Salman Rushdie, Essayist: Review of ‘Languages of Truth’

Salman Rushdie, Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020

London: Jonathan Cape, 2021, 356 pp., ISBN 978-1-787-33193-8

Salman Rushdie is not only a major presence in contemporary world literature as the author of fifteen works of fiction (one of them alas with non-literary fame attached): his non-fiction count is now, with this new volume, five, and this is his third essay collection, following on from Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 and Step Across This Line: Collected Non-fiction 1992-2002. This note will concentrate on the new volume, but we may presume that the set of three essay collections will now prove invaluable to Rushdie scholars seeking to map his ideas over four decades.

Languages of Truth takes its pluralistic title from one of the book’s essays, ‘The Liberty Instinct’, in which Rushdie declares: ‘The magic of the languages of truth is the only magic in which I believe’ (256). Most of the pieces have been previously published, though in a Note on the Texts the author adverts: ‘All the pieces in this book have been thoroughly revised. None of them appear in their original form’ (354). The book differs from its two predecessors in that the pieces are not systematically dated, though dates may be attached to some via brief presentations or internal data. All this suggests that Rushdie would prefer scholars and critics to use his updated versions when citing his opinions on their subject-matter. 

Many of the texts relating to issues of literature or liberty (or both) are institutional in origin, reflecting Rushdie’s established status as major writer. A number originated in lectures given by the author at Atlanta’s Emory University during his stint there as distinguished writer in residence from 2007 to 2012. Other pieces reflect his active participation in PEN America, of which he was president from 2004 to 2006, founding the PEN World Voices Festival. ‘Another Writer’s Beginnings’, in which he relates how he became a novelist, was given in 2016 as the Inaugural Eudora Welty Lecture at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

Other literary pieces include tributes to Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Gabriel García Márquez and Philip Roth (we learn that the last-named emailed Rushdie in 2017 to congratulate him on his then latest novel, The Golden House, which Rushdie ‘was … surprised and flattered to know that Philip had read and liked’ – 85), and a disquisition on Cervantes and Shakespeare marking the death quadricentennial of both in 2016. There is an obituary for Rushdie’s fellow contrarian Christopher Hitchens, written on the day he died in 2011 and including his heartfelt thanks for Hitchens’ support in the worst years of the fatwa, praising him as ‘the most indefatigable of allies and the most eloquent of defenders’ (238). There are also pieces on photography and visual art, including a detailed account of the classic collective work of Mughal art, the Hamzanama. Politics as such does not get a major look-in, but Rushdie’s hostility to both Trump in the US and Modi in India is evident whenever either is mentioned.

Rushdie is known to dislike feeling obliged to discuss the fatwa today, a position more than understandable if one recalls that The Satanic Verses, his fourth book to be published out of today’s toll of twenty, appeared over thirty years ago. Nonetheless, significant evocations of the matter appear in the Hitchens obituary and the Pinter tribute, in ‘Another Writer’s Beginnings’ (in relation to the Cambridge history course on the origins of Islam where he first learnt of the legend that was to underpin his novel: ‘Twenty years later … I found out just how good a story it was’ – 71); and in a passage in ‘The Liberty Instinct’ where he argues that in reality the novel ‘wasn’t really even about religion. It was about migration’ (252) – an authorial reading evidently alien to his detractors, even though the Islam-related parts which all supposedly ‘know about’ occupy only some twenty per cent of a 547-page novel. Meanwhile the word ‘fatwa’ occurs a mere four times in the collection, and all in all the reader may conclude that Rushdie has successfully decentred the fatwa as leitmotiv, while, equally, not attempting the impossibility of occluding it altogether.

From the Rushdie/fatwa issue it is but a step to the ever-present topic of freedom of expression, and it will be to no-one’s surprise that Rushdie defends that freedom in these pages with all the commitment and eloquence which his readers have come to expect of him as internationally known free speech icon. The issue is dealt with in the PEN pieces (the anti-free speech climate generated in Modi’s India is especially targeted), and again in ‘The Liberty Instinct’. In that essay, Rushdie offers a discussion of the First Amendment which, unlike far too many second-hand evocations of a brief but complex text (which he quotes in full, and how many do?), unequivocally recognises that the amendment simultaneously protects freedom of expression and freedom of religion: ‘Religion and freedom got married on the northern American continent, the First Amendment was the marriage certificate, and the United States was the result’ (245). Elsewhere critical of religion, Rushdie nonetheless recognises the very particular symbiosis between religion and free speech that exists in his adoptive land.

At all events, in the general texts on literary matters the accent is on Rushdie as professional, as a practising  writer with the weight of knowledge and experience, acquired over decades, which that implies. Particularly interesting in this regard are the essays ‘Autobiography and the Novel’ and ‘Wonder Tales’ (both originally delivered at Emory). In the former, Rushdie inveighs against those readers and critics who insist on an autobiographical or roman à clef reading of every novel that falls into their hands, arguing that even where a narrator or character has origins in the real, the creative process confers on the characters an autonomy that allows them to break loose from their real-life antecedents.  Rushdie laments in particular that two of his novels, Midnight’s Children and Fury, were received by many as thinly disguised autobiography, and rather than incur such misunderstandings vows never to use own-life material in fiction again: ‘Nor will any image of the author be discernible in any future fiction I may succeed in writing. I have learned my lesson’ (158).

In ‘Wonder Tales’, Rushdie explores the phenomenon of magic realism, stressing how it is neither fully magical nor fully realist, and is thus a particularly suitable fictional form for signifying cultures imbued with a story-telling tradition of the marvellous. He evokes the Indian origins of the text that started it all, the Thousand and One Nights, and traces how the tradition of the wonder tale, as embodied in that celebrated book, migrated from India to the Arab world and then to Europe, and later from Europe into the Latin American novel and its famed magic realism – and then how Rushdie himself, influenced by García Márquez, repatriated that tradition of the marvellous back to India through the success of Midnight’s Children. Rushdie affirms his pride in this act of bringing it all back home: ‘When  I, in my turn, used some of those devices, I had the feeling of closing a circle and bringing that story tradition all the way back home to the country in which it began’ (10).

Languages of Truth closes on a note different to those sounded earlier. Technically, the last piece in the book consists of two pages of answers to a magazine questionnaire. However, much more substantial as a proper ending are the twelve pages of the eminently contemporary essay entitled ‘Pandemic: a Personal Engagement with the Coronavirus’.  Here we learn how in March 2020 Rushdie contracted what fortunately proved to be a mild form of Covid-19, how he felt under the diagnosis (‘It was dispiriting, but I was lucky’ – 341), but also how he fortified himself in self-isolation by revisiting his favourite auteur films, and how he came out at the other end  (‘regained my health and strength’ – 348) with a renewed vitality of which this book’s existence is the proof. The greatest fear was that the person who had survived Khomeini would succumb to Covid. Instead, we have the voice behind Languages of Truth, a resurgent and resilient Salman Rushdie ready to confront, as ably as ever, both the act of writing and the pressing realities of our day.

**

Note 1

For a portrait of today’s Rushdie, see his conversation with the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, published on 15 May 2021:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/may/15/salman-rushdie-i-am-stupidly-optimistic-it-got-me-through-those-bad-years

Note 2

I regularly track the allusions in Rushdie’s writing to Bob Dylan, and for Languages of Truth can report that in the essay ‘Heraclitus’ (original publication date not given), Rushdie mentions Dylan’s portrayal of a character named Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s film of 1973, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In the same breath, Rushdie’s text offers an embedded Dylan quote, in the form of ‘knocking on heaven’s door’ (51) – that is, the title of Dylan’s celebrated song first heard on the soundtrack of that same film.

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