||A Review of: The Tiger Claw
by Steven W. Beattie
Novelists often seek to comment on the present by looking to the
past. This is particularly true in Canada, where novels set in
earlier eras seem to reproduce with the persistence of cultures in
a Petri dish. Shauna Singh Baldwin's novel, The Tiger Claw, a nominee
for the 2004 Giller Prize, is a fictionalized account of the life
of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian Muslim, who worked as a spy for the
Allies' Special Operations Executive during World War II, and who
was eventually captured and imprisoned by the Germans. (I'm not
giving anything away here: the book opens with Noor confined to a
prison cell in Pforzheim, Germany, then flashes back to describe
how she got there.)
Noor is a woman of mixed descent: her father is Indian and her
mother is from Boston. Born in Moscow, as a child Noor and her
family move around frequently, living variously in England, India,
and Paris, though it is this last city that is home to Noor for
most of her life. It is in Paris that Noor meets and falls in love
with a Jewish musician named Armand Rivkin, a love that alienates
a number of her Muslim relatives, particularly her brother Kabir
and her severe Uncle Tajuddin, a teacher at the local Sufi school,
who lectures on subjects such as "Love, Beauty and Tolerance,"
but privately berates Noor for shaming her family by "consorting
When Noor becomes pregnant with Armand's child, her uncle is furious,
comparing her to a "Montmartre prostitute" and accusing
her of committing "the sin of loving without permission."
In one of the clandestine prison notes that Noor writes to her
unborn child, whom (in one of Singh Baldwin's imaginative elaborations
on the historical Noor's story) she aborted in the 1930s, shortly
after discovering that she was pregnant, Noor laments that "my
body belonged not to me but to my family, and it was my uncle's
right to say yea or nay to marriage."
Noor's Uncle Tajuddin is only one in a line of bigoted and intolerant
figures who treat Noor alternately with condescension, suspicion,
or outright loathing. Even Miss Atkins, one of Noor's handlers in
the SOE, resorts to an attitude of disdain and derision in dealing
with her new charge. When Noor suggests that India is ready for
self-government, Miss Atkins's response is freighted with all of
the racist arrogance implicit in the British Raj: "Indians?
Oh, don't be silly They're not ready for freedom or democracy-haven't
a clue. Really, do try being a little more politic. It surprises
me the board approved you. But I've long resigned myself to working
with flawed material."
The cancer of intolerance lends the novel much of its thematic heft,
and finds its apogee in the Nazi pogroms that began in earnest with
Kristallnacht and led in a direct line to the abominations of
Auschwitz and Dachau. The Nazis embody a more virulent form of the
racial hatred espoused by Noor's Uncle Tajuddin, but the novel
invites its readers to see the various iterations of bigotry and
intolerance in the story not as discrete units, but rather as points
on a continuum, building to a critical mass that erupts in the
Nazis' program of genocide in Europe.
Similarly, the novel also invites its readers to view its subject
matter at least partly through the prism of recent events. Although
Singh Baldwin would surely not go so far as to equate the Nazi
period with the global predicament in the post-9/11 world, the novel
points out disturbing parallels between then and now, which in
aggregate are impossible to ignore. One scene in the novel has Noor
meeting with members of the French resistance at a patisserie, when
a commotion erupts on the street outside. One of the patrons of the
pastry shop identifies the disturbance as a "shanghaillage",
a rounding up of Hasidic Jews for deportation to Germany. "Probably
criminals,' he assured everyone with Panglossian equanimity.
The word, loaded down as it is with recent historical baggage, is
not idly chosen, nor is the intimation that a group of extremist
ideologues can effectively co-opt public fear of terror and sabotage
to randomly persecute an identifiable group of people. When Noor
is imprisoned, her chief captor, Ernst Vogel tells her that following
the burning of the Reichstag-"a day no civilized person can
ever forget"-Hitler declared a state of emergency and vowed
war on terrorism. "And that first emergency decree," Noor
thinks, "has made arrest on suspicion, imprisonment without
trial in camps and executions possible in Germany and beyond ever
since." The reverberations with the post-9/11 historical record
are clear, and surely not accidental.
The underlying motivation behind the rhetoric of fear, and its
accompanying curtailment of human rights and civil liberties-then
as now-is power, and Singh Baldwin finds no small irony in Noor's
fighting on behalf of the very people who proudly point to her
father's homeland as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.
When her captor intimates that the Germans would be more empathetic
rulers than the British Raj, she is moved to think, "No matter
who the colonizer, no matter who the colonized, there is no such
thing as benign occupation." She continues:
"I have claimed my life," Noor thinks, "but never
yet lived my life as my own. I might as well be in India, starving,
beaten or imprisoned without trial. Other people's decisions have
governed each moment of my life, limiting each choice by past
decisions, decisions made by others before they ever met me."
Noor's most fervent craving is to live freely, according to the
dictates of her own will and desires. Freedom from the oppression
of those who would govern her life for her-be it her Uncle Tajuddin
or the Nazis-becomes the nucleus of her resistance, and, Singh
Baldwin suggests, the locus of her heroism.
The attitude of the novel is largely a romantic one; it is Noor's
love for Armand-a forbidden love, tainted by prejudice and racial
animosity-that keeps her moving forward, risking her life in the
name of freedom and the desperate hope that she might someday be
reunited with her lover. In this sense, Singh Baldwin's vision in
the novel is an optimistic one, since it is located in the notion
that the struggle for love and freedom is an essentially noble and
heroic endeavour, which we abandon at the cost of losing our humanity.
As long as Noor resists the forces of Fascism, she remains in her
essence free and fully human.
In a lengthy essay published a short while ago in the New York Times
Book Review, Philip Roth comments, "History claims everybody,
whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not."
Singh Baldwin's perspective in The Tiger Claw seems somewhat less
fatalistic, and although history claimed Noor Inayat Khan, her
ultimate fate is, in the context of the novel, less significant
than the fact that she never succumbed to the stifling, poisonous
tides of oppression and hatred, even during one of the darkest
periods of the twentieth century.
Singh Baldwin includes in the novel a story, perhaps apocryphal,
that Noor scratched into the wall of her cell the words, I resist,
therefore I am.' Noor was unable to escape the dizzying, headlong
rush of history but, to her dying breath, she refused to capitulate
to it. There's a lesson there somewhere, if we are willing to listen.