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‘Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020’ review: The real and the imagined

“What is the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Haroun asks his father in Salman Rushdie’s delightful and inexplicably underrated crossover novel. Rushdie suggests the issue it raises, the relationship between the “world of imagination and the so-called real world”, has occupied most of his writing life.

In Haroun.., the imaginative realm and its sea of stories win the allegorical battle over silence and censorship. In Languages of Truth, Rushdie takes the argument further, marshalling more than merely functional or utilitarian reasons, important though they are, to declare that the worlds of the real and imagined are inextricably twinned.

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Blurred lines

The real and unreal are just ideas of a world where facts are slippery, elusive and changeable, thereby rendering the line between fiction and reality indistinct and smudged, he says. Rushdie argues his case both ways. On the one hand, fiction, even the literature of the fantastic, that magical “protean shape-shifting” kind he admires, illuminates the real and true, even if this is arrived at by a different route. On the other, in a world where reality isn’t quite realistic, isn’t it misguided to think that all naturalistic fictions are necessarily real? “A naturalistic novel is entirely capable of being escapist: read a little chick lit and you’ll see what I mean,” he writes.

Textbook metaphysics this may not be, but there are passages in Rushdie’s essays which sit at the informal cusp, if something like this exists, between literary criticism and the philosophy of language. It may be tempting to see this as the writer’s despairing attempt to defend or promote magic realism which, having had its heyday, has been somewhat overtaken for the moment by other genres of literature such as the autobiographical. While he does get a touch acerbic about the proliferation of memoirs (“Self-regard has never been so well regarded. Self-exposure has never been so popular, and the more self that is exposed the better.”), the essays provide a wonderful insight into the making of Salman Rushdie, the writer.

The fatwa and after

Some of these are in the form of interesting biographical nuggets. For instance, before his first novel Grimus, he had four unpublished texts, one of them with a secondary character called Saleem Sinai born at the moment of Indian Independence, who was famously reborn in Midnight’s Children. His experiences — be it of racism as a schoolboy in Britain (to “be someone else’s Other”), the Ayatollah’s appalling fatwa, and the people he met and the friendships he struck — are interwoven in his critical appraisal of his life and work or other writers, ranging from Shakespeare and Beckett to Roth and Vonnegut.

Unlike his friend Harold Pinter, a writer who couldn’t bear to explain his work, Rushdie displays keenness as well as an uncanny awareness about what he was setting out to do. The essays crackle with intelligence and erudition, and to Rushdie’s credit, he isn’t constrained by stuffy academic hauteur, writing on popular personalities such as Mohammed Ali and Carrie Fisher. There is much to love and commend here, including a lovely little piece on Hans Christian Andersen, which draws attention to the darkness and amorality in some of his fairy tales; there is a sharp and discerning essay on adaptation (which savages Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire for its tawdry sentimentality), a searing account of India’s hijra community; and a scholarly reflection on Emperor Akbar and the making of the Hamzanama (which he argues privileges the magical over the religious).

It is likely that the few essays which touch on politics at the end will receive a fair share of attention. His positions on issues such as freedom, liberty and free speech is absolute, neither blinkered by ideological dogma nor determined by one-dimensional labels such as left and right. His own experience after the fatwa, recounted in Josef Anton, could have something to do with this. While radical Islamists were expectedly hostile, Rushdie was bewildered by the opposition, or at the very least the lack of support, among the Left and liberal intelligentsia.

Withering eye on dogma

Like his friend Christopher Hitchens, that witty and combative polemicist who passed away a decade ago, Rushdie is something of an equal opportunity offender when it comes to religious extremists and the threat they pose to liberty. Hindu bigots, Christian conservatives, Muslim fundamentalists — no one is spared his withering eye. But as he suggested in Josef Anton, and in interviews after the release of the book, the new importance accorded to hurt sentiments and offended sensibilities, in this scornful and judgmental age, goes well beyond perceived religious insults. Religious intolerance has become resurrected in a secular form, he argues convincingly, in one of the essays written not so long ago. “If I had stood before you a decade ago, I might have argued that religious extremism was the greatest threat to liberty we faced. I did not foresee what seems to be a secularisation of that fanaticism.”

In a climate where the disagreeable and the unpleasant are censored, he asks “Who will guard us from the guardians?” He poses the question rhetorically, but one could not help thinking it might be the germ for another fine and engrossing book.

Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020; Salman Rushdie, Penguin Random House, ₹799.

The reviewer is former editor of The Hindu.


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