June 2, 1991Always the Outsider
By ROBERT TOWERS
Essays and Criticism 1981-1991.
By Salman Rushdie.
he subtitle of "Imaginary Homelands" -- "Essays and Criticism 1981-1991" -- is perhaps too grand a term for this assemblage of Salman Rushdie's seminar papers, television broadcasts, book reviews, movie reviews, public lectures, interviews and articles. Would it have been published now -- and in its present form -- were it not for the high and terrible drama of the author's recent life? Probably not, given the scrappy and occasional nature of a considerable part of its content. Still, enough strong pieces are included to make the book welcome to anyone who has grappled -- in delight or exasperation or both -- with Mr. Rushdie's tumultuous novels or who shares his interest in the political and cultural plight of the migrant.
In his view, the migrant -- whether from one country to another, from one language or culture to another or even from a traditional rural society to a modern metropolis -- "is, perhaps, the central or defining figure of the twentieth century." On the complex situation of this emblematic figure, Mr. Rushdie himself can of course speak with unique authority, for he has embodied the outsider, "the Other," all of his life: first as a Muslim in predominantly Hindu India, then as an Indian migrant to Pakistan, next as an Indian-Pakistani living in Britain and, since the publication of "The Satanic Verses," as a "blasphemer" against Islam, a man in hiding, marked for murder.
Mr. Rushdie does not pull his punches when it comes to the failings of his adopted land (and by extension Western Europe and the United States) in the matter of racial prejudice. Writing from the position of the British left, in a 1984 essay with the neo-Orwellian title "Outside the Whale," Mr. Rushdie voices his scorn for the current nostalgia for the empire and the raj as exemplified in what he calls "the blackface minstrel-show of 'The Far Pavilions' in its TV serial incarnation" and the "overpraised" "Jewel in the Crown"; nor has he much good to say about Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" or David Lean's film of "A Passage to India." He writes that "there can be little doubt that in Britain today the refurbishment of the Empire's tarnished image is under way. The continuing decline, the growing poverty and the meanness of spirit of much of Thatcherite Britain encourages many Britons to turn their eyes nostalgically to the lost hour of their precedence. The recrudescence of imperialist ideology and the popularity of Raj fictions put one in mind of the phantom twitchings of an amputated limb."
In a piece called "Home Front" (1984), Mr. Rushdie analyzes racism in terms of "the fear of the primal Dark" and "the idea of the Other, the reversed twin in the looking-glass, the double, the negative image, who by his oppositeness tells one what one is" -- only to conclude that "it will not suffice to blame racism and the creation of lying images of black peoples on some deep-bubbling, universal failing in humanity." Nor will it do to excuse racial prejudice on the grounds of its universality. While "it is obviously true that blacks and Asians need to face up to and deal with our own prejudices, it seems equally clear that the most attention must be paid to the most serious problem, and in Britain, that is white racism. If we were speaking of India or Africa, we would have other forms of racism to fight against. But you fight hardest where you live: on the home front."
Turning to the literary front, we find Mr. Rushdie attributing his eagerness to break with traditional literary forms in part to his status as a migrant; denied his roots, his original language and the social norms he grew up with, the migrant "is obliged to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human." Mr. Rushdie is most persuasive when writing about those novelists whose approach to fiction is similar to his own: writers like Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, who mix fantasy and naturalism, who employ all of the radically disjunctive techniques of modernism and post-modernism to create fictional worlds of their own that are nonetheless linked in a thousand ways to the world as we experience it. In his essay on Mr. Grass ("half a migrant"), he speaks of books that give aspiring writers ("these would-be migrants from the World to the Book") the "permission to become the sort of writers they have it in themselves to be. A book is a kind of passport." For the author of "Midnight's Children," the passports included "The Film Sense" by Sergei Eisenstein, the "Crow" poems of Ted Hughes, Jorge Luis Borges's "Ficciones," Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," Eugene Ionesco's play "Rhinoceros" and Mr. Grass's novel "The Tin Drum." "This is what Grass's great novel said to me in its drumbeats: Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world."
The writing throughout is attractive: lively, allusive, a little flippant. But one could wish that "Imaginary Homelands" had not been quite so inclusive. What is the point of reprinting a 1983 campaign diatribe against Margaret Thatcher ("A General Election")? The account of a two-week trip to Pittsburgh, New York and San Francisco in 1985 ("Travels With a Golden Ass") seems both glib and dated as it revives once again that hoary old comparison of the follies and horrors of American life to those of Rome in its decadence. The reviews of works by E. L. Doctorow, Richard Ford, Saul Bellow and Grace Paley are hardly more than brief appreciations.
Whatever weaknesses the collection contains are more than redeemed by the eloquence and pathos of the three concluding pieces, published in 1990. These deal directly with Mr. Rushdie's response to the fanatical (and often politically motivated) reaction to "The Satanic Verses" in parts of the Muslim world.
In the first piece ("In Good Faith"), he again proclaims his allegiance to those novels that "attempt radical reformulations of language, form and ideas" and his "determination to create a literary language and literary forms in which the experience of formerly colonized, still-disadvantaged peoples might find full expression." He defends his own novel as being, "in part, a secular man's reckoning with the religious spirit" and goes on to say: " I am not a Muslim. It feels bizarre, and wholly inappropriate, to be described as some sort of heretic after having lived my life as a secular, pluralist, eclectic man. . . . The many Muslims I respect would be horrified by the idea that they belong to their faith purely by virtue of birth, and that any person so born who freely chose not to be a Muslim could therefore be put to death."
In the second ("Is Nothing Sacred?"), Mr. Rushdie, without repudiating his secularism, acknowledges the potency of the sacred and the human yearning for transcendence. He proposes that art -- particularly literature -- can be "the third principle that mediates between the material and spiritual worlds," that it can offer us "something that might even be called a secular definition of transcendence."
It is the very eloquence of the reasoning in the two preceding essays that makes his statement of submission in the final piece, "Why I Have Embraced Islam," seem so desperately sad.
Robert Towers teaches in the graduate writing division of the Columbia University School of the Arts. His most recent novel is "The Summoning."
A KISS BEFORE READING
I grew up kissing books and bread.
In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapati or a "slice," which was our word for a triangle of buttered leavened bread, the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect. I was as careless and butterfingered as any child and, accordingly, during my childhood years, I kissed a large number of "slices" and also my fair share of books.
Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. We kissed dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels and Superman comics. If I'd ever dropped the telephone directory I'd probably have kissed that, too.
All this happened before I had ever kissed a girl. In fact it would almost be true, true enough for a fiction writer, anyhow, to say that once I started kissing girls, my activities with regard to bread and books lost some of their special excitement. But one never forgets one's first loves.
Bread and books: food for the body and food for the soul -- what could be more worthy of our respect, and even love?
It has always been a shock to me to meet people for whom books simply do not matter.
-- From "Imaginary Homelands."
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Salman Rushdie was born in India, raised in Pakistan, and educated in England, where he now lives. His Rabelaisian skill for telling stories teeming with fantasy and history, and the virtuosity of his style, with its sly transliterations of Indo-English idioms, won him a delighted audience with the publication of Midnight's Children in 1980. However, it was the urgency with which he returned to the lands of his birth and childhood to write of a world where politics and the individual are inseparably connected that won him wide acclaim as a brilliant new novelist and intellectual. He manages to stand both inside and outside the world of developing nations and tell their stories. His fantastical retelling of the story of Islam set in a London peopled by immigrants from around the world, The Satanic Verses (1988), is his last full-length novel: its publication raised the anger of Muslims in Britain, South Asia, and the Middle East who asked that the novel be banned. In February 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini decreed a fatwa pronouncing the death sentence on him, and Rushdie has since lived in hiding. Subsequently, he offered several published explanations and apologies to Muslims (collected in Imaginary Homelands, 1991), and he also wrote a children's story, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990). In 2006, Rushdie joined the Emory University faculty as Distinguished Writer in Residence for one month a year for the next five years. Rushdie was awarded a knighthood for services to literature in the Queen's Birthday Honours on 16 June, 2007.