Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Leaders of literary London love a tiff

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The Independent Online
ONE squabble that the Guardian's regular Feud's Corner feature is unlikely to cover is that between its literary editor, Richard Gott, a former foreign correspondent, and Salman Rushdie, the fugitive novelist.

Gott's first grapeshot blast was in Feburary last year on the eve of a gala in Rushdie's honour. Gott said then that Rushdie and prominent supporters such as Harold Pinter and his wife Lady Antonia Fraser were bent on sustaining a permanent battle between reason and faith and, for the sake of a multicultural Britain, Rushdie should retreat from the barricades and not publish a paperback of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie and supporters politely told him to shove off. Ten days ago Rushdie called on the editor of the Guardian to put Gott out to grass, so that the Guardian's books pages could 'once again be placed in the hands of someone who . . . likes reading'.

There are several strands to the dispute. Gott, whose talent has been more directly linked to political rather than literary matters, seems to hate modern British fiction. Other newspapers have noted that over the past four months only four British novels have been reviewed on the Guardian's books pages. Rushdie, on the other hand, was one of the judges of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists promotion, organised by his friend Bill Buford, editor of Granta. Gott calls Buford the commanding officer and keeper of the key to Rushdie's cell. He took great delight earlier this month in recording that some book critics did not think much of the Buford-Rushdie-A S Byatt list of 20. Modern British fiction, as everyone knows, declared Gott, is in a sad state.

Rushdie wasted no time. 'Gott,' he roared, 'is well known for his aversion to all novels, except those which remind him of his Latin American glory days.'

The Latin American reference is a sensitive one. Here we must turn to a first novel, The Long Night of the White Chickens, by a young Guatemalan-American, Francisco Goldman. On 12 January Gott had written a gushing review saying it had a robust brilliance based on a fearsome depiction of real life. Then came a gratuitous swipe. Unlike Salman Rushdie, said Gott, who hoes a similar 'inter-cultural furrow', Goldman was no fantasist. He was a much more powerful writer. For those readers who have not heard of Goldman or White Chickens, his novel simply put is about being brought up in North America and having your throat cut in Central America.

Goldman was delighted with Gott's review but mortified that Rushdie had been offended. Rushdie and the Colombian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez are his heroes. (Garcia Marquez is the only unifying factor here since he is also the hero of Rushdie and Gott, and Pinter, and Fraser.) According to Goldman's friends in London, the Guatemalan-American was last seen agonising over whether to write a letter to Rushdie telling him of his embarrassment.

I asked Gott why he had started this war. Aged 54, this former researcher at Chatham House (where the rules come from), Guardian leader writer, academic, independent parliamentary candidate, Latin America correspondent and radical, said he disliked Rushdie for political and literary reasons. Readers of a certain age may remember that Gott stood as an anti-Vietnam war candidate at the North Hull by-election in January 1966 in an attempt to embarrass Harold Wilson. He also wrote memorable despatches from Argentina in the early Seventies saying that the Montoneros, a particularly nasty band of terrorist romantics, were the only responsible group in the country.

Gott said he had 'fantastic reservations' about Rushdie's politics because Rushdie had not come to terms with the problems he faced. 'He is very careless in the way he writes and behaves. He thinks that writers should act politically, but something seems to go seriously wrong with his political actions,' he said. On a literary level, he said, Rushdie's 'multicultural model was a fantastic advance on the decadent nature of English fiction' in the Eighties, but today Rushdie's sort of 'fantasy novel' was out of touch.

But the last word may go to Rushdie. Gott's own book, Land Without Evil, which his publisher describes in Pseuds Corner English as a 'trend-breaking anti-travel book of Utopian journeys across the South American watershed,' was published on Wednesday and with luck has already been sent to Rushdie for review.