Earlier this year, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop honored the work of celebrated novelist Salman Rushdie. Since then, we’ve asked writers to engage critically with Rushdie and his novels. Here, Rohit Chopra offers a way in to Rushdie’s oeuvre.
Like all writers worth the name, Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie contains multitudes. While his writing is too rich to be reduced to a single theme, one thread runs through nearly all of his work: the claim of the imagination on history, manifest as the urgent human need for stories to complement the thin gruel of reality itself. That, Rushdie ceaselessly reminds us, is why society invents tales and tellers.
After an initial foray into fiction proved to be somewhat of a false start (Grimus, 1975), Rushdie has produced a series of novelistic masterpieces: Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), The Satanic Verses (1988), and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Any of these works by itself would be sufficient in securing Rushdie’s critical reputation. Cumulatively, they add up to an oeuvre that allows Rushdie to stake a claim as one of our greatest living writers. In each of these works, Rushdie presents a radically inventive retelling of a past, present, and future that is at once subversive and prescient.
Midnight’s Children is the story of Saleem Sinai who is born at the exact moment at which India gains independence. The triumphs and anguish of the Indian nation are lived on Salim’s body and through his life. In the novel, Rushdie persistently draws attention to the challenges of finding an adequate language for narrating the story he seeks to tell. The difficulty of telling this story mirrors the struggle of imagining the Indian nation into being. It is thus that Saleem speaks of “cutting up history to suit my nefarious purposes.” Rushdie’s second novel, Shame, remains criminally underrated, offering a vivid portrayal of the politics of a land that Rushdie says (with either dead seriousness or deadpan irony) is “not Pakistan.”
Next came The Satanic Verses, which perversely wound up producing the very history that it sought to explore. The book attempted to retell the life of the Prophet Muhammad as an event in recorded, secular time, even as it depicted the hallucinatory quality of migrant life in the West. The novel also delineated the rise of a certain kind of political Islam, symbolized by the figure of the Islamic preacher in the West who yearns for a purified Islam while fulminating against the very West in which he found refuge. This, more than the allegedly blasphemous passages, may have been the real cause of the Valentine’s Day fatwa against Rushdie. The imam in The Satanic Verses could possibly have been inspired by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who launched his revolution while in exile in Paris. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, which Rushdie wrote while in exile, he gives us an exotic, fantastic Europe, in which the East reverses the Orientalist gaze of the West. The novel is also a “last sigh for a lost world,” an elegy for a cosmopolitan Bombay now overrun with the fascist thugs of Raman Fielding, a caricature of the right-wing Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, whose politics laid waste to the city.
Rushdie’s four major early novels were lucky to have been written at a time of sympathetic intellectual and critical currents. Though he might be chagrined at the suggestion, Rushdie in many ways is a creation of the three ‘posts’: the extended high noon of postmodernism, an artistic and critical approach that relentlessly drew attention to its own techniques of representation and valorized intertextuality and reflexivity; the theoretical-philosophical paradigm of poststructuralism, which complicated the relationship between reality and representation, proposing that reality did not preexist language; and postcolonialism, with its themes of hybridity, exile, mongrelization, migration, and diaspora. In recent years, Rushdie has affected a disingenuous, mock ignorance of postcolonial theory—usually in the form of witty quips or anecdotes about sour postcolonial theorists, grumpy at being unable to claim him as one of their tribe. It bears noting though that it was postcolonial theory that secured his critical reputation in the academy. Similarly, it was postcolonial theorists and scholars who defended his work against charges of of inauthenticity from nativist and Marxist critics alike.
Rushdie’s later novels, such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) and Fury (2001), have been uneven and less assured, the former creaking under the weight of too many familiar Rushdie conventions and the latter not quite finding its feet. In The Enchantress of Florence (2008), Rushdie is a trifle too intoxicated by the central conceit of the novel: the fact that there was a cross-cultural encounter between India and Europe before colonialism. As any scholar of the early modern period would point out, this fact is quite unremarkable in and of itself. Perhaps the passage of time will offer a clearer sense of where these later novels stand in relation to Rushdie’s work at large. The mixed reception to these books may well be a function of Rushdie’s readership being discomfited by his turn to new themes and settings, though the later books do share key concerns with the earlier works.
Rushdie’s wider critical reception beyond the academy can be read as symptomatic of the state of a global media culture intoxicated with celebrity. While justly celebrated for his formidable literary achievements, the conflation of Rushdie with an enormously complex modern Indian literary tradition reflects a laziness on the part of mediapersons and journalists. As the writer and critic Amit Chaudhuri has argued, “Rushdie represents a kind of hallucinatory cliff behind which we cannot see, almost like an obstruction we’ve created—we cannot see what was there before him. There are continuities going back beyond Rushdie, though Rushdie is an interesting and forceful occurrence.” In the Indian media, attention on Rushdie tends to focus obsessively on the fatwa and conservative Muslim opposition to his work. For the international press, Rushdie has long been a go-to person for all things Indian (an honor now increasingly bestowed on Pankaj Mishra). Much popular writing on Rushdie that pigeonholes him as an “Indian” or “magical realist” writer misses the fact that Rushdie effortlessly claims and belongs to numerous literary traditions, paying homage to Cervantes, Sterne, and Bellow as much as the Indian epics he’s oft associated with. Readings of Rushdie’s work by the critic James Wood can be described as a kind of hapless floundering, speaking volumes about the limits of the tepid, derivative formalism practiced by Wood and the middlebrow hauteur of his critical vision but telling us very little about Rushdie’s writing.
In 1994, Far Side artist Gary Larson drew a somewhat cruel cartoon depicting Salman Rushdie and Elvis Presley peeking out of a window, with the caption “Roommates Elvis and Salman Rushdie sneak a quick look at the outside world.” Some 20 years later, Rushdie is very visible in the world, battling detractors on Twitter and sharing anecdotes about Thomas Pynchon at literary events. He may—or may not—have more masterpieces in him, but one thing is sure, the literary lion is not in the winter of any discontent, and will not go gentle into the good night.
Read other pieces in this series:
Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, and Moral Courage | by Sarah Waheed