered not by prophets or politicians, but writers. The first, a hauntingly poetic statement from the master of witticisms, Oscar Wilde: When the gods seek to punish us, they answer our prayers. The other is spoken by a fictional character in a fictional setting, Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov:
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?
This challenge, issued by Ivan to Alyosha, is another example of literature highlighting a quandary where no quandary existed before. Just as The Satanic Verses exposed a flaw in our society which no one had yet seen. Also as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol single-handedly created a new feast and a new lore, still revered by children and adults alike today almost two-hundred years later. I cannot claim to be in the same breath as these architects of humanity. Nor might I ever be. But I can damn well try to be! For, what is a writer’s duty, if not to enlighten his world with magic, wisdom, happiness and fulfillment?
So stay tuned, more quotes and posts will follow about this upcoming novel, which I hope to start in the coming weeks.