By David Caute
IT isn't often that a celebrated author has a book turned down by 25 publishers.It happened to David Caute, author of 10 novels and several other books, over his latest novel Fatima's Scarf, which he has now had to publish himself. Not surprising, perhaps, because its story is built around someone called Gamal Rahman, whom Caute calls a character "parallel to Salman Rushdie", and around several Muslims in "Bruddesford" in England whose lives are touched in all sorts of ways by the publication of a novel by Rahman called The Devil: An Interview. Fatima's Scarf is a work of fiction "but its genesis is to be found in a real event", Caute acknowledges in the book.
The Bruddesford of the novel is never far from Muslim-dominated Bradford in north England where copies of Satanic Verses were so zealously burnt in 1989. The publishers' refusal to touch Caute's novel "certainly comes from fear," he told Outlook. Fears, he said, "that the Muslim community would be upset, and fears also that it might get Rushdie upset". A pity, because Caute, despite his string of caustic one-liners, has brought a breath of real—and so, imperfect—life into the Muslim stereotype in Britain.
The 558-page novel sits in three sections, the first and last set in Bruddesford (a fictional city first created by J.B. Priestly 60 years ago, a different Bruddesford with, as Caute says, not a mosque in sight then), and the middle and somewhat less convincing section devoted to Rahman and set in Cairo. Unlike real-life Rushdie, Rahman comes to England from Egypt, not India, and in vastly different circumstances of political persecution for his writings from a new fundamentalist government.
Nasreen, after whom the first section is named, has had about enough of the "rapid descent into madness" of her husband Hassan Hassani, secretary of the Maududi Mosque. The near impotent Hassan ("a sparrow's spurt, before he tumbles into snoring sleep") devotes his life to an overheated pamphlet against Rah-man while Nasreen is in love with her politically correct boss Rajiv Lal.
Hailed as a novel of "a very rare kind" by Barry Unsworth, the book found no takers and was finally published by Caute himself.
Among the other Bruddesfordians are Saifa, the underdressed, ambitious daughter of the chairman of the Islamic Council. For her, "London is the glittering prize, the dancing Shiva, and sex is the ticket she knows." She is raped by Tariq, the illiterate but irresistible waiter in Bruddesford who tries in the end to murder Rahman.
Caute's language is hardly likely to have pleased publishers with their minds on sales rather than riots: "Poor Islam! So eloquent, poetic and commanding in its own linguistic domain, so clumsy and tongue-tied in the land of the infidel. Coolies hauling an alien cargo from East to West." There is a far more candid irreverence, particularly among women. And through a debate with Ali Cheema, Rahman says: "I am convinced that religious Revelation is at best a tragic illusion, at worst a hoax."
Fatima, the pious schoolgirl and sister to the sluttish Safia, is a marginal character. She defies rules by wearing a scarf to school and gets martyred through expulsion. But Fatima is not so pious that she won't lay little traps for Ali who she desires but has always thought of as a Brother. And she is not above jealousy of his sister.
The Rushdie parallel starts life precocious, and stays so: "To the young Gamal it seemed close to impertinent that anyone had considered life worth living, wars worth fighting, treaties worth signing, operas worth singing, in his absence." Gamal's brush with Islam begins early when he is "attacked by a gang of young fundamentalists all fired up for Friday". He is desired by Hamida and Huda, whose rivalry fires the middle part of the novel. He writes a novel called The Patriots, an "unpublishable folly", and then The Crossing, as unpublishable.
Rahman is weakly celebrated. He gets misunderstood for what are believed to be references he's made to the Prophet's wives that no one is sure he ever did. Fatima's Scarf gets into controversy about the references, and it is debatable whether that itself is derogatory. The Bruddesfordians who abuse Gamal speak in a language that Caute has penetrated well. Bradfordians could hear themselves in the Bruddesfordians.
And certainly, getting the book published has been an effort. The name of the fiction-al publishers is Totterdown Books, named after Caute's cottage. He spent £13,000 to get the first 2,000 copies in hardback published, at £15.99 a copy. Booksellers needed persuasion to stock it, and it is now being distributed by Central Books.
It is too early yet for Booker Prize nominations, but enthusiastic critics have been suggesting that the judges themselves nominate the novel for consideration. Most reviews of the novel have been excellent. "It's a book which perfectly highlights middle-class confusion over Muslim politics," Melanie Phillips wrote in The Observer. It is ironic, she said, that "the reason the book trade would not publish Fatima's Scarf was because it is loosely based on the freedon-of-speech furore over The Satanic Verses." She called the book a "dazzling tour de force" and praised its "part Dickensian satire, part post-modern 'magical realism'.
" Barry Unsworth wrote in The Sunday Telegraph of its "constant freshness and vividness of phrasing". An acerbic humour runs through the book and Caute, the critic wrote, has "a very sharp eye for social detail and pattern of speech". It is a novel "of a very rare kind."