In an age of autofiction, lived experiences and hyperlocal storytelling, some believe Salman Rushdie’s novels are the literary equivalent of the long hair, oversized shoulder pads and sequined outfits of the 1980s.
A good way to start evaluating such judgments is to quickly move away from fashionable metaphors and look to literary eras for context. The 1980s were recently hailed as a golden age for British fiction by John Walsh, former literary editor of the Sunday Times. The best novels of the time, he says, were “alternately violent, tender, vulgar, ravishing, cerebral, argumentative, seductive, hilarious and obscene.” Among the authors who rose to prominence were Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain and Salman Rushdie.
These writers are often grouped together to represent the period, despite their distinctive characteristics. However, Rushdie’s work clearly stands out from the rest, at this time and later. Take his linguistic dexterity and his “chutnification” of English; his use of magical realism in his writings on the Indian subcontinent; and its carnivalesque treatment of politics and religion.
The fabulous and the real
Qualities that then seemed striking and vibrant are seen by some as tired and unattractive. Rushdie, they say, is overambitious and hyperbolic. One reviewer wrote that his novels are increasingly “wonderful and breezy”. They feel “chatty, unhappy, and mundane,” with no real humans running through them. (To which the narrator of Shame would say, “Realism can break a writer’s heart. “)
These critics lamented a decline in the literary merit of his work, perhaps stemming from their preconceived notions of what fiction should contain nowadays. To be sure, there are notable exceptions, but many acclaimed novels in English today are personal sagas with limited stylistic palettes.
Rushdie himself knows this. “Serious fiction has turned to an Elena Ferrante and Knausgaard-like realism,” he wrote in a recent essay, “fiction that asks us to believe that it comes from somewhere very near if not identical to personal experience of the author and far, so to speak, from magic.” He prefers to take the path illuminated by the “traditions of marvelous tales” in the manner of Italo Calvino, Günter Grass, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Such writers, says Rushdie, inject “the fabulous into the real to make it more alive and, strangely, more truthful.” It goes back further, from oral histories to A Thousand and one Night to Kathasaritsagara.
In his novels, Rushdie has also been accused of letting the political overtake the personal. Susan Sontag once said that “virtually all ambitious novels are at least implicitly political, and most are explicitly so”; Rushdie is squarely in the explicit camp, evident when he hitched India’s fate to that of its midnight child.
In this work, Indira Gandhi is satirical as “the widow”; in Shame, a character believed to be modeled after Benazir Bhutto is referred to as “the Virgin Ironpants”; and yet satanic verses is best known for its treatment of Islam, it also features the depredations of a certain “Margaret Torture”. More recently, a Trump-like presidential candidate in The golden house is called the Joker, a “sneerer with green skin and a red mouth”.
It all comes with an extra-strong mix of mythological and cultural references, laced with subversive interpretations of the value of religion and the meaning of history. Beneath this lies a serious investigation into the power of narratives, how they are shaped and what happens when they cross borders. His novels explore whether, like the American diplomat of Shalimar the Clown said, “the inevitable triumph of illusion over reality…was the most obvious truth about the history of the human race”.
For Rushdie, dealing with notions of home and faith means showing how “our lives, our stories, flowing into each other, were no longer ours, discrete individuals.” Thereby, The Enchantress of Florence blends Fatehpur Sikri with the Italian Renaissance; The ground under his feet introduces Greek mythology to rock-n-roll; and Quixote takes Don Quixote on an American road trip. Few other contemporary novelists in English go bankrupt in this way, which inevitably leads to varying degrees of success.
That this approach plunged him into hot water – boiling, in fact – is too well known to bear repetition here. Perhaps the narrator of Shame was prescient when he said, tongue to cheek, “I’m just telling some kind of modern fairy tale, so that’s fine; no one needs to get upset or take what I say too seriously. No drastic measures need to be taken either.
The literary wheel may be turning again. In a recent interview with The Hindu about his new novel, best of friends, Kamila Shamsie said that when asked why politics enters into all of her novels, her response was that “it’s part of the fabric of life”. Also watch the recognition given to Daisy Rockwell’s English translation of Geetanjali Shree sand tomb, a novel that is not afraid to be digressive, fantastic and political. Again, Ali Smith – in a totally different mode from Rushdie, despite a shared penchant for puns – wrote squarely about Brexit and beyond in his recent State of the Nation Quartet.
These are the reflections of a changing era. As Rushdie wrote in imaginary homelands“…particularly when the state takes reality into its own hands and sets out to distort it, to alter the past to suit its current needs, then the making of the alternative realities of art, including the novel of memory, becomes politicized. ”
It is certainly not the case that there should only be one type of romance. Fiction is a broad church, and it’s not about privileging one mode over another. Listen to Saleem Sinai’s lyrics in The Midnight Children: “And there are so many stories to tell, too much, such an excess of lives intertwined with miraculous events places rumours, such a dense mixture of the improbable and the banal!”