Mention Salman Rushdie, and everyone’s mind immediately goes to the infamous fatwa and the impenetrability of The Satanic Verses, the novel that caused so much furor back in 1988.
That’s most unfortunate, because Rushdie is a prolific writer who, despite uncommon hardship during his years in hiding, maintained an active writing life and impressive publishing history. He remains one of our most insightful, and human--extremely humane--critics of the West and its grapplings with other cultures.
He’s also a superb storyteller—playful, deft, witty, and compassionate. While I have a few more of his books in my “to read” stack beside my desk, I’ve read enough that I feel qualified to trace a few of the elements that make Rushdie’s compositions unique: uniquely his, uniquely valuable, uniquely reader-worthy. Other critics can explore the clash of cultures in great depth; I prefer to read Rushdie, first, for delight, second for truth. Now mature and at the height of his powers, he is a magician whose tricks appear effortless and evanescent, but casts a spell that keeps haunting the reader’s imagination.
Keep that image in mind. It’ll be back.
But to get there from here, first comes the Ur-text: Grimus.
In 1975, Rushdie published his first novel, Grimus. It was, as he later described, a flop. Rushdie scholar Paul Bryans calls it “a bizarre science-fiction/fantasy novel with few ties to the South Asian material which was going to inform his best fiction” (p. 5). Primarily marketed as science fiction, the semiotic and social critiques within the novel’s structure went largely unnoticed, and lagging sales quickly consigned it to the seconds’ bin.
Grimus is a tough read but worthwhile, with moments of fleeting beauty and evocations of tender humanity scattered like sea glass on a rocky shore. Much of the metaphysics is delivered in barely-digestible chunks by various characters—principally Virgil Jones and philosopher Ignatius Gribb. Other secondary characters chime in their truths as they understand them--which means, not particularly well. The novel’s segmented nature and overlapping plots make it hard to grasp in totality—in one reading, anyway. It really needs two. And a background in post-modern semiotics helps.
Bryans’ observation that Grimus lacks ties to Indian culture is, at base, mistaken. The novel blends Sufism’s views of eternality and diety with Western European themes of exile and quest, plus a big hat tip to Dante’s Commedia. The protagonist, Flapping Eagle, is enticed to drink an elixir given him and his sister by a traveling salesman, an elixir that confers immortality. He spends the next seven hundred years searching for the meaning and purpose of his gift. The text switches back and forth between Flapping Eagle’s earthly wanderings and his arrival at his final destination, the summit of Calf Island. Other immortals similarly gifted by the mysterious Grimus have gathered into the community of K halfway up the mountain, where they endure in mind-numbing sameness—or they do until Flapping Eagle arrives.
Grimus pioneers some of the rhetorical devices that Rushdie would go on to employ with increasing ease over his writing career—wildly different but parallel plots that eventually converge, if not on a literal level, then on a thematic one; verbal jokes, miscues and riddles whose solution clarifies and crystalizes questions of human nature or metaphysics; extreme opposites that, paired, become archetypes; linguistic fireworks and outright slapstick comedy. Virgil Jones, the protagonist’s long-suffering self-exiled guide, knows the full secret of Calf Island and the mysterious stone rose, but can’t explain. Knowing that Flapping Eagle must discover it and either continue the existence of the immortals or reject its burden, he can only take his protégé a certain distance and, like the other Virgil, hope he chooses wisely.
Buried within the novel and easily overlooked is the germ of a theme that Rushie would go on to explore in subsequent novels—the necessity of the multicultural. The community of K is peopled by Grimus’ select few, the men and women to whom he offered immortality, all of whom made their way to Calf Island. It’s a “pure” community. It’s also stultifyingly dull. All the jokes are old, all stories known; even the prostitutes in Madame Jocasta’s House of the Rising Son have run out of tricks. Failure to change, failure to accommodate change, failure to accept the rot and mortality of the world--all lead by necessity to sterile existence, an existence dependent upon illusion. When Flapping Eagle, who, despite his albinism, is the only obviously non-white immortal, arrives, he brings change. And change brings death. Actually, it brings more than death—a deathless acceptance of inevitability.
Political events, including the rise of religious fundamentalism in his native India and tensions between natives and the ghettoized non-white immigrants in his adopted Britain, engaged Rushdie more and more through the 1980’s, both in public life and in his writings. Among literary tributes and book reviews, in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 Rushdie collects many of the essays that branded him an outspoken critic of Britain, angering many nativist citizens and pols alike, and a spokesman for the Indian diaspora.
Alienation from the homeland as well as a secular worldview positioned Rushdie as a formidable social critic, and the violence that engulfed India, fueled by nationalist and religious fundamentalists, is prophesied in some of these essays. As he works out his position as exile, his critique of India itself comes through most purely in Midnight’s Children, which was hailed as a history or a guide to the “real” India, and fell short on both fronts.
Midnight’s Children is neither history nor travelogue; it’s a novel, and one that explores not only the matter of Indian nationalism in all its complexity and multi-vocality, but also the role of memory and imagination in the storyteller.
"When I began the novel (as I’ve written elsewhere) my purpose was somewhat Prousian. Time and migration had placed a double filter between me and my subject, and I hoped that if I could only imagine vividly enough it might be possible to see beyond those filters, to write as if the years had not passed, as if I had never left India for the West. But as I worked I found that what interested me was the process of filtration itself. So my subject changed, was no longer a search for lost time, had become a way in which we remake the past to suit our present purposes as our tool." “’Errata’: or, Unreliable Narration in Midnight’s Children, 23-24.Saleem Sinai, the narrator of Midnight’s Children, somewhat unreliably recreates India through storytelling, in order to construct meaning in his life, his life and the lives of the thousand other children born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the moment when the country of India was born. It asks the question “What is India?” at a moment when Indians themselves were struggling to define what it meant to be Indian, a time when nationalist movements allied with religious fundamentalists and ignited fires that are still burning.
The Artist as Exile
With his literary reputation secured by the critical reception to Midnight’s Children, Rushdie seems to have settled more comfortably into his identity as an Indian writer in exile:
“We are Hindus who have crossed the black water; we are Muslims who eat pork. And as a result—as my use of the Christian notion of the Fall indicates—we are now partly of the West. Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools. But however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy. If literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then once again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with such angles.” (“Imaginary Homelands,” p. 15)Exile, or rather, that doubledness of identity—Indian and British—the ground of the expatriate, provided the foundation from which rose the greatest Rushdie book that you’ve never read:
The Satanic Verses
Ah, The Satanic Verses. Most readers have never gone past the title, and the controversy. The fatwa, the years in hiding, the book that is more symbol than novel.
For all that, the book is a compelling read. Referencing everything from contemporary Indian politics and Ballywood gossip to literary history, with hat tips to Ovid, Dante, Joyce, Melville, popular song and high liturgy, The Satanic Verses is superficially intimidating. A good concordance is helpful. Probably the best one in public provenance is by Paul Brians from Washington State University, and is available as a pdf here: Notes on Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses (1988)
The main plot concerns the magical transformations of two actors: Gibreel Faristhta, a Ballywood heartthrob, and Anglophile Saladin Chamcha, a voice artist. As they fall to earth, the only survivors of a midair terrorist bombing, Gibreel takes on the aspect of an angel, while Saladin is transformed into a satyr. They wash up on the shore of the English Channel, and Saladin is promptly arrested as a suspected illegal immigrant and consigned to an asylum with various other metamorphosed unfortunates. Their respective appearances are deceptive and their lives intertwined. As Saladin grapples with the disillusion of his ideals and Gibreel battles madness, the two perform a fatal dance of forgiveness, redemption and death.
The parallel plots are usually ascribed to Gibreel’s fevered imagination, but they assert a presence in the text that surpasses Gibreel’s character and situation. How they arise doesn’t matter, anyway, because the parallel plots, removed from the main action either temporally or geographically, provide compelling contrapuntal meditations on the nature of belief.
The two subplots that kicked up the dust in Islam consist of a brief but biting satirical portrait of a fanatical Imam in exile, clearly the Ayatollah Khomeni, and the Mahound plot, a reimagination of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The events of the Prophet’s life—his exile, acceptance and subsequent rejection of the “satanic verses,” rise to power, and relationship to his scribe Salman (who becomes disillusioned when he realizes that Muhammad is not infallible, which leads to the Baal and Hind subplots)—all are threaded throughout the book.
Then there is the Ayesha subplot, roughly contemporary with the novel’s main action. The butterfly-clad prophetess and her pilgrimage is based on a real event in 1983, when 38 Shi’a pilgrims walked into the sea in Karachi, believing that the sea would miraculously open and bring them to Mecca. Mirza Saeed Akhtar accompanies his beloved wife Mishal, who is dying of breast cancer, on Ayesha’s mad pilgrimage and, horrified, must watch as all the pilgrims drown, even as other believers swear they saw the sea open. Akhtar, the skeptic and profoundly grieved widower, returns to his decaying home where he starves to death, reunited in his last minutes with Mishal, and within sight of Mecca. Of all the plots and subplots, this is the most mysterious, unsettling and memorable. It is also the one that deals most directly with loss, grief and death on a personal scale, and in terms of the terrible pain there is in being left behind.
Rushdie lays plot lines out beside one another, providing very little interplay among them. They run in parallel blocks, indirectly commenting on each other and illuminating the fatal relationship between Saladin and Gibreel, between India and England, between Saladin and himself.
The Enchantress of Florence
One effect of Rushdie’s life in hiding was a prolific literary output. The novels that followed The Satanic Verses experiment with form and show both a fierce intellect and a light playful humor (one displayed in The Satanic Verses as well, but often overlooked). In 2008, Rushie returns to the themes of exile and expatriation in his masterful novel The Enchantress of Florence.
The Enchantress evokes two great civilizations at their respective heights, the court of the great Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, and Renaissance Florence, and contrasts two great men, the Emperor himself, and Niccolo Machiavelli. A magician, a storyteller, a man with a secret--a blond wanderer who calls himself Mogor dell’Amor--arrives at the Emperor’s court.
In the day’s last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveler coming this way at sunset—this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road—might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests. (p. 5)The fabulously wealthy Akbar is, despite his wealth, his vast empire, his brilliant court, a hungry man, a man who craves knowledge, both of the world and of himself. His imagination is so powerful he has created for himself the perfect wife, Jodha:
So: the limitless beauty of the imaginary queen came from one consort, her Hindu religion from another, and her uncountable wealth from yet a third. Her temperament, however, was Akbar’s own creation. No real woman was ever like that, so perfectly attentive, so undemanding, so endlessly available. She was an impossibility, a fantasy of perfection. They feared her, knowing that, being impossible, she was irresistible, and that was why the king loved her best. (46)Akbar finds his counterpart, his soulmate, in the newcomer, who has come halfway across the world with a story that only the emperor himself can hear. The king’s desire to hear perfectly matches the story’s need to be told and, in the telling, everything in the court is changed.
The Mughal ruler is himself an expatriate, which carries modern political connotations as Rushdie notes, recalling a 1982 conference celebrating Indian literature and culture, in Imaginary Homelands:
Later in the day, an eminent Indian academic delivered a paper on Indian culture and utterly ignored all minority communities. When questioned about this from the floor, the professor smiled benignly and allowed that of course India contained many diverse traditions--including Buddhists, Christians, and 'Mughals'. The characterization of Muslim culture was more than merely peculiar. It was a technique of alienation. For if Muslims were 'Mughals', then they were foreign invaders, and Indian Muslim culture was both imperialist and inauthentic. (p.2)
That Rushdie sets the novel's main action in the Mughal court is itself a political statement; the Emperor's court represents the pinnacle of Indian imperial power and culture, and yet that greatness has been won by a foreigner.
Despite that cultural "foreignness," the Muslim court unites everyone in the realm. The Emperor wants everyone to participate; one of the novel's most poignant moments comes when Akbar summons two Hindu girls whose songs have magically saved the country to court, and the pair commit suicide rather than obey the call of a Muslim ruler. The king is himself an outsider, his court a mélange of different cultures, philosophies, and religions. And to this melting pot of intrigue comes another exile, the blond Italian.
The traveler wears a leather coat studded with hundreds of multicolored leather lozenges. It is, of course, a magic coat. Each lozenge contains a pocket and each pocket contains a secret. Moreover, concealed within the coat, the items are weightless and without dimension, so any given pocket might contain a handkerchief, or a jewel, or a vial of perfume, or a parrot. As Mogor dell’Amor is a magician/storyteller, the coat is a compelling metaphor for the storyteller’s art.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, because it’s too pitch-perfect to ruin with gross summary. As Mogor dell’Amor is the trickster who plays the court, the fraud who brings the truth, the dreamer whose vision of perfection supplants the Emperor’s own, so is the writer, any writer, a trickster who builds a world for the reader’s imagination to inhabit. The two plots mirror one another in many thematic respects, as each exists in a rich, beautiful but treacherous culture, a cruel culture whose excesses even the rulers themselves cannot control.
The unifying figure in The Enchantress is Mogor dell’Amor, the expatriate wise in many cultures, the man who straddles many categories and who brings a story the significance of which not even he fully understands. Behind him stands the writer himself, master of form and theme, the magician at the height of his powers.
It is our great fortune that Salman Rushdie is, for a writer, still a young man. Academics will dissect semiotics and thematic subtleties, and that's both necessary and valuable. Discerning readers will relish his stylistic brilliance and compassionate observation. For all readers, Rushdie's stories resonate long after the final page is turned and, like good poetry, return readings continue to yield deeper meanings and , like the Emperor's lake of gold, inexhaustible riches.