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Salman Rushdie and the journeys to truth

P Anima | Updated on June 12, 2021

Magical takeaways: The literature of the fantastic has embodied profound truths about human beings, observes Rushdie   -  ISTOCK.COM

In a new volume of essays, the author ponders over story, storytelling and storytellers

* “Hollywood or bust” it was to be

* Rushdie’s new collection of essays is endowed with insights into a writer at work, the recurring trials till he finds the proverbial wings

* Yet, more often than not, Rushdie emerges, fighting for a school of writing — the exponents of ‘wonder tales’

****

The boy born at the midnight hour of Indian independence languished in an unpublished text for a while before Salman Rushdie brought Saleem Sinai back to life at the heart of a new novel he was preparing to write. Rushdie, then almost 30, was still a struggling writer in London and working part-time as an advertising copywriter. His then literary oeuvre comprised four unpublished texts, and the novel Grimus, which, by the author’s own admission, revealed a writer who hadn’t “fully worked himself out”.

Vignettes: The revelatory personal essays are the high points of Rushdie’s new collection   -  REUTERS/DYLAN MARTINEZ

 

Armed with the advance for his first novel, Rushdie had set out, travelling widely in India, before returning to Britain with the framework of a new book in his head. The protagonist of the yet-to-be born novel had been identified, as well the ideas that would anchor his most ambitious and challenging work thus far.

“Hollywood or bust” it was to be.

Rushdie started writing in the third person, and to his frustration felt it fall rather limply on page. “There was a host of good stories waiting to be told, but the writing was falling short of what the stories needed,” he recalls.

Then one day, as an experiment, he lent Saleem Sinai the right to tell his story as the narrator of Midnight’s Children. The experiment was epiphanic. “I have always thought of that day as the day I became a writer, because what came out of me, somehow, was what I at once recognized as the best page I had ever written, in a voice that was not my own and yet gave me voice.”

Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020 / Salman Rushdie / Hamish Hamilton / Non-fiction / ₹799

 

Languages of Truth, the new collection of essays from Rushdie (73), is endowed with insights into a writer at work, the recurring trials till he finds the proverbial wings. “But once you have found those wings, however long it takes, however many times you have failed before you found them, once you have found your wings, you fly,” he says. The volume is a hat tip to literary mentors, some long gone, others active till the recent past, all influences, subtle and overt, which spurred those wings.

The revelatory personal essays are the high points of this vast collection, nearly 40 of them written over a span of 17 years (2003-2020), otherwise an extensive rumination on story, storytelling and storytellers. His subjects span the spectrum: Carrie Fisher and Osama Bin Laden, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Philip Roth, truth, courage and liberty in modern times. The obituary of friend and critic Christopher Hitchens shines with gratitude for his vociferous defence of Rushdie during his troubled fatwa years.

Rushdie’s previous collection of non-fiction Steps Across this Line dealt with the decade of 1992-2002. Split into four, the bulk of the pieces in Languages of Truth are either adapted from lectures or revised from essays written for a range of publications. Among the few to be originally published in the volume is Pandemic. Contemporary and in sync with the altered reality since 2020, it captures Rushdie’s personal battle with the virus, as well as the daunting task of writing in fraught times.

Languages of Truth defies chronology or a binding theme. Yet, more often than not, Rushdie emerges, fighting for a school of writing — the exponents of ‘wonder tales’. He is a decorated veteran of this subgenre, the practitioners of which currently find themselves “out of fashion”. Fiction itself has fervently turned to realism in the era of non-fiction, and novelists whose work is illuminated by the magical and the fantastic have found themselves out of favour.

Realistic fiction, the forte of newer writers Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgård and, other descendants of Clarissa Harlowe (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the 18th-century realist novel), comes from “a place very close to if not identical to the author’s personal experience”. Rushdie, on the other hand, has cast himself as the writer of “weirder books”, a tradition that is as long, but not as populated as realistic fiction.

“The Western writers I have most admired, writers such as Italo Calvino and Günter Grass, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaac Bashevis Singer, have all feasted richly on their various wonder-tale traditions and found ways of injecting the fabulous into the real to make it more vivid and, strangely, more truthful,” he observes.

He returns to the dichotomic traditions in Gabo and I, an essay on Garbriel Garcia Márquez, ruminating on fickle literary fashions, and insists what has come to be known in Latin America as magic realism is not a passing fad. There is resignation, and also hope when he claims becoming unfashionable is not such a bad thing after all. “It removes the work from the glare of the world’s attention and allows it simply to be there, greeting what readers do come, and waiting for the great wheel to turn, as it must, as it always does”.

Rushdie’s essays are meditations on the story and storytelling, habits that precede the written word, are fed and nourished by imagination, and which, quite often dip into pools of the wondrous, fantastic and the magical, yet speak the truth, albeit differently.

“The literature of the fantastic — the wonder tale, the fable, the folk tale, the magic-realist novel — has always embodied profound truths about human beings, their finest attitudes and their deepest prejudices,” he says. Languages of Truth is a writer’s diary even when it works as a handbook on storytelling. It is Rushdie’s dissection of the storyteller he came to be.

Published on June 12, 2021

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