When Salman Rushdie wrote, “I, too, like all emigrants, I am a fantasist” (Shame, 1983), he must have thought of me. He must have used that authorial, though migrating, first person “I” to describe none but me. A rude and immodest claim, I admit. For a literary critic, one would need a magnifying glass to find so egotistical and scandalous an interpretation. In fact, before I even penned this thought, I could already smell fire and brimstone in the form of my professor scurrying down the corridor. Yet, I heard no huffing and banging at my door, so I resisted the fear and typed the beginning, the migrant’s alpha.
Salman’s text continued, “I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the others that exist.” Again my neat, analytical power gave up on me, and I claimed out loud that Salman was not talking about Pakistan, or any other country imagined into existence in his fiction. Ultimately, he was speaking of the country of Being – literature. Already at that stage in his life, his concern was not with the imaginary countries with “real world” referents, but with literature as the imagined world space that comprises everything, an oasis fraught with fatality, like the Italian Villa in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. And, if he and you the reader will excuse my insistence on first names, it is Michael whom I will presently use to prove my point in a correctly scholarly fashion, of course.
The migrant Salman lost his country, his nativity, and his faith and found literature. I, the migrant, lost my country and my nativity, and found faith. Yet I also found literature or put more poetically, it found me. It followed me, shadowed me, caught me up, walled me in, “enhoused’ me, “encountried” me. Phantasmagorical or not, like nation’s state, this country of literature has it’s borders. I trespass these borders in my proper readings and misreadings proper. Last year I wrote obsessively about rape. To use that infamously strong word, I could perhaps suggest that I ravished a lot of literature, but also that it violated me like two kids in a sandbox or two grizzled politicians. My country and I are daily arguing about who started the quarrel, the conflict, the war. All good literature is a fight with something at stake. All good criticism is by the same token an elaborate quarrel, some kind of damsel always needs to be saved and lots of things are damaged in the quest. Yet to me, this utter war zone is founded on intimacy, which I believe is brimming with, for instance, Michael’s work. Violence is no doubt present, but only because of the great intimacy I have with this imaginary homeland. This violent intimacy, then, grounds the problematic marriage between literature and scholarly work.
To further expand this claim, I will now take recourse to an anecdote. Once (upon time), a professor told me I had to fall in love with an author (not several, only one), meaning I needed to stay focused, but he also implied the one author of which he would approve. I found this demanded love undeliverable because I was already in love with an author. In fact, I was cheating on that one with a whole range of other authors. That same day, as a member of the Swedish PEN, I was asked to suggest a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize, and everything started to clear up. It was a most kind invitation and an opportunity for an aspiring researcher, and therefore, a demand on my skills as well. For two months, Iwas lost in a state of inadequacy to propose anyone. My fear was as equally justified as anyone else’s, no matter how well read one was and I was basically confined to English literature. Yet, my immediate choice was Michael. I was at the time most violently intimate with his books. To me, he comprised seriousness and lightness, profound familiarity and strangeness, poetry and prose (besides, it is about time that a poet gets the prize, don’t you think).
In addition, I knew my candidate would be just a needle in a haystack. I had no illusions that my word would in any near future put the writer before an applauding crowd dressed in the same old, important-looking attire. In fact, this suggestion was aimed at the Swedish PEN, which has the right to propose a viable candidate. The PEN picks the best option out of some dozen presentations made by scholars, journalists, artists etc., and conveys it to the Nobel committee, which then stacks it under its own hay.
At the warm PEN meeting on a freezing January night, many were there to listen and vote, old and young literature lovers, fantastic people. An old fan and translator of Michael’s poetry into Swedish was present, as well as Michael’s Swedish publisher. To say the least, they were excited and enthusiastic even before I began to speak. Still, the wretched thing remained – justification. My scholarly incisors dulled, though not because I had dull news to convey. It was like choosing the capital of a homeland that belonged to all and no one, the one everybody wanted to live in and felt most intimate with. To put it dramatically, it was like dividing Jerusalem between the claimers of primal belonging.
As much as I felt some kind of learned reverence for this powerful and nearly irresistible award, my imaginary homeland of literature seemed violated by this accolade as much as it was put on the sacred pedestal of protection. Somehow this upheaval of literature through the emphasis on one of its parts flattened it. It posited the capital as the country and the country as the capital, be it the largest city or not. “India is Indira and Indira is India”, as Saleem Sinai keeps repeating in Midnight’s Children (1989), ironically or not.
A country is not its capital. Whoever writes and reads in a genuinely intimate (also inevitably violent) manner knows that literature pulled into political premises of grandeur can no longer hold ice cubes, let alone water. The laureate, the temporary capital, becomes a mined oasis, a city under shelling like Sarajevo in Salman’s “Bosnia on My Mind” (Index on Censorship 23:1/2, 1994). The ephemeral and also (partly) imaginary capital is heaved above all other cities, towns and villages. In this process, to put it even more dramatically, it is burnt while rising out of the cinders of oblivion, like some desperate Phoenix forced to enact all its essential characteristics at once. Many an honored writer has lamented the devastating effects of this gift, and few have been able to go back to being regular and functioning cities and villages. The Nobel Prize thus seemed pointless and detrimental, yet its power was irrefutable and I wanted to be in the game.
I asked myself why do we so violate this imaginary country that we have built from scratch and which perhaps gives birth to us, like a real mother(land). Rationality does not seem to help in the equation, because we would have rid ourselves of the prizes a long time ago. To wrap the whole thing up with one of my far-fetched and violating interpretations, I think it is because we feel such great intimacy with literature that we sometimes find it unbearable. It is like the English Patient’s intimacy with the desert, its winds and oases. Still, inadequate and violent as I may feel, I am finding literature, and it is finding me. It shadows me, catches me, and “enhouses” me. It “encountries” me, the migrant.