From Rushdie to Catton
Like Plunkett, Farrar thinks that Catton ought not to have brought her politics to Jaipur:
We don’t tend to mind criticism at home, but we do get worked up, when people knock their country overseas...Your choice of forum to talk politics is perhaps not the best. A campaign launch is an excellent choice to talk politics. A global literary festival seems rather inappropriate for you to rage against the so called neo-liberal agenda in New Zealand...
If an All Black in 2008 had got up at an international test match and devoted his after match comments to how much he hated the nanny state policies of the then Labour Government, well they would have been criticised greatly also.
Catton became widely known in New Zealand when her novel The Luminaries was awarded the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is perhaps the most famous of all the novels to win the Booker, and there’s an interesting similarity between the responses that the young Rushdie got in the aftermath of his victory in 1981 and the criticism that Catton is copping now.
Midnight’s Children led readers through the modern history of India, and as soon as it took out the Booker Prize Rushdie was being asked for his opinion about the political situation of his homeland. Then as now, Rushdie was not afraid of offering opinions. In an impromptu speech at the dinner where the Booker was awarded, he mocked the Congress Party regime of Indira Gandhi and suggested that she and her diplomatic representatives in London should not try to associate themselves with his success.
Long before he upset Islamic fundamentalists with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had become a hate figure for the Congress Party and the Indian political establishment. Like Catton, he was condemned as a traitor, because he criticised his country's government in front of foreign audiences.
But Rushdie kept expressing his opinions, whenever he turned up to a book festival or gave an interview, for the same reason that Catton will surely keep expressing her opinions. Despite what Farrar implicitly claims, literature is not some some sort of harmless and meaningless game, like rugby or chess or marbles, that can be pursued and discussed in isolation from the rest of the world. Ever since Aristophanes attacked the political establishment of Athens and Petronious satirised Rome’s ruling class, literature has been a place where the world is examined and judged, and where ideas, including political ideas, contend and quarrel.
Eleanor Catton was invited to the Jaipur festival to discuss the long and ambitious novel she wrote about New Zealand. It is hardly surprising that the festival's organisers and audiences were interested in her opinions about New Zealand society. When he suggests that Catton should have avoided any discussion of her homeland's political and economic situation, and instead offered up some of the cliches and platitudes that dominate speeches at sports awards dinners, David Farrar shows how little he knows about literature and the men and women who produce and read literature.
New Zealand’s writers have long been critical of their society and its various governments. James K Baxter called New Zealand a ‘sick society’, and Auckland a ‘great arsehole'; RAK Mason denounced this country as a ‘far-pitched place’ where poets had a ‘perilous existence'; Frank Sargeson compared his studies of Kiwi life to reports composed for a sewage board. When they scrutinise and criticise their own society, our writers show loyalty to the critical values nurtured thousands of years ago by scribblers like Aristophanes, and their disloyalty to political elites and their shibboleths.
In 2012 Salman Rushdie was forced to cancel an appearance at the Jaipur festival after his Indian enemies once again denounced him, and eventually threatened violence if he were allowed to take the stage. It is sad that the aftermath of this year's festival has seen prominent and powerful New Zealanders aiming denunciations at one of their own writers.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]