Saturday, May 30, 2009

On a new book of essays on Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Diaspora

It may seem outrageous to allege that a book of interviews with and essays about Salman Rushdie doesn’t have much Rushdie in it, but this is precisely the complaint to be made of Midnight’s Diaspora. This set of responses to Rushdie by a group of political scientists, anthropologists, and literary critics – all career academics except for one, Shashi Tharoor – goes about its business, for most part, in a language far too clotted and abstract to give any enjoyment to the lay reader. But even on its own terms, the scholarship on display in this book barely passes muster because it is either too narrow, tendentious, reductive, or peculiarly self-absorbed.
Midnight’s Diaspora begins with the transcripts of two plodding interviews with Rushdie held at an event in his honour at the University of Michigan in 2003. The subject of the first, conducted by the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, is “The Political Rushdie”; that of the second, pursued by the literary scholar Gauri Viswanathan, is “The Literary Rushdie”. One might ask: why this division of labour? The writer is, after all, one being, both literary and political at the same time. The answer might be that both interviewers are playing to their respective strengths, the better to illuminate the literary and political facets of Rushdie’s oeuvre. But this is to presume that a person with a political background is incapable of a stimulating conversation on a general subject with Rushdie. All that this Rushdie-sharing seems to do is betray the anxiety of academics about certificates of authority and specialization. Despite this allotment of territory, the questions are mostly superficial, revealing a mental universe as cramped as Rushdie’s is capacious. Viswanathan declares in advance that hers “will be the great rambling interview – very much like the great rambling Indian novel” – a peculiarly grandiose remark that inspires more dread than excitement.
Varshney, in turn, asserts that Rushdie’s work is highly political: “He seems to be singularly incapable of telling a story without political sharpness, without political courage.” It follows, then, that we should not “entirely abandon Salman Rushdie to the literary scholars and critics.” There can be no disagreeing with this notion, but the limitations of Varshney’s perspective immediately become apparent when, in the first sentence of his essay about Rushdie’s novel Shame, he calls that book “a political commentary on Pakistan scripted as a novel.” Isn’t it strange that a book that is first and foremost a novel should be called a political commentary that is "scripted" – whatever this ugly word means – as a novel? And shouldn’t we be suspicious when it is a political scientist making this peculiar claim? Might not a historian similarly presume that Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence is a commentary on history written as a novel? Scores of readers – or should we say non-readers – of Rushdie made a similar mistake over 1988-89 when they decided that The Satanic Verses was actually a blasphemous attack on the Prophet scripted as a novel.
The simple truth is that the novel is a flexible prose instrument that encodes through storytelling, at different levels and even there on multiple registers, ideas not just about character and causality but also history, politics, religion, ideology, class and gender relations. To force it into the narrower corridor of one’s preset categories is to un-novelize it. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his expertise, Varshney’s engagement with Rushdie and Shame lasts for only a page. The rest of his essay is about the problems inherent in the political self-conception of Pakistan. It is a very good essay, and there is much to be learnt from it about Pakistan. But Rushdie himself is almost entirely absent from it.
Indeed, it seemed to me a fault of the entire anthology that there is very little serious textual engagement in it: Rushdie is at times more springboard than subject. And even on his own ground, because he is so sure that Rushdie is at heart a political animal, it does not occur to Varshney to ask the question that Jack Livings does in his excellent Paris Review interview of 2005, “Could you possibly write an apolitical book?”, to which Rushdie gives a very interesting answer. Livings’s interview is part of the series called “The Art of Fiction” and – surprising though this may seem – this is indeed the proper category through which to explore the work of a writer of fiction. Consider, for instance, the illumination of novelistic practice, and how it offers a complex view of a society through its own, specific ways of working, offered by Rushdie in this answer to Livings:
I read less contemporary fiction than I used to and more of the classics. It seems they've hung around for a reason. When I wrote Fury, for instance, I read Balzac, in particular Eugénie Grandet. If you look at the opening of Eugénie Grandet, it uses a technique like a slow cinematic zoom. It starts with a very wide focus—here is this town, these are its buildings, this is its economic situation—and gradually it focuses in on this neighborhood, and inside the neighborhood on this rather grand house, and inside this house a room, and inside this room, a woman sitting on a chair. By the time you find out her name, she's already imprisoned in her class and her social situation and her community and her city. By the time her own story begins to unfold, you realize it's going to smash into all these things. She is like a bird in this cage. I thought, That's good. That's such a clear way of doing it.

Elsewhere in Midnight’s Diaspora, there is a ponderous defence offered by Akeel Bilgrami of Rushdie’s critique of Islam in The Satanic Verses. The paraphrase of Bilgrami’s idea – that we should defend Rushdie not merely on free-speech principles, but on the larger case that the novel is actually the ally of moderate Muslims against fundamentalist conceptions of their religion – is more interesting than its laboured and digressive execution. Thomas Blom Hansen’s subject – the changing picture of Bombay in Rushdie’s novels – seems promising to begin with. But even Hansen’s exploration quickly slides away into the area of his own research, which is violence and Hindu nationalism as embodied by the Shiv Sena, and then further to even more arcane matters. Hansen’s long, obtuse digression about “Alexander Kojeve’s reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic” and how this applies to the Sena seemed to me one of the low points of the book, puzzling on its own terms and therefore twice-removed from the subject of Rushdie.
The suspicion that this book may be no more than a group exercise in self-advertisement under the bright and attention-attracting flag of the Republic of Rushdie is confirmed by Shashi Tharoor’s concluding essay on Rushdie and Indianness. Tharoor is a more stylish writer than the others in this book, but his prose almost always conveys the impression of someone standing in front of a mirror. He allows himself precisely one good, insightful paragraph about Rushdie before he wanders off into a consideration of the main emphasis of Rushdie’s work. What is that emphasis? “[A]s I have written in my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium,” declares Tharoor, “the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural.” The suggestion is that Rushdie and Tharoor have been working on parallel lines all their lives, celebrating India’s teeming pluralism and excoriating its chauvinists of all stripes. “My India, like Salman Rushdie’s, has room enough for everyone,” declares Tharoor fatuously. The incredible thing is that readers should be expected to pay good money to discover this congruence.
These “encounters” with Rushdie appear, in sum, about as genuine as those of Mumbai’s cops with gangsters. Although the book concludes with a short afterword by Rushdie himself in which he expresses his gratitude for “the intensive, close, spirited readings offered in this collection”, my guess is that perhaps he is being more polite than truthful, especially from sentences in the same piece like: “As time passes, however, I admit to having more and more difficulty with this whole business of being Explained, rather than merely – happily – read.”If you have Rs.399 to spare, spend it instead on Rushdie’s exuberant early-career collection of essays Imaginary Homelands, which will tell you far more about his work than this puzzling book does.
Some links: an old post, "On the memoirs of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan", a book that, thrillingly if inadvertently, seems to claim for its author the same status that Saleem Sinai does for India in Midnight's Children. And here is an essay by Amitava Kumar that seems to be a stronger assessment, both personal and detached in the appropriate measure, of Rushdie than any in Midnight's Diaspora: "Is Salman Rushdie God?". A set of essays on different aspects of Rushdie's work in a special issue of the journal Twentieth Century Literature can be found here.
A shorter version of this essay appeared today in Mint.


youprat said...

This is an excellent essay. In defence of both Rushdie and novel writing. Particularly this lines are amazing:

"The simple truth is that the novel is a flexible prose instrument that encodes through storytelling, at different levels and even there on multiple registers, ideas not just about character and causality but also history, politics, religion, ideology, class and gender relations. To force it into the narrower corridor of one’s preset categories is to un-novelize it. "

" The incredible thing is that readers should be expected to pay good money to discover this congruence." LOL

Saikat said...

I'm reminded of what two of my favorite writers said about literary critics, and I must confess that I can't agree more.

Arundhati Roy: Why don't you write the book instead?

Philip Roth: The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot.

Chandrahas said...

Saikat - Much as I respect your judgment, I can hardly agree with either of these quotes, especially the one by Roy, which sounds so churlish that I'm sure has a particular context and is not a universal demand made by her of literary critics. I myself have a book coming out in a week's time, and I hope never to say such a thing to anybody.

I would prefer to debate how books are interpreted by literary critics - who are after all just another kind of reader - or other readers, rather than whether they should be interpreted by them, which I think is a non-issue since the act of interpretation is natural to every reader. I myself feel my education in novels has been formed partly by novels and partly by literary criticism. To take just the Indian novel, Meenakshi Mukherjee's Realism and Reality, a study of some of the earliest novels to be written in India and their artistic and rhetorical structures, is a remarkably illuminating book, and Rushdie's own essays in Imaginary Homelands, such as the spirited and polemical "'Commonwealth Literature' Does Not Exist", are brilliant flares of literary criticism. Chaturvedi Badrinath's The Women of the Mahabharata, which I've been reading recently, is not only a brilliant book of literary criticism, it is, I would argue, itself a work of literature, with the same beauty, gravity, and syntactic balance as the book that is its subject. And wasn't Nissim Ezekiel's essay on VS Naipaul in 1976, "Naipaul's India And Mine", a really astute response to An Area Of Darkness?

Ankita said...

Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it. I will be back for more!

ak said...

Good essay, Chandrahas. Unfortunately, what you are criticising seems to be common in academia today where books are used merely as springboards for critics to voice their other, mostly sociopolitical concerns. (Even this is often done crudely.) The connection between politics and fiction isn't an easy one to make but many academic critics today seem to make a very basic mistake -- that of reading a novel as some sort of a document, and on top of that, as a document that must conform to their standard of political correctness in whatever they specialise in; which is usually some sociological category like 'gay fiction' or 'Indian writing in English'. Such a phenomenon -- IWE -- is sociologically interesting and can be studied as such. But then its approach and concerns will have to be different.

Being neither here nor there (unlike somebody like Walter Benjamin who is both here (literature) and there (society/politics)) seems to me to be rather easy -- you can pick up any random novel (by a well-known writer) and criticise it for all that you find wrong with it politically, citing a few philosophers to make your argument seem correct.

And I've read that essay by Tharoor. Like most of his other essays, this one's terrible too. It might be more readable than the others in the book but the only way in which this will help the reader is to make its lack of depth and sophistication easily apparent.

Saikat said...

This is a lovely debate that I could've participated in, if it weren't for Joyce.
Silence, exile, cunning.

Varuna Mohite said...

"Imaginary Homelands" is really worth reading again and again. Do you know of any other book of essays by Rushdie? I vaguely recall seeing one in a bookshop once, but I've not been able to find it again. Unlike Arundhati Roy, whose non-fiction is so strident in its tone it puts you off, Rushdie is intelligent, insightful and most enjoyable.

Karthika said...

"Step Across this Line", if I remember the title right. It comprises Rushdie's writings after 2000.

ggray said...

Having just heard Salman Rushdie speak at Duke University, and of course, having read his novels, I thank you much for exposing the narrowness of this book. Yet, even Rushdie would state that we need all perspectives from all viewpoints. I only hope that now, in counterpoint other critical books will be published offering less tunnel vision and more of Rushdie's free-wheeling style of interconnections and resonances.