Salman Rushdie vs. Pankaj Mishra on Mo Yan


First, Pankaj Mishra in the Guardian:

The possibility of friction with either the authoritarian state or non-state actors (political and religious extremists) often makes for a degree of self-censorship. At the same time, the need for obliqueness can also make the literary imagination more resourceful.

Such is the case with Mo Yan's deeply interesting fiction. His writing, however, has hardly been mentioned, let alone assessed, by his most severe western critics; it is his political choices for which he stands condemned. They are indeed deplorable, but do we ever expose the political preferences of Mo Yan's counterparts in the west to such harsh scrutiny?

In fact, we almost never judge British and American writers on their politics alone. It would seem absurd to us if the Somali, Yemeni or Pakistani victims of Barack Obama's drone assaults, miraculously empowered with a voice in the international arena, accused the US president's many literary fans of trying to put a human face on his unmanned killing machines; or if they denounced Ian McEwan, who once had tea with Laura Bush and Cherie Blair at 10 Downing Street, as a patsy for the Anglo-American nexus that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions more.

Nevertheless, they would not be wrong to detect an unexamined assumption lurking in the western scorn for Mo Yan's proximity to the Chinese regime: that Anglo-American writers, naturally possessed of loftier virtue, stand along with their governments on the right side of history.

Rushdie responds, also in the Guardian:

Pankaj Mishra (Why Salman Rushdie should pause before condemning Mo Yan on censorship, Review, 15 December) makes a series of confused, dishonest and wrong-headed assertions. He misreads John Updike's “blue mailboxes” speech at the Pen congress of 1986. Updike was not talking selfishly about sending away his writing and receiving cheques in return. He was using the mailboxes as a metaphor of the easy, free exchange of ideas and information in an open society. One presumes Mishra is in favour of such a society.

He also misrepresents me. I have never made the claim that the Bush administration was resolved “to bring democracy through war in Afghanistan”. I did say that, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the reprisal attack against the al-Qaida-Taliban axis was justifiable, not to “bring democracy”, but to respond to an act of war. In Afghanistan a terrorist group had taken over the levers of a nation state and used that state as a base from which to attack the United States. For all I know, Mishra may feel that instead of fighting back, America should have apologized to al-Qaida for its foreign policy misdeeds and accepted that those killed in the Trade Centre towers deserved to die. I do not accuse him of that. Neither should he accuse me of what I did not say.

But Mishra has stranger fish to fry. Not content with attacking Nabokov, Bellow, Updike, Martin Amis and myself for “selective humanism”, he states: “Of course, violence and exploitation underpin all nation states, democratic or not.” This – what shall I call it? – this satanic view of human society as invariably founded upon evil is his reason for proposing the existence of a moral equivalence between powerful democracies and powerful tyrannies, and between writers' responses to living in free and unfree societies.