Who shall have control over the story? The grand narratives. Who allows or disallows them? Who decides what punishments shall follow on from perceived breaches?
Salman Rushdie’s posed this question in his autobiographical work Joseph Anton (2012) which I have recently re-read. It is a question that is more urgent than ever. For the ‘crime’ of having written The Satanic Verses – a novel claimed to be anti-Islam – Rushdie was sentenced to death, by a citizen he had never met of a country he had never visited.
Attempts to control ‘the story’ are only increasing as the world turns back to nationalistic governments and the word ‘security’ is regularly used as carte blanche for breaches of human rights.
Famed whistleblowers, journalists, artist and writers await their fate either in prison or exile, it is a question more urgent than ever. Do we know how much fear stalks the world of writing and publishing ? For those who peddle it, fear is its own reward.
Right now, there are countries in the world where journalists and writers live under constant threat of imprisonment or worse. Bloggers too. Pen International, an organization that works to protect freedom of thought and expression, regularly updates its website and hosts a Day of the Imprisoned Writer which reminds us:
With a murderous team of jihadists after his blood Rushdie entered a tunnel of fear, surveillance and protection, for himself and his family as well (at the time he had a young son), a scenario mostly terrifying, sometimes bleakly comic, trailing from borrowed property to borrowed property with a team of protection officers with varying degrees of patience.
He was fortunate (if that’s the right term) that these events just predated the internet age. At least someone had to look you in the eye to kill you back then. In fact the author admits that is probably the only reason he survived.
The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered; there were savage attacks on the Italian and Norwegian translators of the book although the latter two thankfully survived. These were people stood up with courage for their beliefs that somewhere, there has to be a bottom line. But what was the bottom line? Rushdie describes it as:
“the freedom of the imagination and the overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech, and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own countries without fear.”
We think that (within the laws of libel) we are free to think and write as we wish but it isn’t true. Whose story is this and who has the right to tell it? Who owns our history, our mythology, our religions? As Rushdie states:
In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom. But in a closed society those who possessed political or ideological power tried to shut down these debates. We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means. We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tell it any other way. If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state…
In the age of Julian Assange, the questions posed by this book are as relevant as ever. Perhaps not for people who like to believe everything they’re told by the newspapers, but for the rest of us, I recommend it.