Review December 2012

How the Mullahs Won

Salman Rushdie’s artistic decline

This might be less problematic if, as Joseph Anton reveals, Rushdie did not manifest a newly positive attitude toward realism, which he seems to pride himself on while simultaneously showing an unwillingness to sacrifice the decidedly unrealistic aspects of his fiction. He recounts the “advice he never forgot,” given to him by the medievalist Arthur Hibbert during the former’s time at Cambridge.

“You must never write history,” Hibbert said, “until you can hear the people speak.” He thought about that for years, and in the end it came to feel like a valuable guiding principle for fiction as well. If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t—you shouldn’t—tell their story. The way people spoke, in short, clipped phrases, or long, flowing rambles, revealed so much about them: their place of origin, their social class, their temperament, whether calm or angry, warmhearted or cold-blooded, foulmouthed or clean-spoken, polite or rude; and beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.

If spoken, this paragraph would certainly reveal Rushdie himself as someone simpleminded and Manichaean: How else to explain the belief that we can decipher whether someone is “warmhearted or cold-blooded,” let alone “good or bad,” by the way they speak? But the truly odd thing to note is that people almost never speak the way people speak in Salman Rushdie’s books. Sometimes this can be a joy; other times, not. In Fury, surely Rushdie’s worst novel, he presents us with an octogenarian German Jewish plumber named Joseph Schlink:

My name amuses you? So laugh. The chentleman, Mr. Simon, calls me Kitchen Schlink, to his Mrs. Ada I’m also Bathroom Schlink, let zem call me Schlink the Bismarck, it von’t bother me, it’s a free country, but in my business I haff no use for humor. In Latin, humor is a dampness from the eye. This is to quote Heinrich Böll, Nobel Prize nineteen hundred seventy-two. In his line of vork he alleges it’s helpful, but in my job it leads to mistakes. No damp eyes on me, eh?, and no chokes in my tool bag. Chust I like to do the vork prompt, receive payment also prompt, you follow me here. Like the shvartzer says in the movie, show me the money. After a war spent plugging leaks on a Nazi U-boat, you think I can’t fix up your little doofus here?

Rushdie’s work is filled with such rants or riffs, usually funnier than this dud. But if a Rushdie book does not have a Rushdie-like narrator (such as the one used to great effect in Shame), it is still filled with people who quite explicitly feel like creations of the author. Consequently, these characters get saddled with dialogue that is inorganic to who they are. In reviewing Shalimar, Updike wrote that Rushdie

propels his ill-named Ambassador, the usually cool and laconic Maximilian Ophuls, into uttering “a series of high-flown locutions” in a television interview, culminating in the cri de coeur “In Kashmir it is paradise itself that is falling; heaven on earth is being transformed into a living hell.”

The same issue occurs in The Enchantress of Florence (2008), such as when Machiavelli (that Machiavelli) speaks of his exclusive attraction to women and adds to a young male friend, “So you don’t have to worry about me jumping you in the woods.” He soon adds, to a prospective clerk, “Clerks never get fucked … but you’ll be the envy of us all.”

As Joseph Anton progresses, Rushdie displays more confusion about language. Here he is on the thought process behind Midnight’s Children:

This was no longer the age of Jane Austen, who could write her entire oeuvre during the Napoleonic Wars without mentioning them, and for whom the major role of the British Army was to wear dress uniforms and look cute at parties. Nor would he write his book in cool Forsterian English. India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try to find that language.
If the fatwa made Rushdie an international mega-celebrity, then perhaps celebrity is an unsurprising secondary motif of this book.

It’s true that Rushdie’s language is, to extend his terminology, often overheated. But his assumption that different realities require different styles of language is a categorical error of a very large order. One only has to think of the writers—British (Forster, Paul Scott, J. G. Farrell) and Indian (R. K. Narayan, Anita Desai)—who have managed to portray India in wonderfully cool prose. (Rohinton Mistry’s wonderful prose is not exactly cool, but even with its color and emotion, one never loses sight of the narrative.) Moreover, Rushdie’s description of India is clichéd and simplistic; just try to imagine a white writer claiming that India is too “overcrowded and vulgar” for traditional language.

Just as Rushdie now finds his word games as important as his characters, so a related form of self-centeredness shows up elsewhere in Joseph Anton. It may seem silly to focus on Rushdie’s discussions of his former wives, but they take up considerable amounts of space, and here his writing is cold, but not Forsterian. His novelist second wife is either subtly undermined or cruelly disparaged:

He was sometimes alarmed by the speed at which she transformed experience into fiction. There was almost no pause for reflection. Stories poured from her, yesterday’s incidents becoming today’s sentences. And when the brightness blazed from her face she could look fabulously attractive, or nuts, or both.

As for the famous Ms. Lakshmi:

She was capable of saying things of such majestic narcissism that he didn’t know whether to bury his head in his hands or applaud. When the Indian movie star Aishwarya Rai was named the most beautiful Indian woman in the world in some glossy magazine or other, for example, Padma announced, in a room full of people, that she had “serious issues with that.”

The narcissistic outbursts—from Rushdie, rather than Lakshmi—would be forgivable if it weren’t for the most execrable aspect of the book. I can’t ever remember reading an author celebrate his own good reviews; Rushdie does so numerous times. On Shame: “This novel, too, had a wonderful reception everywhere, or almost everywhere.” Discussing The Moor’s Last Sigh, he notes that his agent was “almost moved to tears” because the book was so brilliant; even more embarrassing:

His favorite comments about The Moor’s Last Sigh were those from Indian friends who got in touch after reading the now-unbanned book to ask how he’d managed to write it without visiting India. “You sneaked in, didn’t you?” they suggested. “You came quietly and soaked stuff up. Otherwise how would you have known all those things?”

(Note, too, the implicit compliment to realism.) Rushdie’s unrelenting need to highlight his own talents hints at some deep insecurity. After Fury was reviewed harshly, he claims that the experience released him from obsessing about the critics. The evidence here suggests otherwise.

I can’t ever remember reading an author celebrate his own good reviews; Rushdie does so numerous times.

In the book’s final section, Rushdie squares up to ask himself who won the battle over The Satanic Verses, and ruefully concedes that the outgrowth of the ayatollah’s intimidation had a deterrent effect on publishers, and was copied by fanatics of other faiths. This might be too harsh a judgment, in large part because Rushdie’s stand for free expression has remained an example of courage to writers around the world. But if the battle between Rushdie and the ayatollah ended in something close to a draw for literature in general, the same can’t be said of its impact on Rushdie’s own work in particular.

Early in Shame, which is an account of Pakistan’s disastrous governance, the narrator has some fun at the expense of the actual leaders of the country, rather than their lightly fictionalized counterparts, and adds:

By now, if I had been writing a book of this nature, it would have done me no good to protest that I was writing universally, not only about Pakistan. The book would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing! Realism can break a writer’s heart.

This was Rushdie—strikingly prescient—at his lightest and most withering, gleefully and acutely mocking Pakistan’s ruling class. The narrator continued: “Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy-tale, so that’s all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously.” Whether or not Rushdie now considers himself a realist, it is hard to take anything he says too seriously.

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Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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