Has Rushdie lost it?

Posted in books by jrahman on August 17, 2005

Christopher Hitchens apparently recognised the dangers of Islamic theocracy and the ‘intellectual bankruptcy of the left’ during the Rushdie affair.  Debate about that as much as you want, but it is pretty hard to dispute that Khomeini’s fatwa took heavy toll on Rushdie’s writing.  His novels have worsened since 1989, with the last effort (Fury, set partly in New York, released in August 2001, with the cover spookily showing a plane flying pretty close to the Empire State Building) being barely readable.  Step across this line, a collection of non-fiction written in the decade to 2002, is not quite that bad.  But neither does it match Imaginary homelands, collection of non-fiction written in the 1980s.  And even here, one can see how the quality slipped over the 1990s.

The book consists of four parts: essays, collection of pieces written during the years spent underground, columns, and the title lecture.  Compared with Imaginary homelands, there are less book reviews or writings about South Asia, and more about rock music and pop culture.  Everyone has two homelands: one’s own country and America, Rushdie wrote elsewhere, and this volume attests to Rushdie’s infatuation with his new home.

Essays, on subjects ranging from the Wizard of Oz to Taj Mahal, make up nearly half the book.  The essays are of a variable quality.  Rushdie has usually been at his strongest when writing about South Asia.  But not here – he repeats himself on Gandhi or the Indian secularism.  And the piece about his return to India after many years disappoints – he can be forgiven for some sentimentalism, sure, but what does Rushdie think about the massive transformation that urban India had gone through in the intervening years?  Comparatively better are the piece about English football and anecdotes of London in the swinging sixties.  But even here, he doesn’t say anything that Nick Hornby doesn’t.  Only the essay on the Mughal emperor Babur evokes vintage Rushdie.

The second part, titled Messages from the plague years, is by far the strongest section of the book.  It was remarkable that in the last decade of the 20th century, a writer’s life could be threatened, in a liberal democracy, for committing blasphemy.  Obviously the right to free speech wasn’t as secure as we thought, and in these pieces, Rushdie carries on the good fight.

The columns on the other hand are patently weak.  His politics is at once simplistic and convoluted.  His grasp of strategic or economic issues is questionable.  And most surprisingly, he doesn’t say anything original in the few dozen pieces written over a few years.  He was in New York that September morning, but you couldn’t tell from his column appearing in October 2001.  Migration and displacement are prominent themes in Rushdie’s better works, but you couldn’t tell from his column on the ethnic strife involving immigrants in Fiji.  On JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, Rushdie says that the novelist’s job is to shed some lights on the characters, not just report on them.  Even more so for the columnist I would have thought – after all, just for mere reportage of facts we have the reporters.

The title section, a lecture on human values delivered at Yale in February 2002, is a good summary of Rushdie’s concerns – migration, translation, liberty, frontier.  He is a post-modern, globalised fellow, and this comes across in the article.  In less than 40 pages, he draws on Greek legends, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem on partition, Mark Antony’s speech, and The Onion’s spoof on the ‘axis of evil’.  He tells us that people have been crossing frontiers since the beginning of time, and the concepts of ‘roots’ and ‘traditions’ are problematic at best – as someone who’s been crossing borders all his life, I couldn’t agree more.  But I have read this stuff before.  I mean, isn’t this what Satanic Verses is meant to be about?

He also tells us that post 9/11, we’re living at a crossroad of history, when one era ends and another begins.  Tariq Ali called Rushdie a belligerati (or was it ‘one of the empire’s cheerleaders’?) – liberal intellectuals who would have the US military liberating the world.  Well, that was Rushdie’s view in late 2001.  What does he think now after so much has happened?  Like Hitchens, to whom the book is dedicated, did he step across the line and endorse Bush (I don’t think he is a naturalised American yet) in 2004?  Or is his love affair with the ‘war on terror’ as deep and meaningful as his public embrace (and equally public disavowal) of Islam?  I guess we’ll find out in the collection of his writings in the current decade.  Or maybe not.  This book contains nothing about Rushdie’s fling with Islam.  A shame.

All in all, if you’re already familiar with Rushdie, don’t bother reading it, unless you don’t mind being disappointed.  On the other hand, if you’ve never read Rushdie, don’t start with this.

Originally posted at A-A-A.


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