You know, you gotta have an armchair, and a roof over your head, for which you aren’t liable to pay a monthly sum, princely or paltry, for possessing that roof, even if leaky and fragile, not to speak of the floor, carpeted or otherwise, for your feet to tread on, to be able to convey your philosophy of existence, however mundane or exalted it may be, for the opinion expressed to be considered of any consequence, irrespective of the label of religion or nationality, acquired by birth or incidence…
In 1994, I found myself working for Qatar Airways, not a privilege by itself, to boast of, I mean, but in the very first flight that landed in Chennai, I had a Ms. Pat O’Toole confronting me on a bleary November morning that year, stating that in the very inaugural flight, of that august airline, come a long way since then, that her baggage had not arrived, and that she had nothing more with her than what she wore. Notwithstanding all my frailties, given the thumb-rule that the personal and professional should not mix, I did ask her whether she was in any way related to the great actor Peter O’Toole ( just barely managed not to mention the prefix, Sir ), whose role in Sir David Lean’s movie Lawrence of Arabia, the role and movie still ranked among the greatest of all time, and she replied in the positive. I did say that it was an honour and privilege to meet her, and she retorted that it was neither honour nor privilege for her to meet me, given the circumstances.
It’s one movie that both the public and critics rave about, half a century later; and among the many features that makes it great, is the script and screenplay, which in several scenes is sheer poetry in prose form. While scouring the net, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was not alone, in the whole wide world, to appreciate this.
In one sequence mid-way, there is a classic exchange between Arab Chief Auda ( Anthony Quinn ) and Colonel Brighton ( Anthony Quayle ) , with Lawrence in between:
Auda Abu Tayi / Anthony Quinn Colonel Brighton / Anthony Quayle
It goes like this:
AUDA Yes, the year is running out, Brighton. I must find something honourable. AUDA Now, you may blow up my train. BRIGHTON And what will you do now? AUDA Oh, now I go home. They will carry my toys. They will carry my toys, too, do you see? BRIGHTON Major Lawrence will campaign this winter, but you've got what you wanted so you're going home. Is that it? AUDA Of course! When Aurens has got what he wants, he will go home. When you have got what you want, you will go home. BRIGHTON Oh, no, I shan't, Auda. AUDA Then you are a fool. BRIGHTON Maybe. I am not a deserter. AUDA Give thanks to God, Brighton, that when he made you a fool, he gave you a fool's face. BRIGHTON You are an impudent rascal! AUDA I must go, Aurens, before I soil myself with a fool's blood. BRIGHTON It's like talking to a brick wall. So, what'll you do now? What can you do?
That verbal exchange may well be the closest
two people could go to, without getting into
the physical. And it did not get into the
nuances or semantics that makes the English
language go head and shoulders above the rest.
And scribes of today would do well to have a look at the following excerpt from Pickwick Papers, which has Dickens' insight coming through as clear as his take on the legal system in the book. Would do well to recall, that the two young men with surgical knives, Mr. Bob Sawyer and Mr. Ben Allen, were professionally termed "saw-bones", and thanks to modern-day advancement in medical sciences, called surgeons.
This excerpt is on a chance meeting of two "gentlemen" of the fourth estate, from rival newspapers. Read on, please: full credit to Dickens, the master story-teller.
Now although Mr. Pickwick feigned to stand aghast at this disclosure, he was so little versed in local politics that he was unable to form anadequate comprehension of the importance of thedire conspiracy it referred to;observing which Mr. Pott, drawing forth the last number of the EatanswillGazette, and referring to the same,
delivered himself of the following paragraph:—
There is a readership that, if not actually mourns, at least feels a void about the absence of such literates being at loggerheads, which English particularly seems to facilitate. In India, in living memory, only Karanjia’s Blitz, and the weekly tabloid Current, now both defunct, provided a source of delight, representing the far Left and the far Right.
But such head-on verbal conflagration, reached a zenith, when my two favourite writers, John le Carre and Salman Rushdie, crossed swords.
It is probably le Carre who started it, by criticising that Rushdie was ” not propah ” in denigrating a ” great religion ” , in this case, Islam. Having read quite a bit of Rushdie’s books and articles, all I can say is, while le Carre may be right in his view, in all fairness, Rushdie is poking fun in different measures, at various faiths, both prevalent and extinct, from time to time, in his writing, but why deny a writer’s prerogative ? I have enjoyed reading Rushdie, and certainly can’t claim to be exalted enough to cast a stone at him, whether it be first or last, or any in between. And a pusillanimous Rushdie , had to see a movie where he was represented as a villain of the piece, in a full burqa, but even in the enlightened UK, he did not press charges on the movie-makers for libel, no doubt grateful too, that there was a government to provide him protection at the tax-payers’ expense.
But now to the exchange between the two literary heavy-weights, with a preliminary review, by Mr. Warren Hoge:
London Journal: All Is Not Lost: Art of Insult Survives ‘New Britain’
By WARREN HOGE
ONDON, Nov. 26 — Just when people nostalgic for a pricklier Britain were lamenting that the country was losing its touch for the wounding insult, two of the country’s best-known writers have come to the rescue with a cascade of abusive comments about one another.
In a week of correspondence of growing vituperativeness, Salman Rushdie has called John le Carre ”an illiterate pompous ass,” and Mr. le Carre has replied that Mr. Rushdie is ”self-canonizing” and ”arrogant,” blinded by the pursuit of increased royalties for himself from the physical danger that sales of his book posed to others.
The exchanges have taken place in a time-honored arena for mudslinging in Britain, the letters page of a newspaper, The Guardian. While other parts of the paper were covering the continuing push in high places to have Britain portrayed as a sensitive, caring, compassionate nation, Mr. le Carre and Mr. Rushdie were striking blows in the letters columns for the tradition of literary invective.
The feud began when Mr. le Carre complained that he had become the victim of a witch hunt by zealots of ”political correctness” in the United States aimed at portraying him as anti-Semitic.
When he learned of the comment, Mr. Rushdie said he wished Mr. le Carre had had the same concern for him when he became the target of the fatwa declared by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. That directive called on Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie because of his perceived slighting of Islam in his book ”The Satanic Verses.”
Mr. le Carre made his observations in a speech to the Anglo-Israel Association this month, an extract of which was published in The Guardian on Nov. 15. He said the issue first arose in a 1996 New York Times review of his book ”The Tailor of Panama” that said his portrayal of his principal character, a Judas figure, suggested a preoccupation with the notion of the Jew as traitor.
The current battle was joined a week ago when Mr. Rushdie wrote a letter for publication saying he couldn’t sympathize with the complaint because Mr. le Carre had been ”so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer.”
The campaign he alluded to was an effort by Mr. le Carre and others to persuade Mr. Rushdie to halt distribution of paperback versions of his book because of the threat of harm aimed at people selling it.
”In 1989,” Mr. Rushdie said, ”during the worst days of the Islamic attack on ‘The Satanic Verses,’ le Carre wrote an article in which he eagerly and rather pompously joined forces with my assailants.”
He suggested it would be ”gracious” of Mr. le Carre to ”admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now that, at least in his own opinion, he’s the one in the firing line.”
The next day Mr. le Carre responded with a letter calling Mr. Rushdie ”arrogant,” ”colonialist” and ”self-righteous,” saying: ”Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming Rushdie to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity.”
He went on to say that in recommending a halt in distribution of the paperback version he was ”more concerned about the girl in Penguin Books who might get her hands blown off in the mail room than I was about Rushdie’s royalties.”
The next day it was Mr. Rushdie’s epistolary turn. ”I’m grateful to John le Carre for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be,” the letter began. He said he had examined the ”lofty formulation” put forward by Mr. le Carre and concluded that ”it suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.”
Mr. Rushdie’s letter was ”vile,” shot back Mr. le Carre, an edict from his ”throne” proclaiming that ”our cause is absolute, it brooks no dissent or qualification; whoever questions it is by definition an ignorant pompous, semi-literate unperson.” The letter, he said, should be required reading for all British high school students as an example of ”cultural intolerance masquerading as free speech.”
Mr. Rushdie responded: ”John le Carre appears to believe I would prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging. Me, I’m going back to work.”
Some historical footnotes have emerged that may account for the high levels of vitriol. In October 1989, Mr. Rushdie was asked by The Independent on Sunday to critique Mr. le Carre’s ”Russia House.” From his hideaway, Mr. Rushdie sent in a review that mocked Mr. le Carre’s pretension to be considered more than a successful popular writer, concluding, ”Close, but — this time anyway — no cigar.”
In his Nov. 15 article Mr. le Carre said he was warned by friends of the futility of responding to the Times review that appeared on Oct. 20, 1996, which he contended ”smeared” him as an anti-Semite. The review, by Norman Rush, a novelist, praised the book as a ”tour de force” but faulted it for portraying the principal character, a Jew, as ”yet another literary avatar of Judas.” Mr. Rush said the association, ”however little Mr. le Carre intended it,” left him with a feeling of ”unease.”
Mr. le Carre described his reaction in the article, saying, ”I realized that we were dealing not with offbeat accusations of anti-Semitism so much as the whole oppressive weight of political correctness, a kind of McCarthyite movement in reverse.” He said he wished he had ignored his friends’ advice and gone ahead and written to The Times.
But in fact he did. The Times published his letter complaining that he had been ”tarred with the anti-Semitic brush.” on Nov. 3, 1996, along with a response from Mr. Rush denying the contention. ”I have not said or implied that Mr. le Carre is an anti-Semite, and I do not think it,” Mr. Rush wrote.
Mr. le Carre and Mr. Rushdie now appear to have vacated the ring, but others have leaped in. William Shawcross, an author and journalist who is a declared friend of both men, said he felt Mr. Rushdie’s claims were ”outrageous” and carried the ”stink of triumphalist self-righteousness.”
Asked if there was any more to come, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, said today that he had asked Mr. Rushdie if he cared to respond to Mr. Shawcross and that the writer’s answer was: ”If le Carre wants to get his friends to do a little proxy whinging, that’s his business. I’ve said what I have to say.”
An additional comment, notable for its equitable abusiveness, was contributed by a past master of the art of ”slanging,” Richard Ingrams, the former editor of the satirical weekly Private Eye. He said: ”As I have a low opinion of both of them and can’t bear to read either of their works, I must say I think they are both as bad as each other. Perhaps the solution is they should both sit down and write a book together.”
This is an exchange of letters to the editor by authors Salman Rushdie, John le Carré, and Christopher Hitchens in the British daily The Guardian. Rushdie wrote his initial letter to a speech by le Carré, excerpted in the November 15, 1997, issue of the The Guardian, in which le Carré complains of having been unfairly labeled an anti-Semite the previous fall in The New York Times Book Review. Rushdie, who lives under sentence of death by the Iranian government since early 1989, upbraids le Carré for sympathizing with the Islamic fundamentalists who would seek to murder him.
November 18, 1997,
John le Carré complains that he has been branded an anti-Semite as a result of a politically correct witch-hunt and declares himself innocent of the charge. It would be easier to sympathize with him had he not been so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer.
In 1989, during the worst days of the Islamic attack on The Satanic Verses, le Carré wrote an article (also, if memory serves, in The Guardian) in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.
It would be gracious if he were to admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now that, at least in his own opinion, he’s the one in the line of fire.
Novemer 19, 1997
Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming him to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.
I wrote that there is no absolute standard of free speech in any society. I wrote that tolerance does not come at the same time, and in the same form, to all religions and cultures, and that Christian society too, until very recently, defined the limits of freedom by what was sacred. I wrote, and would write again today, that when it came to the further exploitation of Rushdie’s work in paperback form, I was more concerned about the girl at Penguin books who might get her hands blown off in the mailroom than I was about Rushdie’s royalties. Anyone who had wished to read the book by then had ample access to it.
My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound less arrogant, less colonialist, and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.
John le Carré
November 20, 1997,
I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be. He claims not to have joined in the attack against me but also states that “there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.”
A cursory examination of this lofty formulation reveals that (1) it takes the philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist line that The Satanic Verses was no more than an “insult,” and (2) it suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.
So, if John le Carré upsets Jews, all he needs to do is fill a page of The Guardian with his muddled bombast, but if I am accused of thought crimes, John le Carré will demand that I suppress my paperback edition. He says that he is more interested in safeguarding publishing staff than in my royalties. But it is precisely these people, my novel’s publishers in some thirty countries, together with the staff of bookshops, who have most passionately supported and defended my right to publish. It is ignoble of le Carré to use them as an argument for censorship when they have so courageously stood up for freedom.
John le Carré is right to say that free speech isn’t absolute. We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don’t defend. I’d always thought George Smiley knew that. His creator appears to have forgotten.
November 20, 1997
John le Carré’s conduct in your pages is like nothing so much as that of a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head. He used to be evasive and euphemistic about the open solicitation of murder, for bounty, on the grounds that ayatollahs had feelings, too. Now he tells us that his prime concern was the safety of the girls in the mailroom. For good measure, he arbitrarily counterposes their security against Rushdie’s royalties.
May we take it, then, that he would have had no objection if The Satanic Verses had been written and published for free and distributed gratis from unattended stalls? This might have at least satisfied those who appear to believe that the defense of free expression should be free of cost and free of risk.
As it happens, no mailroom girls have been injured in the course of eight years’ defiance of the fatwah. And when the nervous book chains of North America briefly did withdraw The Satanic Verses on dubious grounds of “security,” it was their staff unions who protested and who volunteered to stand next to plate-glass windows in upholding the reader’s right to buy and peruse any book. In le Carré’s eyes, their brave decision was taken in “safety” and was moreover blasphemous towards a great religion! Could we not have been spared this revelation of the contents of his hat – I mean head?
November 21, 1997
Anyone reading yesterday’s letters from Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens might well ask himself into whose hands the great cause of free speech he has fallen. Whether from Rushdie’s throne on Hitchens’s gutter, the message is the same: “Our cause is absolute, it brooks no dissent or qualification; whoever questions it is by definition an ignorant, pompous, semi-literate unperson.”
Rushdie sneers at my language and trashes a thoughtful and well-received speech I made to the Anglo-Israel Association, and which The Guardian saw fit to reprint. Hitchens portrays me as a buffoon who pours his own urine on his head. Two rabid ayatollahs could not have done a better job. But will the friendship last? I am amazed that Hitchen’s has put up with Rushdie’s self-canonization for so long. Rushdie, so far as I can make out, does not deny the fact that he insulted a great religion. Instead he accuses me – note his preposterous language for a change – of taking the philistine reductionist radical Islamist line. I didn’t know I was so clever.
What I do know is, Rushdie took on a known enemy and screamed “foul” when it acted in character. The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn’t make a martyr of him, nor – much as he would like it to – does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall.
John le Carré
November 22, 1997
If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning how to read. It’s true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. “Ignorant” and “semi-literate” are dunces’ caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn’t dream of removing them. Le Carré’s habit of giving himself good reviews (“my thoughtful and well-received speech”) was no doubt developed because, well, somebody has to write them. He accuses me of not having done the same for myself. “Rushdie,” says the dunce, “does not deny he insulted a great world religion.” I have no intention of repeating yet again my many explications of The Satanic Verses, a novel of which I remain extremely proud. A novel, Mr. le Carré, not a gibe. You know what a novel is, don’t you, John?
Now may I have the last word on this, if you will :
May God grant, like to yours truly, a long life to both John and Salman ( got on first-name terms with the stalwarts because of the above exchange ) , and death to both these gentlemen purely due to natural causes and old-age related ailments and infirmities. Yet, John would do well to venture into the sub-continent, and give the benefit of his experience and skills as one of the most eminent authors in the world, which Salman was foolhardy enough, albeit phenomenally successful, with his Midnight’s Children.
Should get the inimitable John the knighthood he no doubt very richly deserves. Not that that alone should motivate, given that worldwide, speaking for Mother Earth, the change has been indeed made for a different world, since the time that John began to put pen on paper. And brooding types may wonder, perhaps, if it is yet meaningful to say ” plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose ” (The more things change, the more they remain the same)
Please be up to it, Sir !
Or if you would have it that, the book I wait to get my hands on, Our kind of Traitor < Gaddaar, ( as they say in Urdu, rather strong implications, that )> is your final denouement and swan-song, so be it !