Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | February 20, 2014

Bookish Links: Salman Rushdie, Tony Judt, Boccaccio, and so on

Old Bailey 2012

1. In The Guardian, barrister Geoffrey Robertson contributes to an article, “Looking back at Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,” marking the 25th anniversary this month of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the author. Robertson recalls a libel suit in Britain against Rushdie and his publisher:

It was not long before a private prosecutor tried to issue a summons against the author of The Satanic Verses to attend, at the Old Bailey, his trial for blasphemous libel. The magistrate refused, so the prosecutor appealed to the High Court, where 13 Muslim barristers attempted to get the book banned, but their action forced them to draft an indictment against Rushdie and his publishers specifying with legal precision the way in which the novel had blasphemed.

Our opponents could in the end only allege six blasphemies in the book, and each one was based either on a misreading or on theological error:

God is described in the book as “The Destroyer of Man”. As He is similarly described in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, especially of men who are unbelievers or enemies of the Jews.

The book contains criticisms of the prophet Abraham for his conduct towards Hagar and Ismael, their son. Abraham deserves criticism and is not seen as without fault in Islamic, Christian or Jewish traditions.

Rushdie refers to Muhammad as “Mahoud”. He called him variously “a conjuror”, “a magician” and a “false prophet”. Rushdie does nothing of the sort. These descriptions come from the mouth of a drunken apostate, a character with whom neither author nor reader has sympathy.

The book grossly insults the wives of the Prophet by having whores use their names. This is the point. The wives are expressly said to be chaste, and the adoption of their names by whores in a brothel symbolises the perversion and decadence into which the city had fallen before it surrendered to Islam.

The book vilifies the close companions of the Prophet, calling them “bums from Persia” and “clowns”, whereas the Qur’an treats them as men of righteousness. These phrases are used by a depraved hack poet, hired to pen propaganda against the Prophet. They do not represent the author’s beliefs.

The book criticises the teachings of Islam for containing too many rules and seeking to control every aspect of everyday life. Characters in the book do make such criticisms, but they cannot amount to blasphemy because they do not vilify God or the Prophet.

The case had one very satisfying result: the Home Office announced it would not allow further blasphemy prosecutions, declaring “how inappropriate our legal mechanisms are for dealing with matters of faith and individual belief … the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers”. Amen to that (Pussy Riot prosecutors please note). The crime of blasphemy has now been abolished, although this wretched legacy of English law still permits courtroom persecutions in Pakistan and some other countries of the Commonwealth.

(H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)

Salvatore Postiglione Motiv aus dem Decamerone

2. In the course of reviewing a new translation (by Wayne A. Rebhorn [Univ. of Texas, Austin]) of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Steve Donoghue offers some meditations on the art of translation:

“Translation,” our translator tells us, “makes strangers feel familiar, but a good one should also allow us to sense something of the alien in our midst.” The care with which Rebhorn pursues this “clearly contradictory, indeed paradoxical” balance is downright charming, and it pays off: this is a Decameron at once elegant and effusive, as varied in its tones and moods as the original. It’s as bawdy and explicit as, say, Richard Aldington’s scandalous and much-maligned 1930 version; it’s as soundly researched as Nichols or McWilliam, and if it lacks the doyennish aura of command Frances Winwar was able to bring to her own 1930 translation (the only full version by a woman to date, it seems), it also lacks that version’s thee’s and thou’s, so lethal to 21st-century ears. Rebhorn’s Decameron will be the definitive one for a lifetime mainly because it manages the paradox he identifies: it sets this stranger down in our midst and proceeds to find our common dialects.

Evidence of his care and playfulness is everywhere, especially in the tell-tale details. This is amply true in such famous stories as that of the patient Griselda or the naive young woman Alibech and the randy monk Rustico (a tale so gloriously, sacrilegiously raunchy it cannot be bowdlerized and was simply omitted from many a pre-modern translation), but it also shows to keen effect in much smaller moments. Take as one example the tenth story of the third day: the Venetian cook Chichibio, in the employ of Florentine magnate Currado Gianfigliazzi, is cooking a crane in the kitchen for his master and his master’s guests when a girl he loves asks him for a thigh of the bird. Chichibio at first teasingly refuses her, and Boccaccio’s Italian wittily lampoons dimwitted Chichibio’s slurry, lilting Venetian accent, so different from the more clipped, punchy Florentine tone. It’s a little moment, but it demonstrates that Boccaccio was attentive to every tiny detail of his comedy—and it’s been the despair of English-language translators, who almost invariably fumble the moment. Aldington has it: “But he replied with a snatch of song: ‘You won’t get it from me, Donna Brunetta, you won’t get it from me!’” McWilliam’s is: “By way of reply, Chichibio burst into song: ‘I won’t let you have it, Donna Brunetta, I won’t let you have it, so there!’” Even Nichols renders it: “Chichibio chanted in reply, “Yon won’t get it out of me, my Lady Brunetta, you won’t get it out of me.”

But Chichibio isn’t singing or chanting—it’s just that because he’s Venetian, he sounds like he is, something Rebhorn catches: “Chichibio replied to her in his singsong way and said, ‘You’re not a-goin’ a get it from me, Donna Brunetta, you’re not a-goin’ a get it from me.’”

(H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)

Pontormo - Ritratto di Cosimo il Vecchio - Google Art Project Franco0001

3. Xavier Marquez has an outstanding post asking how the Spanish Fascist dictator Francisco Franco managed to hold onto power. I mean, the trivial answer is that he killed a lot of his enemies. I mean, a lot. And it didn’t hurt that Franco’s enemies fought each other. But Marquez is looking more particularly at how Franco maintained support within the various factions that made up the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War and the decades following that war. In looking at how Franco balanced competing demands by monarchists, Falangists, military men, and so forth, Marquez sees some similarities between Franco and the 15th Century Italian power broker Cosimo de’ Medici. For one thing, both men were adept at being vague to the point of being inscrutable. Says Marquez:

To be sure, Franco, unlike Cosimo, made lots of public speeches during his life and said many well-documented things to ambassadors, ministers, and other political leaders. But one point that Preston’s biography brings out well is that it is very difficult to construct a coherent position for Franco from his public statements (though Preston tries valiantly). For one thing, he seems to have had no problems disregarding the truth when it was convenient for him to deny it, and he was alarmingly willing to change his position as circumstances or audiences changed. He could say anything with apparently complete conviction: he could be a monarchist one minute, a Falangista the next, and then assert his claim to being a true Spanish democrat. Yet Preston never quite succeeds in establishing that there was one thing Franco “really believed” underneath all the bullshitting and incoherence, some ideological commitment or fundamental interest beyond his maintenance in power that could account for the many different things he said. His key political talent, Preston notes more than once, was for “shroud[ing] his intentions in a cloud of nebulous vagueness” (Kindle Location 14849-14850). Since no one could be quite sure about his real commitments, these could be “read” in a variety of different ways at the time – as fundamentally sympathetic to the Falange, or fundamentally conservative and Catholic, or as those of an anti-communist warrior.

More broadly, Franco’s terminal unwillingness to ever close off options made it seem like he was constantly procrastinating important decisions. The most obvious example of this is the question of restoring the Spanish monarchy (one aim of the military rebellion that led to the civil war), which Franco successfully postponed for decades, in part because it would commit himself to a definite course of action, splitting his coalition. But the same was true of his neutrality-cum-covert-support for Germany and Italy in WWII (Preston has some amusing passages where Hitler and Mussolini rage against Franco’s inability to make clear commitments to enter WWII on their side), or of his actions during the civil war.

In short: “Franco’s political strength lay precisely in credibly not being for one or another part of his coalition, and this was made possible because he seems to have had no firm underlying convictions beyond, perhaps, his commitment to a picture of himself as savior of Spain.”

In the course of his post, Marquez offers a very good review of Paul Preston’s biography of Franco, which came out in 2012. (If you’re like me, you may be more familiar with Preston as the author of The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge, which has appeared in various editions since 1986.)

4. Clarissa has been reading Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Apparently, she is a fan: “this turned out to be one of those ‘You’ll have to tear this 900-page volume out of my cold, dead hands if you want me to let it go before I read every word of it, twice’ books.” See also here, here, and here. Among other things, Judt summarized the numerous European wars of 1914-45 as “the era of stuffing each ethnic group into a neat little territorial box.”

Coincidentally, Judt (who died in 2010) receives a mention in this recent E.J. Dionne column (in the course of critiquing Hayek and Mises) and in this post by Professor Bainbridge responding to the Dionne column.

5. In Waging Non-Violence, Nathan Schneider has a review (“A conservative who was right about Occupy”) of Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. From Schneider’s review:

In the heady early days of Occupy Wall Street, there was a lot of talk about whether this thing was really a movement or something else, something presumably less worthy of attention. In an early Room for Debate discussion at The New York Times, for instance, the eminent social movement scholar Stephen Zunes stressed that “protests are not a movement”; I insisted, in the same discussion, on calling Occupy an “occupation-turned-movement.” To me, the evidence was this: Occupy was confounding the normal political spectrum. It wasn’t just people aligned with what are normally called the left or right, but an assemblage of people who reflected the inadequacy of the right-and-left spectrum for reflecting people’s longings — libertarians and anarchists, socialists and liberals, veterans and peaceniks, conservatives and utopians.


[I]n the purity of their spiritual angst, the protestors seemed to me a revelation. …my own experience was that the protestors were, on the whole, astonishingly good people, if the word good is used in a somewhat special sense. There around Zuccotti Park, down near Wall Street, a few hundred of them had gathered for deeply felt moral purposes they could not name with any precision — for moral goals they often refused, as a moral principle, to specify. … An era more comfortable than ours with religious history would have understood immediately what Occupy Wall Street was: a protest against the continuing reign of Satan and a plea for the coming of the Kingdom of God, with a new heaven and a new earth.

(H/T: 3 Quarks Daily. Of course.)

Image Credit: (1) The Old Bailey, London. Photo by Tbmurray, February 2012. Used under a CC BY 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
(2) Salvatore Postiglione, Scene from the Decameron, circa 1906. Wikimedia Commons.
(3) Pontormo, Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, circa 1519. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
(4) Photo of Francisco Franco, 1969. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
(5) Zuccotti Park, Saturday, October 29, 2011. Day 43 of Occupy Wall Street. Photo by David Shankbone. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license. Source: Flickr.

Update (Thurs., Feb. 20, 2014, 8:48 PM): embarrassing typo in post title fixed. Thanks to Anderson.



  1. I second the praise for “Postwar,” tho its author has somehow become a Terry in your post title. In fact, I’m now tempted to read it again, Tony or Terry.

    Several new “Decameron” translations out now, & I’ve never read it, but the chapter on it in Auerbach’s “Mimesis” got me curious. So thanks for that review!

    • Oh Lord… post title fixed. Thanks!
      N.B. I have not read the new translation myself; so recommendation is hearsay.

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