ANALYSIS: FREEDOM of SPEECH; to Offend or Not to Offend? the Knighthood for Salman Rushdie Earlier This Year Reignited Debate about Art and Censorship. Former Birmingham Poet Laureate Roshan Doug Puts the Case for Artistic Freedom

Article excerpt

Byline: Roshan Doug

It's October 1988: I've just been appointed a residential tutor at Nottingham University where I've just embarked on my postgraduate studies in modern English literature. And, as I'm getting used to my new literary environment, I've noticed that one or two highbrow academics in the English department are reading - or trying to read - The Satanic Verses, a new novel by an author I came across during my undergraduate days - Salman Rushdie.

He's the very same writer whose collection of stories - looking at the psychology of postcolonial generation of Indians and their relationship with the wider world - entitled, Midnight's Children (1981), gained him fame, notoriety and literary acclaim.

Now in terms of reading, that collection was manageable because it was essentially short stories, informative, accessible and easy to get into. In contrast - and at a glance - this new novel is rather a thick hardback and gives me a sinking feeling as I register the daunting implication that it's probably in the primary reading list on my course.

But only a few days later theocratic clerics in Iran, led primarily by Ayatollah Khomeini, issue our author with a fatwa. It's effectively a call to the Muslims to assassinate Rushdie and the book is banned as bookshops and libraries remove their copies.

As far as the clerics are concerned it's a desecration of the Islamic faith, an insult to The Quran, Mohammed and Allah. It always annoys me that extremists make no distinction between art and factuality. To them they're one and the same thing.

And through this madness and irrational thinking they call for his death because it's all or nothing in the Middle East. Within hours, for instance, a significant proportion of the Muslim population throughout the world is up in arms and is burning copies of this book and effigies of Rushdie in front of the international media.

Our shores are no exception as groups congregate in city centres to publicise their disdain and hatred towards the author, the book and the publishers, Viking.

In a cynical way it was publicity of which a publisher couldn't even dream. It even dwarfed the 1960's localised moral British controversy over Penguin's intention to publish D.H. Lawrence's risque novel Lady Chatterley's Lover - something that was challenged under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959. The Satanic Verses, however, went world wide in a truly global sense.

And in a perverse kind of way, I too, though overloaded with work, immediately had a burning desire to read whatever it was that was causing so much offence. Other academics and students on campus are doing the same thing, carrying copies of the book hidden in innocuous coverings as if it contained the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. But looking back now, and if truth be known, I couldn't get through more than the first 20-odd pages.

Even then I had doubts about its plot, albeit based only on a series of skim readings and a random flicking-through the novel. I remember thinking how flawed and disengaging it was as a narrative, made up of a fragmentation of scenes. It was a montage of images (some of sexual nature) with perpetual encyclopaedic references to art, philosophy, literature and politics that alienated me due its pretentious presentation.

And structurally it seemed to me rather unnecessarily disjointed - I couldn't see the relevance or the relationship between some of the scenes or the characters and their settings. To me it was little more than a hotchpotch of a novel that failed to deliver. I've had more enjoyment reading J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books than I've had in trying to plough my way through that drivel called The Satanic Verses.

Yet still in 1988 a fatwa was issued and the rest, as you know, is history - Rushdie goes into hiding and makes a lot of money, whilst everyone else debates the rights and wrongs of producing a controversial work of literature. …