Salman Rushdie: A Writer for Our Times

Rushdie is an important writer because he bridges the cultures of the east and of the west. Our world needs his global, multi-cultural perspective. Prior to 2001, I made several attempts to read Rushdie. More than ten years later, the sluggard that I am, I was ripe to appreciate Rusdie’s fictive world. Before most people fully comprehended the dangerous thinking of fundamentalist religionists and the roots of political terrorism in ethnic and religious intolerance, Rushdie already was describing the phenomena in his novels. His fiction is dense, allusive and far too erudite for many readers, but a journey into his fantastical world is also far more rewarding than the run-of-the-mill realistic story. Rushdie studied theology and history. He is versed in the world’s religions, and brings his knowledge to bear of Hindu mythology and of Islamic and Christian texts to his work. Versed in several languages, he revels in multi-lingual word play. Rusdie makes no apologies for this, saying even children like to encounter new words in their books and then delight in flinging them around whether they fully understand the meanings or not.  All of these qualities make his writing difficult to understand. His complex story line, bizarre characters and mixture of magic and realism more than compensate for any of these difficulties. Paul Brians of Washington State University has partially remedied the problem with his “Notes for Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses.  All of Rushdie’s novels could use such a guide. This time I came to the rereading of Satanic Verses with fresh eyes. I have now read it three times; The Enchantress of Florence twice; and was newly delighted this year for the first time with Shalimar the Clown.  Several years ago I started Midnight’s Children and put it aside for other reading after about a hundred pages. Recently I read the novel from start to finish and concur with the Booker Prize people that it is has to be one of the best, if not the best book, of the last forty years. Rushdie cannot be read once. I am faced with the delectable choice of rereading Midnight’s Children or going on to The Moor’s Last Sigh.

It is not my purpose in this essay to supply plot summaries of the four Rushdie novels that I have read. Such a task is daunting and other reviewers have attempted it. In singling out some plot elements so much more is neglected in the telling that I feel inadequate to summarize these magically realistic stories that are as interlocking and enchanting as the Arabian 1001 Nights. I will offer a few lines about each book as enticements. The crux of Satanic Verses is not to blaspheme Islam, but to decry the demonization of the other in a mixed society, that is, to demonize the immigrant in your country. Rushdie wants to laud the contributions of every ethic group in a multi-cultural society. To paint anyone either all good or all evil is the real evil. To see one’s religion as outside of history is to reject the breakthroughs of the period of European Enlightenment. To accept the stories of one’s sacred text as the literal truth is to misunderstand myth and the purpose of storytelling in the first place. Midnight’s Children depicts the intersection in the lives of Shiva and Saleem, switched at birth at the historic moment when the nation of India was born in 1947 and the strife between Moslem and Hindu resulting in the creation of Pakistan. In The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie takes us to Renaissance Italy and Mughal India to weave another story about the intersection of East and West. Here he displays his knowledge of history and of both cultures. The novel dazzles with the intrigue of the period. Shalimar the Clown takes the reader on a ride from Kashmir to California, again suggesting how East and West, Moslem and Hindu have failed at understanding. Rushdie paints Kashmir as the original Paradise where Moslem and Hindu live side by side in peace until the politics of division intrudes, leaving them caught in the vise of warring Pakistan and India.  Love disintegrates into a terrorist act as Shalimar, the tightrope walker, single-mindedly pursues the American ambassador, his wife’s lover.

I like Rusdie because of his rich imagination, his inclusiveness, his storytelling virtuosity, and his facility with language. I recommend him to readers who are not afraid to dig in and work hard to probe beneath the easy platitudes of their society and grapple with global inter-dynamics, and to readers who want to put aside national shibboleths and comprehend the roots of terrorism and ethnic conflict wherever they persist.

I like Salman Rushdie because he affirms the importance of fiction. Storytelling is not a frivolity, but essential to humanity’s well-being. Raised a Moslem, Rushdie has a right to state that the Islamic world needs to develop a greater capacity for self-examination.  He has felt the wrath of fundamentalists, because the novel as a literary genre has been slow to develop throughout the Islamic world, although writers like the Egyptian Naguib Mafouz and the Saudi Abdelrahman Munif have tried to accelerate the general acceptance of the novel as a legitimate art form.  The increasing number of Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Arabs writing novels portends well for the growth of understanding of the value of novel in Islamic literature in which the traditions of poetry and prose treatises have predominated.

Rushdie’s response to a question in a Salon interview (January 1996) heartens me. He was asked how seriously should fiction be taken. He answered:

Very. I think there is nothing wrong with the idea that fiction is a matter of life and death. Look at the history of literature. Look at what happened in the Soviet Union. Look at what’s happening in China, in Africa, and across the Muslim World. It’s not just me. Fiction has always been treated this way. It does matter and it’s often very bad for writers that it does. But that just comes with the territory.

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