The Tiger Claw

by Shauna Singh Baldwin
ISBN: 0676976204

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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 with unbelievers."
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. Terrorists.'"
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.

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