“Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”
— George Bernard Shaw
I met Salman Rushdie once, in 2005 or 2006, at a reading and book signing in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. His novel, Shalimar the Clown, had just been released, and having been a great fan of Midnight’s Children, I decided to attend and to have him sign Clown, which I had already read. As a writer, Rushdie is a god, but he’s also an interesting intellectual who socializes with rock stars, movie stars, and other titans of literature. He’s also been a controversial figure for his work, and a target for extremists who have called for his death ever since the publication of The Satanic Verses. Meeting him, I was reminded of the dangers of being a writer.
On August 12, 2022, Rushdie was stabbed multiple times prior to giving a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York. Twenty-four-year-old Hadi Matar, a Shi'ite Muslim American from New Jersey, was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Rushdie suffered multiple wounds and is now blind in one eye. He has written a memoir of the event that is set to be released, and he’s currently been in the news because the memoir he wrote may delay the accused attacker’s trial. (My personal opinion is it sickens me to see the clarifier “accused” put before Matar’s name: the attack happened on camera for the world to see. At any rate, the attack, as well as the fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for Rushdie’s assassination back in 1989, remind us that words matter, and that, unfortunately, irrational people are included in that equation. According to RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, “An Iranian foundation close to the country's Islamic government has praised [Matar] . . . offering him a reward of farmland.” Matar was born in the U.S. to parents who emigrated from southern Lebanon.
Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel, the author of Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, was a Russian writer, playwright, journalist, and literary translator, as well as “the greatest writer of Russian Jewry.” Just shy of his 46th birthday, on May 15, 1939, Babel was arrested by the NKVD (the Russian People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which was the interior ministry of the Soviet Union) and claimed a “nonperson.” Under Joseph Stalin, the NKVD was an organization of political repression and mass extrajudicial executions as well as the creator of the Gulag system of forced labor camps (Wikipedia). Babel was executed on the 27th of January 1940, by firing squad, for “terrorism and espionage.” Stalin was, to say the least, not fond of Babel’s work.
To stay with writers in Russia, one cannot avoid the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. A journalist and human rights activist, Politkovskaya, in Putin’s Russia, was known to play with fire. Best known for her reporting on the Second Chechen War, Politkovskaya worked for the well-known newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, “an independent Russian newspaper known for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs (Wikipedia).”
Like many Putin critics, the brave Politkovskaya, who wrote Putin’s Russia: Life in a Falling Democracy, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya (with Alexander Burry, et al.), A Dirty War (with Thomas de Waal), and other books, was found murdered on October 7, 2006. She was shot in the elevator of her apartment building, after previous death threats and having been poisoned at a conference in Vienna organized by Reporters Without Borders less than a year before her murder. Her murder occurred on Vladimir Putin’s birthday. The conference was on freedom of the press.
If you’ve ever been to Granada, Spain, the wonderful city in Andalusia known for the Alhambra castle, you know that it’s the birthplace of Frederico Garcia Lorca. Lorca was a Spanish poet and dramatist, who became famous for his book of poems, Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads), which was published in 1928. I lived in Spain, in Granada, in 2001, and have previously lived in Madrid, another great city in a country close to my heart. But times were different during Lorca’s life. Friends with the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, the artist Salvador Dali, and many other artists and intellectuals of the time, Lorca traveled extensively, giving lectures, writing, and involving himself in social action after having witnessed the ills put upon certain minorities around the world. He returned to Spain in 1930 with the fall of Primo de Rivera where, the following year, he was appointed director of Teatro Universitario La Barraca, which was a student theater company.
Lorca, a homosexual in a time and place where homosexuality was looked down upon (as it still is today in many, many countries), was arrested on August 19, 1936, the same day his brother-in-law (and the new mayor of Granada), Manuel Fernández-Montesinos, was assassinated. He’d been in office less than a week. Later that day, Lorca met the same fate as his brother-in-law, executed by fascists at a place known as Fuente Grande, though why has always been open for debate (though the reasons, in my opinion, aren’t hard to imagine). I’ve been there, or driven by, the supposed exact spot where the fascists of that day took his life. It’s a peaceful place, marred by the horror of history, and a reminder of what evil men in power do to those who oppose their views.
Lorca’s elegy, “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” known in English as “Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter,” is composed of four parts, and is probably his most famous poem. It is about Lorca’s friend, who died after being gored by a bull during a bullfight. The first lines are these:
At five in the afternoon. It was exactly five in the afternoon. A boy brought the white sheet at five in the afternoon. A trail of lime ready prepared at five in the afternoon. The rest was death, and death alone. - Federico García Lorca
I prefer the Spanish version, as the translation provides a more somber and appropriate mood for what Lorca was trying to convey. The first two lines in Spanish: “A las cinco de la tarde. Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde,” offers an exclamation of more precision, particularly because of the use of the word “punto,” rather than the translation to the word “exactly,” which I find slightly inaccurate. That’s just my preference and opinion, as a Spanish speaker.
1936 was the start of the Spanish Civil War, and the beginning of Francisco Franco’s reign, which lasted until his death in 1975. Countless Spaniards died during that time, many of them artists of one sort or another, simply because of the subject matter of their works and the social and political activism in which they participated. It was a shame then, and it’s a shame now.
Here, in America, the banning of books hasn’t yet led to any writer’s assassination, as far as I know. But we’re on a slippery slope, and that slope is only getting more slippery with each instance of the suppression of freedom of speech. I won’t go into the politics of it—we’re all very aware of what’s going on in this country. But I think there’s a laxity on the book banning issue, just as there is on the attacks of freedom of speech and on the legitimate reporters out there just trying to do their jobs, which is tell the truth of what’s happening in this country, and to do so with unbiased, objective eyes. As a writer myself, I cannot help but write about the injustices, the lying, the manipulation, the misinformation and disinformation and ugly, vulgar rhetoric I’m seeing daily on the news, on social media, and coming out of the mouths of politicians who seem to prefer to throw shots at their political rivals rather than doing the jobs they were hired by the American people to do.
That said, not all artists focus on such things, and that’s fine. An artist’s job is to create art that they are compelled to create. The writing that gets me excited, that I return to over and over again, is writing that holds up a mirror to the ills of this world. Writing that highlights the dangers inherent in all societies at some point in their existence, given the right circumstances. I want to know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and my writing is how I express the things that bother me about these things. It’s why I’m a writer, and what draws me, every day, to the blank page.
We, as one world, need artists as much as we need bankers and farmers, teachers and law enforcement. Art is a vehicle that allows us to understand the things we don’t understand. It is a tool that provides us, ideally, with the questions we require as a people to delve further into the difficult subject matter that leaves us perplexed and, unfortunately, to attempt to comprehend how, throughout history, mass tragedies and injustices are perpetrated on the many by the few. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?” What difference indeed.
Cully Perlman is a novelist and substantive editor. He may be reached at Cully@novelmasterclass.com