How to capture, within 1001 words, all the hype and hyper-realism, the epic scale and elephantine form, the textual pyrotechnics and verbal exuberance, the notoriety and over-sized celebrity, of a writer as gigantic as Salman Rushdie? One response would be to fall to pieces, as Saleem does, quite literally, when faced with the sheer size and incommensurability of India’s history in Midnight’s Children (1981).
Another would be to run with the hyperbole, as does cultural critic Sukhdev Sandhu:
'Rushdie … is one of the world’s most famous writers. Any upscale Manhattan party on whose dancefloor he hasn’t shaken his ass by midnight might be considered a failure. His novels sell in their hundreds of thousands, Midnight’s Children (1981) was adjudged Booker of Bookers in 1994.' (Sandhu, 2003)
We might add to this impressive list that Rushdie’s writing has spawned a minor academic industry of its own, with over 700 articles and chapters already written on his fiction, and no less than 30 book-length studies focusing on Rushdie’s life and works. The problem with this hyperbolic approach is that it leads to sweeping generalisations about Rushdie that ignore, as Sandhu goes on to point out, ‘the historical and geographical specificities which give his fictions such gristle and throb’.
A more modest, microscopic account of Rushdie would seem sensible in this context: one that can account for the formal plasticity of the author’s work in terms of Indian oral traditions rather than global postmodernism; or his cinematic allusions in terms of Bombay cinema of the 1950s rather than a general, Westernised conception of ‘Bollywood’; or his writing in terms of its discrete literary concerns, minor shifts of emphasis and thematic developments, rather than through catch-all labels such as ‘magic realism’ or ‘post-colonialism’. Indeed, it could be argued that the continued critical neglect of Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus (1975) has to do in part with its atypical qualities and its stubborn resistance to generalisations as such.
Grimus was even idiosyncratic in terms of its immediate reception, being something of a flop when first published, or ‘too clever for its own good’ in the author’s words. The novel is set on the imaginary Calf Island and follows the quest of Flapping Eagle by way of a curious blend of styles that incorporates modernism and existentialism, American Indian and Sufi mythologies, as well as allegory and science fiction. Unlike his subsequent writing, all of which reveals a firmly geographical imagination (despite and perhaps because of its preoccupation with dislocation), there is a certain boundlessness about Rushdie’s first novel, which critics like Timothy Brennan have argued explain its neglect. What is suggestive in terms of the later fiction is Rushdie’s fascination with the central ideas of admixture and migration.
Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983) and The Satanic Verses (1988) are Rushdie’s best-known works to date, and are sometimes regarded together as a trilogy. Midnight’s Children is, among other things, a fictional history of post-Independence India, a story we are asked to read through the lens of Saleem Sinai’s life. Born in the midnight hour of Independence, Saleem, along with 1001 other children, is gifted with magical powers which lead in both creative and destructive directions. Born to poor Hindu parents, brought up by wealthy Muslims, Saleem is a bastard child of history and a metaphor for the post-colonial nation.
According to Rushdie the falsification of history in Midnight’s Children was a symptom of his own status as a migrant writer living in London and trying to capture an imaginary homeland through the imperfections of childhood memory. It is this theme of migration which grows increasingly central to the content of the next two novels. Shame is a magic realist rendering of Pakistan, and like Midnight’s Children uses a private family saga as a thinly-veiled allegorical model for the nation’s public and political history. The ancestral home upon which the novel focuses is a gothic, subterranean and labyrinthine setting where the windows only look inwards. As such it serves to suggest the dark violence, repressive consciousness and secretive character associated with Pakistan in the tumultuous years after 1947.
In The Satanic Verses the schizophrenic migrant imagination that intermittently erupts into the primary narrative fabric of Shame takes a hold of the entire text. The novel begins nearly 30,000 feet above sea-level in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on an aeroplane. As the Indian protagonists Saladhin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta tumble to the ground, they begin to metamorphose into satanic and angelic forms. The novel’s depiction of the history of Islam famously resulted in a fatwa being pronounced on Rushdie. Beyond the offending passages, however, is a novel that is as critical of Thatcherism as it is of Islam, with both 1980s London and ancient Jahilia/Mecca becoming parallel universes associated with emergent cultures of intolerance and fundamentalism.
Written in the shadow of the fatwa, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) is a children’s story for adults and a gripping allegorical defence of the power of stories over silence. Similarly, his next novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), though reminiscent in certain respects of Midnight’s Children, and set mainly in India, deals with themes of isolation and death that recall the author and the ‘Affair’. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) is an altogether more exuberant novel. Both a love story and a history of rock music from the margins, the book is a celebration of some of Rushdie’s central themes to date (movement, hybridity, transformation) by way of Greek mythology and the Orpheus/Eurydice myth.
Along with his next novel, Fury (2001), The Ground Beneath Her Feet suggests a new preoccupation with issues of globalisation (rather than the ‘mere’ transnationalism of earlier works). In other ways, though, Fury is another atypical novel. Set mainly in New York and relatively detached from South Asian contexts, the book is Rushdie’s most condensed fiction to date, avoiding the characteristic sprawling narrative strands that span generations, periods, and places.
Shalimar the Clown (2005), Rushdie’s ninth novel, has been hailed by a number of critics as a return to form. Set in Kashmir and Los Angeles, it develops many of the themes present in Fury but, according to The Observer, in a ‘calmer’ and ‘more compassionate’ manner. Ostensibly a story about love and betrayal (familiar themes in Rushdie’s earlier work), there is a fresh urgency about this book with its meditations on post-9/11 terrorism. The Enchantress of Florence (2008), Rushdie’s next novel, was also one of his most structurally challenging works to date. It is beyond simple summary and represents, on the surface at least, a turn from present to past, from politics to poetics (of course, the two are mutually constitutive). Focusing on a European’s visit to Akbar’s court, and his revelation that he is a lost relative of the Mughal emperor, the novel was reviewed in glowing terms in the Guardian as a ‘sumptuous mixture of history with fable’.
In 2012, Rushdie published his long awaited memoir, Joseph Anton (a combination of two of his favourite authors: Conrad and Chekhov). The 650-page book is a treasure trove for fans of the writer. Written in the third person, Joseph Anton contains intimate portraits of Rushdie’s parents and first wife, his years in hiding and his mixed relations with the police who were his guardians, his literary and political friends and foes, as well as a whole string of tantalizing biographical insights into the mind of the man behind the stories.
A sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and one of his most critically acclaimed works in recent years, Luka and the Fire of Life (2010) returns initiated readers to the familiar landscape of Alifbay and the world of Haroun and his great storytelling father, Rashid. When Rashid falls, unexpectedly, into a deep sleep, it is only Luka, Haroun’s younger brother (now not so young: eighteen years have passed since his adventure), who can save him from oblivion. It is a rescue attempt that takes Luka on a magical journey that rivals even Haroun.
While Rushdie has always been best known as a novelist, he is also an artful essayist (Imaginary Homelands, 1991 and Step Across This Line, 2002); an influential, and sometimes controversial, editor (The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1997 and The Best American Short Stories, 2008); a surprisingly economical short story writer (East, West, 1994) and an astute cultural critic (The Wizard of Oz, 1992). For Rushdie, it seems, excess, superabundance, and multiplicity are more than just aesthetic concerns, they are also a vocation.
Dr J Procter, 2013
For an in-depth critical review see Salman Rushdie by Damian Grant (Northcote House, 1999: Writers and their Work Series).
Nationality: British. Born: Bombay, India, 1947. Education: Cathedral School, Bombay; Rugby School, Warwickshire, 1961-65; King's College, Cambridge, 1965-68, M.A. (honours) in history 1968. Career: Worked in television in Pakistan and as actor in London, 1968-69; freelance advertising copywriter, London, 1970-81; council member, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, from 1985. Sentenced to death for The Satanic Verses in a religious decree (fatwa) by Ayatollah Khomeini, and forced to go into hiding, February 1989. Awards: Arts Council bursary; Booker prize, 1981; English-Speaking Union award, 1981; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1982; Foreign Book prize (France), 1985; Whitbread award, 1988, 1995; Writer's Guild prize for children's fiction, 1991; Kurt Tucholsky prize, 1992; Prix Colette, 1993; Booker of Bookers, 1993; State Prize for European Literature, 1994. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983. Honorary professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Agent: Aitken Stone & Wylie Ltd., 29 Fernshaw Road, London SW10 OTG, England.
Grimus. London, Gollancz, 1975; New York, Overlook Press, 1979.
Midnight's Children. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1981.
Shame. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1983.
The Satanic Verses. London, Viking, 1988; New York, Viking, 1989.
The Moor's Last Sigh. New York, Pantheon Books, 1995.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet. New York, Henry Holt, 1999.
East, West: Stories. New York, Pantheon, 1994.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Free Radio," in Firebird 1, edited by T.J. Binding. London, Penguin, 1982.
"The Prophet's Hair," in The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, edited by Malcolm Bradbury. London, Viking, 1987; New York, Viking, 1988.
"Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies," in New Yorker, 22 June 1987.
"Untime of the Imam," in Harper's (New York), December 1988.
Fiction (for children)
Haroun and the Sea of Stories. London, Granta, 1990; New York, Viking, 1991.
Television Writing: The Painter and the Pest, 1985; The Riddle of Midnight, 1988.
The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey. London, Pan, and NewYork, Viking, 1987.
Is Nothing Sacred? (lecture). London, Granta, 1990.
Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London, Granta, and New York, Viking, 1991.
The Wizard of Oz. London, BFI, 1992.
Conversations with Salman Rushdie, edited by Michael Reder. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
The Salman Rushdie Bibliography: A Bibliography of Salman Rushdie's Work and Rushdie Criticism by Joel Kuortti, Frankfurt am Main and New York, P. Lang, 1997.
Three Contemporary Novelists: Khushwant Singh, Chaman Nahal, and Salman Rushdie edited by R.K. Dhawan, New Delhi, Classical, 1985; The Perforated Sheet: Essays on Salman Rushdie's Art by Uma Parameswaran, New Delhi, Affiliated East West Press, 1988; The Rushdie File edited by Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland, London, Fourth Estate, 1989, Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1990; Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation by Timothy Brennan, London, Macmillan, 1989; A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam by Malise Ruthven, London, Chatto and Windus, 1990; The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, The Ayatollah, and the West by Daniel Pipes, New York, Birch Lane Press, 1990; Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death by W.J. Weatherby, New York, Carroll and Graf, 1990; Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, London, Grey Seal, 1990; The Novels of Salman Rushdie edited by G.R. Tanefa and R.K. Dhawan, New Delhi, Indian Society for Commonwealth Studies, 1992; Salman Rushdie by James Harrison, New York, Twayne, 1992; Salman Rushdie's Fiction: A Study by Madhusudhana Rao, New Delhi, Sterling, 1992; For Rushdie: A Collection of Essays by 100 Arabic and Muslim Writers, New York, Braziller, 1994; Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie, edited by M.D. Fletcher, Atlanta, Rodopi, 1994; Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie by Leonard W. Levy, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1995; Colonial and Post-colonial Discourse in the Novels of Yom Sang-Sop, Chinua Achebe, and Salman Rushdie by Soonsik Kim, New York, P. Lang, 1996; Salman Rushdie by Catherine Cundy, Manchester, England, Manchester University Press, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996; Salman Rushdie by D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998; Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie, edited by M. Keith Booker, New York, G.K. Hall, 1999.
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Rushdie's Midnight's Children is often credited with having made Magic Realism a popular style for postcolonial English-language fiction. His models were the German Gunther Grass and Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Written in a larger than life manner, mixing fact with fable, such novels suggest an allegory of recent political history with the fabulous events corresponding to public realities. The magic world of the folk imagination blends with the Western and Westernized modernity brought about by colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and science. The older and modern explanations are often in conflict. Whereas Midnight's Children concerns the modern colonial history of India through the independence struggle up to the national emergency declared by Mrs. Ghandi in 1975, Shame tells a story based on the political infighting among leading politicians in post-Partition Pakistan. In both novels modern political history is partly told as, and found to be similar to, the folk tales and myths of the past. A writer with a marvelous imagination whose plots always surprise, and with an instantly recognizable manner and diction modeled on traits of Indian and Pakistani spoken English, someone who often puns in several languages, Rushdie is also abrasive and combative. On the liberal Left, and for a time flirting with Marxism, Rushdie attacks, usually by satirizing, parodying, and making grotesque, what he considers reactionary and feudal forces in society.
Behind each novel there is usually a central topic being examined. In Shame it is how notions of personal and family honor in Pakistani politics are related to the feelings of shame that cause a Pakistani family in England to kill its daughter for what it regards as sexual dishonor. The obviousness of his allusions has often brought him into trouble, making him the most famous writer of our time. Mrs. Ghandi as Prime Minister of India sued Rushdie in court for the suggestion in Midnight's Children that to insure her power she had her son killed, which the novel implied was continuing older feudal Indian dynastic practices and was part of the real politics of post-colonial India. Shame was banned in Pakistan for insulting the state and individuals. Then in Satanic Verses, a novel about fanaticism and terrorism, Rushdie was felt by some radical fundamentalist Muslims to have insulted Islam and a fatwah was declared that he must be killed. The novel remains banned in many countries.
Rushdie, who had studied Islamic history, had followed scholarly sources in retelling older stories about Mohammed's life, but his novel became a pawn in the mobilization of Islamic sentiment against the West and liberalism. Rushdie himself had said nothing; the passages which caused offense were the fantasies and dreams of a psychotic character in his novel. But as a result several publishing houses were bombed, translators killed, and Rushdie for many years remained hidden from public sight. The novel concerned such common Rushdie themes as the condition of exile, living in more than one language and culture, deracination, and the foreigner's feelings of alienation and fear. It implies that values are relative and that what becomes accepted history is arbitrary and regarded differently at various times and places. Its strongest satire was aimed at England, especially Margaret Thatcher's government, but also a London Black Power hustler. It concludes with what appears to be Rushdie's own imagined reconciliation with his father in Bombay; a reconciliation necessarily imagined as his family moved from Bombay to Pakistan after Indian independence.
Throughout his work there is nostalgia for the Bombay of his youth, a Bombay which is now called Mumbai, in an India which has now become three nations, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Bombay, the most cosmopolitan city in India, a place where many tongues are spoken in mangled and marvelous mixtures, home of a thriving commercial film industry ("Bollywood"—which often figures in Rushdie's novels), is the home to which his imagination often returns. East, West includes "The Courier," memories of his teenage years in England and refusing to choose between two cultures. Most of the short stories in East, West concern just such choices and conclude with some affirmation of Indian or Muslim values, affirmations which, coming as a surprise, seem ironic, even comic, as if the two cultures could not be reconciled.
Rushdie's later fiction suggests someone trying to come to terms with exile and accepting that the world has always been a place of migrancy and cross-cultural influences. At the conclusion of The Moor's Last Sigh, Moraes Zogoiby flees an apocalyptic Bombay of gang wars, bombings, and communal violence for Spain. There he is imprisoned by an enemy who forces him to write his personal and family history. The reader then turns back to the start of the novel which continues the narrator's flight and story, as Moraes nails pages of his tale to trees in an act which he sees as equivalent to Luther's theses, while recalling his mother's remark that he is full of feces. Moraes is the Moor of the title, although he is Jew, Christian, and Indian. His mother's side of the family is descended from the Portuguese who settled Goa and his father's side can trace its lineage to the Christian reconquest of Spain when both Moors and Jews were expelled. They have been Indian for centuries.
The Moor's Last Sigh is another version of Midnight's Children which used an improbable, fantastic family history as a way to retell the story of modern India from, in the earlier novel, the penetration of Western rationalism and science in the north during the late nineteenth-century through major events of the independence movement until the progressive vision of Nehru was destroyed by the emergence of a nativistic dynastic feudalism during the Emergency under Indira Gandhi. In The Moor's Last Sigh Indian history is told from the perspective of the South, with its many minorities, rather than the Hindu-Islamic North, and Indira's dynastic perversion of nationalism is supplanted by fanatical nativist thugs who violently destroy whatever they regard as non-Hindu. The wandering Jew has become the wandering Moor, symbolic of India's threatened minorities and the rejection of the Westernized elite that founded the nation. The narrator has become a homeless expatriate. World, national, and family history in this novel have autobiographical and literary foundations. Like Scheherazade the narrator has staved off execution by telling, or inventing, his Thousand and One Nights.
In The Ground Beneath Her Feet the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is retold as two Indian lovers who become international rock stars symbolic of recent Western and post-colonial culture. This is Rushdie's New World novel, half of it set in New York, with some major events in Mexico. It is his most accessible novel, understandable without knowing Indian history and culture, as it alludes to or imitates cultural fashions of recent decades. The protests against the war in Vietnam, apocalyptic sci-fi novels, and grung rock are all there and all treated as equal. Instead of Bombay politicians he alludes to John and Yoko, Sid and Nancy. Curiously Rushdie's first novel, the widely disliked Grimus, was also a mixed bag of cultural fashions and allusions including sci-fi, American Indians and American history and popular culture, mythology, and movies. There, unlike The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the story was difficult to follow.
The first half of The Ground Beneath Her Feet is set in Bombay and reworks material from Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh concerning the late colonial period and the corrupt violent politics that followed independence. The perspective is that of the Parsis, a small minority that flourished for a century by adopting British ways, becoming the modernizers of India, who since independence have become increasingly threatened and marginalized.
Rai, the narrator (Rai the fusion of North African Arabic music with rock that is popular in France and Algeria), says that these are his last memories of Bombay. The main characters leave for England and then move on to New York (where Rushdie has been living in recent years). The shifts correspond somewhat to periods of Rushdie's own life, with the Beatles and well-known Chelsea people featuring in the early sections of the second half of the book. Rai, a photographer, joins the migration of British literati to New York, which he proclaims the center of the modern world while claiming that the USA is the world's bully. Rai holds politically correct opinions. While he gives his rock-and-rollers abusive and abusing poor-white-trash early lives, Rushdie says several times that no matter what they suffer it is not as bad as what African-Americans suffer. The social texture of this half of the novel thins badly. In the past Rushdie was criticized as sexist, so here we have two strong macho women rock-and-roll stars who have sex whenever, wherever, and with whomever they want, while the two men in their lives abstain and, although themselves famous artists, are softies. There are also a great lesbian guitarist and a great female drummer. The first half of The Ground Beneath Her Feet reads well. The second half is often Rushdie at his worst, making bad puns, opinionated, losing his story, and reducing life to a cartoon.