Salman Rushdie: A Brief Coup d’Œil

By Nicholas Ross

The partition of India in August 1947 emerged as one of last month’s topical subjects due to the event’s anniversary. News outlets all over the world hosted interviews with eyewitnesses who had been involved in the pandemonium of violence and mass migrations in the Subcontinent following the switch to independence at midnight from the British. One of the most important commentators of recent Indian history is the author and essayist, Sir Salman Rushdie. I believe he is one of the finest and most intriguing living novelists, thus I intend to offer a selectively terse glimpse at his life and

The death of the author is a literary phrase meaning a text should be analysed independent of its creative origins. Although writers naturally have misgivings about the death of the author, Salman Rushdie is remembered as the one who lived in fear of the phrase’s literal rendering. For in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie in protest of ‘The Satanic Verses’, a novel the embodiment of theocratic totalitarianism was almost certainly incapable of reading. In his own name, he offered a bounty to anyone who murdered the novelist. This State-sponsored death warrant was not portentous rhetoric. The translator of ‘The Satanic Verses’ into Japanese was murdered, the Italian translator stabbed and one of Rushdie’s publishers shot multiple times. Rushdie went into hiding under protection funded by reluctant British taxpayers.

Although Khomeini died shortly after, the fatwa lived on. Rushdie was blamed as the source of rioting from London to Pakistan and even liberals said he should not have crafted the work of fiction containing references to Islam. Rushdie’s friend Christopher Hitchens and PEN America’s then president, Susan Sontag, struggled to rouse support for the novel as freedom of expression submitted to a new climate of fear. Some critics consider the affair a precedent of a movement to left-wing cultural relativism, whereby Islam is supposedly granted special privileges. A decade later, Iran lifted the fatwa for political reasons.

An anecdote Rushdie has repeatedly told is that of a word game played between himself and his friends. The game involved substituting words in titles for ruder ones like ‘dick’ replacing ‘heart’. For example, derivates included Joseph Conrad’s ‘Dick of Darkness’ and Elton John’s ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Dick’. Rushdie states it was a stupid game but worth it when Woody Allen began a romance with his adopted daughter. Rushdie saw an interview in which Allen explained, ‘Well, the heart wants what the heart wants’. Despite willing to smirk at occasional schoolboy humour, the standards of his novels are high.

After working as a copywriter, coining slogans such as Aero’s ‘rresistibubble’, Rushdie wrote books of prose as melodious as poetry. Magical realism denotes fantastical elements portrayed as banalities in otherwise realistic fictional universes. In a favourite novel of Rushdie’s, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, Remedios the Beauty suddenly floats to heaven on her sister’s bed sheets. Her sister simply prays she gets back her sheets. The genre is rife in Rushdie’s literature in addition to stories within stories, unparalleled vocal mimicry, and observations of everyday phenomena in urban and rural settings possessing charms unfairly neglected by inhabitants like you and me.

Rushdie’s work raises interesting questions about the boundaries between fiction and realism, freedom of expression and libellous polemic.


Nicholas Ross

Featured image: Rushdie in 1988, courtesy The Guardian

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