Books to be afraid of

January 12, 2020

Should works of fiction be ‘disappeared’?

Dear All,

Recent reports of a raid on the offices of the publishers of the Urdu translation of M Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes have made me reflect on this whole question of how dangerous - or not - books can actually be and why certain powerful quarters still fear them so much.

After news of this particular incident surfaced, one person commented optimistically on social media that this ‘proved that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.’ Alas, it is not because the sword is pretty handy at either silencing those associated with the relevant book or else simply ripping the book to shreds and obliterating it from history.

Getting rid of books considered to be offensive has traditionally been done publicly, mostly in the form of burning them. This public destruction can inspire both awe and fear and is an effective way of getting your message across: if you read or possess this book, the next thing to go up in flames will be you.

The burning and banning of books is something those in power will do to protect their own position and agenda, it has always been a case of victor’s justice, i.e. of those who triumph attempting to rewrite history to favour their own role. There are many famous instances of book burning in world history and one of most infamous instances of the twentieth century was perhaps the 1933 burning of books by Jewish writers or about the Jewish faith which was ordered by the Nazis. The low key memorial to this is in the middle of Beibelplatz in Berlin: you look down through a glass sheet and are able to make out rows and rows of empty bookshelves. It is a terrible feeling. You realise that what has been destroyed is not just a chunk of scholarship and learning but also the continuity of thought and knowledge.

Other sad chapters in the history of book burning include the destruction of Arab scholarship and libraries during the ‘reconqusita’ (so called ‘reconquest’) by the Christians of Muslim-ruled areas and of course the destruction (around the 1st century BC) of the Great Library of Alexandria which was said to house millions of ancient manuscripts. But we needn’t even look so far back; in recent times we’ve seen the destruction of the Timbuktu manuscripts by ISIL as well as the destruction of a huge chunk of Tamil books by Sinahalese (government) forces during Sri Lanka’s long civil war.

Banning books is perhaps not as devastating as burning entire collections and libraries, but the intent is the same: to ensure the work doesn’t see the light of day again and nobody ever has access to it.

Banning books is perhaps not as devastating as burning entire collections and libraries, but the intent is the same: to ensure the work doesn’t see the light of day again and nobody ever has access to it. This is done for a variety of reasons, the most commonly cited ones being that the content is either ‘immoral’ or ‘harmful to religious sentiments’ or ‘blasphemous’ or ‘treasonous’.

In the case of Mohammed Hanif’s novel, this particular raid apparently followed close on the heels of a legal notice from the son of a military ruler fictionalized in the novel. The people who conducted the raid and confiscated copies of the book identified themselves as being from a well-known security agency associated closely with the military. Reportedly they want to confiscate all copies of the book and make sure it is no longer available anywhere, to anyone. It is unclear why this work of fiction, a darkly comic novel, which has been in print in its original English version since 2008, has caused such offence. Indeed, many would say it is a piece of social history, a retelling or reimagining of a turbulent time in Pakistan’s politics by somebody whose youth was spent during those years.

The other point to consider is whether banning or confiscating books in today’s world is actually counter-productive as this gives so much publicity to the work in question.

Authoritarian regimes love to ban and burn books. And interestingly the flip side of this agenda-driven approach is ‘approved’ publications. These are book projects in which investment is made not just in their production but also in their sales and ‘distribution.’ Powerful groups ensure that such a publication becomes ‘bestselling’ by getting members and associated libraries and institutions to pre order hundreds of copies of the book. This was apparently the case with a book by Donald Trump Jr entitled Triggered: How the Left thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. Sales of this subtle and scholarly work (well, just look at the title) were boosted by prepublication bulk orders – or in other words the sales were rigged and it was made to look like a ‘bestseller’.

So anyway, the question of what causes offence or what constitutes incitement to hatred in a work of fiction is debatable – but really should books be ‘disappeared’ on this basis?

We can think about the importance of not destroying or ‘disappearing’ books by reflecting on the words of the author Barbara Tuchman: , “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

The writer is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

Twitter: @umberkhairi

Books to be afraid of