I am a Salman Rushdie fan so obviously I had to read this. It’s quite a huge tome and it would appeal primarily to people who are admirers of the writer’s work or who are interested in what it’s like to spend 13 years in hiding.
There have been some scathing reviews of this book. This one by Zoe Heller is apparently the most celebrated of them all, but having read the book myself (without having read any reviews) I feel that there are some things she willfully misunderstands because she wants to wield the hatchet. There are other points where I agree with her but I take it in the spirit of it being an honest representation of the writer as a flawed character, although this may not have been Rushdie’s intention in those passages.
Here are some of the things I got from the book. I try not to give everything away (anyway I couldn’t possibly, as I said, the book is huge) but if you plan on reading the book, read the following at your own peril:
- I always thought of Rushdie as the kind of snob who would smirk sardonically should a mere mortal deign to engage him in conversation. It is entirely possible he is all that. Or maybe that’s just his eyebrows. But anyway, he came across as much more of a regular guy, with a regular guy’s preoccupations (nobody loves me, how do I stand beside these literary greats without making an ass of myself, I’m not liking my wife anymore, my son’s awesome, oh shit, a powerful man wants me dead, okay not that last one etc.). This was a surprise.
- You can’t write a novel if you don’t know who you are. If your self is awkward, so will your novel be.
- Migration or rootlessness makes this knowing hard. Rushdie had to figure out a way to put down roots in different places equally, to recapture roots, to set down new ones, strengthen old one. Don’t we all?
- Midnight’s Children was personal, Shame was personal, The Satanic Verses was also personal. He drew on his own life heavily for the first, his feelings about Pakistan for the second and more from his life and his study of Islam for the third. It’s not icky to turn life into art. It works.
- Probably the most touching thing about this book is the writing of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I remember being slightly startled and then thrilled when I heard that Rushdie wrote this for his son. I had never pictured him as a fatherly type (refer to point 1). But his love for his son blazes through this book, his son as the bright light during a very dark time. The sea of stories in Haroun was born out of the stories he’d tell his son when giving him a bath as a baby, and I found this irresistibly endearing – the big man actually being a present parent and wielding his high art for the wee one.
- Later in the book, his second son Milan is born and again I was touched by how excited he was.
- I always think of artists who’ve been around for a while as detached when it comes to criticism about their work, but Rushdie took everything that was said about his work and himself extremely personally. Understandable because some of the things that were said in the court of public opinion could bolster the cause of those who wanted him dead. But beyond the threat to his life, he was deeply hurt by those who chose to stand against him. He was also affected by the attempts (successful apparently, if you refer to 1.) to paint him as a not-likeable person.
- His ordeal was paralelled by extremely important world events - Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc.- , and maybe they were all connected. It was the start of the war of culture that had been prophesied by the likes of Gramsci, but not the one that might have been imagined. It was the forces of authoritarianism taking over, gaining ground, closing doors and we’re still fighting that war today. To some extent, what happened to Rushdie was just the red flag.
- I began to appreciate the personal horror of what he was going through, being confined, a death threat hanging over his head. Initially, I wondered why he was so obsessed with publishing his books but later I realised that apart from the principle of the matter, he needed an income. Hiding out was expensive and he was not subsidized by the government even if the security was being provided free. There were times he had to break an expensive lease just because the place was deemed no longer secure. He was already in a hole and if his income stream was cut off, how horrible would it be.
- Not just himself, but his girlfriend/wife was also forced into this secret life with him. He married her in secret, they had their baby secretly, all the while with people grumbling about how much money it was costing (when the extra people were not really costing anything extra and he was paying for a lot himself). How horrible for his son Zafar going through his teenage years with all this hanging over his head, having to carry with him always the great secret of his father’s whereabouts and amazingly, never letting it slip.
- Even the great Rushdie, needs to be liked. One of the big mistakes in his campaign, he realised was to try and get people to understand his point of view, to see that he was a decent human being. A breakthrough was when he realised that some people were never going to, and that many had their own agendas for keeping a hate campaign against him alive. Nothing he could say would change that. So there was no point trying to compromise with those people. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem like he entirely got over his need to be liked, because he continued to feel encouraged by the affirmation of his peers. There’s a lesson in there for all of us – about the fallacy of needing to be liked but also, the limitations on overcoming that need.
- The lifting of the fatwa (and frankly, prior to reading this book, I wasn’t entirely sure it had been lifted except that Rushdie had become more visible) was the result of a protracted campaign. It helped that he was already high-profile and many famous writers around the world took up his cause and used their connections with different governments. How hard it must be for the average persecuted person. The middle section of the book is dedicated to this campaign and if it seems to stretch, you can imagine how a decade of house arrest stretched for the man in question.
- Writers take feedback on their work personally. They want people to like their work. Even great writers. Heh. And even great writers have even greater writers who they idolise and feel tongue-tied in front of.
- Rushdie comes out against the cultural relativism perspective that excuses everything on the grounds that “every culture is different”. He also comes out against fundamentalist religion and warns of the danger of fundamentalist Islam. (Unlike Heller’s contention, I got the impression that he is still making a distinction between the fundamentalist practice of Islam, that he believes is becoming dominant, and the moderate cultural practices). Way back then, he saw his own case as a harbinger of worse to come because the storms were brewing, stances were hardening, and the liberals were choosing to look the other way.
- There are lots of interesting tidbits about literary greats interacting – Harold Pinter (a close friend), Susan Sontag, Carlos Fuentes. One that caught my attention particularly was the petulance of Arundhati Roy. Rushdie seems a little nonplussed by her snubbing of him. Heh.
- I never quite understood why Rushdie switched from British to American citizenship but through this book it is so clear. While the British protected him, they were grudging and the sense was that they didn’t do enough to pressure Iran. On the short trips he made to America, he tasted freedom. There were also expressions of support. No wonder he was disillusioned with Britain.
- The ban on his book in India and not being allowed into the country hit him hard. It was political, but to him, it was personal. We forget he was born and grew up in Bombay. There’s a reason his books are so full of India.
- The end section dealt with the Padma Laxmi affair. I won’t go into it here but it was interesting to read his take. He definitely isn’t as hard on himself as he should be in his conduct towards his wives, but at least he makes some admissions of guilt and anyway, being biased towards his own point of view kind of makes him more human.