Languages of Truth by Salman Rushdie review – profound insights and platitudes

The inspiration for Midnight’s Children came to Salman Rushdie on a backpacking trip around India. Dit was 1974, and he had just received an advance of £700 for his debut novel, Grimus. But he still saw himself as an apprentice novelist who worked part-time for an ad agency in London. He stretched out his advance over four months of travel, roughing it in 15-hour bus rides and humble hostelries, reacquainting himself with the country he had known as a child. The homecoming made him reconsider a minor character in an old story: a snot-nosed Bombay boy, Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of India’s independence, whose destiny aggressively mirrored the timeline of major events in the subcontinent. The new novel would tell the story not of a life, but a nation.

Rushdie has previously written here and there about his rookie years, and he writes about them again in his new collection of essays, Languages of Truth. He prefaces the story this time with a memory of having lunch with the American writer Eudora Welty in Londen, one year after Midnight’s Children won the Booker prize. During the meal, Rushdie ended up asking Welty about William Faulkner. How did she perceive the Nobel laureate, who had lived out his life in Mississippi like Welty? Did she think of him as one of the writers closest to her? Welty’s response was caustic: “I’m from Jackson," sy het gese. “He is from Oxford. It’s miles away.”

Welty’s distinction was lost on Rushdie, as it would have been on the generation of English-language novelists from south Asia (characterised by his rallying cry “Empire Writes Back”) who came of age in the 1980s and 90s. Most of these writers responded to the west’s long history of exoticising the subcontinent by effectively exoticising the subcontinent themselves. Tropes broadly associated with entire countries – gods, garish weddings, oral storytelling, crowds, spices, die Kama Sutra – were gussied up as markers of an assertive diasporic identity, representative of disparate cultures and societies. The “Indian English” they claimed to be writing in was hardly ever employed to register subliminal shifts, or to probe deeper into a point of view. The priority was to cleanse the language of the colonisers’ taint, either through a peppering of untranslated words, or with chaotically stacked clauses that apparently mimicked the clamour of life back home. Rereading Midnight’s Children laas jaar, I was struck by how the problem of double consciousness, inevitable in characters growing up just after British rule, is resolved by avoiding inwardness in the first place.

Many of the old rhythms course through the essays in this new book, at least across the first 200 pages. There is the same impervious sense of wonder about “storytelling”, difficult for the reader to share in the age of fake news and social media algorithms. There is the same uncomplicated nostalgia about growing up in Bombay 70 jare terug: how the young Rushdie was obsessed with fairytales and fables, how they all fed into the magic realism of his novels. The rare occasions of vulnerability – the too-late discovery, for instance, that his charming grandfather had actually been a paedophile – are hushed up in parentheses, snubbed for a more palatable narrative. In a piece written after Philip Roth’s death, Rushdie admires the author of Portnoy’s Complaint for starting off as a “literary revolutionary” and branching out, with the late novels, into political prescience. Rushdie’s own trajectory has been different: the effusive ambition of his early work has run out of steam. The trademark sentences, once full of showy allusions and turns, are now rife with chatty platitudes.

The essay on Roth also reveals a subconscious makeover: more often than not, when Rushdie uses the first-person plural in this volume, he is talking about those who live in the US like him. The boy from Bombay has travelled far: Cambridge, Londen, the decade spent in hiding after the Satanic Verses fatwa, and then the transatlantic leap. Though he credits his Indian childhood for his literary moorings, it is in England where he learned to write, found the “perfect writer’s garret” and, more importantly, found the distance necessary to reflect on his early themes: displacement, childhood, nationhood, stories within stories, the prehistory of Islam. Whether it is the time he went to university in the 60s and discovered “civil rights, and flower power, and girls”, or later, palling around with Harold Pinter en Christopher Hitchens on the London literary circuit, his prose still glows bright while evoking scenes from his interlude in Britain.

Twenty of the essays in this collection have been adapted from public talks and lectures. The number is in line with the figure Rushdie cuts in this century: not so much a novelist who happens to be famous, but a fixture in the culture pages, more in the news for his opinions than his work. There was the time he called the writer Mo Yan a “patsy” of the Chinese government. Or the kerfuffle that seems to ensue whenever he admits that he couldn’t finish Middlemarch. Rushdie is just as at home holding forth on the morality of children’s stories as recounting his friendship with Carrie Fisher. In an essay on screen adaptations of novels, he can move from Satyajit Ray aan Lolita aan Slumdog Millionaire, and also reveal that he was invited to appear on Dancing With the Stars.

These days Rushdie lives in Manhattan and teaches at New York University. In 2004, he became the president of PEN America, and one section brings together the speeches he has delivered during their fundraisers and events, impelled by a need to pay forward the support he received during the fatwa years. Here Rushdie is passionately railing against the 2011 arrest of Ai Weiwei in China, and speaks out against the rise of Hindu supremacy in Modi’s India. During the heyday of the Trump administration, he calls out the impunity with which “a government of billionaires and bankers … is able to dismiss its adversaries as elites”.

But Rushdie’s activism has its blind spots. Na 2020, it’s easy to forget his regular TV appearances with Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, fellow hardline atheists, their provocations through the George W Bush and Barack Obama years on whether Muslim women can choose to wear the veil, or their insistence that terrorist attacks by groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State somehow proved “the militancy of modern Islam”. The knowledge that he backed the US-led assault on Afghanistan – a New York Times op-ed he wrote after 9/11 was headlined “Yes, This Is About Islam” – undercuts the force of his reflections on liberty and truth. Now he cagily concedes that he couldn’t foresee the secularisation of “religious extremism” before Trump.

Did these public convictions impair his literary judgment? How else to account for the thin veneer overlaying these pieces, the jokes and evasions that work well enough in conversation but seldom on the page? A remark on Bob Dylan becomes an occasion to work in words from his most popular lyric. A riff on Roth and comedy triggers the speculation that Dave Chappelle is “Portnoy’s African American child”. With Rushdie, profound insights are invariably followed by something pat, and sometimes the insights themselves are not as revelatory as he would have us think. It is disappointing to find him apprising his readers that the word “novel” also refers to something new, of: “We can be, we are, many selves at once.”

And yet, just when you think his late style has set in, you run into a different, more private, Rushdie. The final 50 pages or so – comprising pieces on painters, photographers and personal ephemera – contain probably the best nonfiction he has written in years. Rushdie is a perceptive art critic, stirred alike by Mughal-era cloth paintings and Kara Walker’s contemporary silhouettes. Reading the artist Amrita Sher-Gil’s letters, he notices a sensibility moving “naturally towards the melancholy and the tragic”. Midway through a memoir of celebrating Christmas as an atheist, he recalls climbing up the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. The sentences carefully rise to the intensity of these moments. Rushdie is happy to record just what he sees and feels. You sense that he has arrived somewhere new after a long impasse and hope that it is a sign of good things to come.

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