Monday, April 28, 2008

Salman, the Salmon

Fact: Salman Rushdie is immensely overrated.

I find Salman Rushdie nothing more than a literary playboy. That he is a fine writer, I have not a dram of doubt about but I hate the way he is feted about in academic circles. The western fixation of hailing him as a fearless author par excellence is more political than scholarly. I understand why Indian news editors fall for him. One, because of Rushdie’s loathe-hate relationship with Islam [highly fashionable in post cold-war], he gives them great news-bites. Two, he has been in many ways the first of the major league home-born authors to catapult India to the International literary scene, with his highly readable Midnight’s children. Alas, apart from that one brilliant tome, Salman has written nothing extraordinary.

Needlessly, among all postwar writers, nobody has been more over praised than Rushdie. I, for once, have read most of his works. Massive portions of Salman are either uninspiring or inescapably boring. I however would be compelled to echo the opinion that the subjects of Rushdie's books are almost always fascinating, but his narrative has no real depth. John Updike perhaps sums him the best in the New Yorker: Rushdie as a literary performer suffers, I think, from being not just an author but a cause célèbre and a free-speech martyr, thanks to the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. [What they will never tell you is that soon after the fatwa 44 out of the 45 countries of the Islamic congress called the fatwa illegal]

In essence Salman Rushdie is a product of his times. He was lucky after the publication of his stunning second novel ‘Midnight’s children’ and rode the waves of literary fashion. That fetched him a Booker. His first novel Grimus was largely ignored by critics and public alike. Shame, a book on Pakistan followed in 1983. It was mostly average. The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (1987) was plain bad. The Satanic Verses generated a lot of heat in 1988. Death threats followed but the book had very poor literary merit. The Moor's Last Sigh came in 1995. The South African literature Nobel laureate JM Coetzee called it both palimpsesting [read confusing] and unoptimistic in a New York Times review.

Salman wrote The Ground beneath Her Feet in 1999. Pankaj Mishra, one of India’s most promising contemporary writers had this to say on The Ground beneath Her Feet: With its banal obsessions and empty bombast, its pseudo-characters and non-events, its fundamental shapelessness and incoherence, The Ground Beneath Her Feet does little more than echo the white noise of the modern world. Rushdie continued to dip his pen in the inkhorn and produce another unreadable in 2001. Fury. Subjective and thankfully slim. Next came Shalimar the Clown in 2005. A mix-bag of cliché. A poor half-hearted effort. Salman’s freshest produce is The Enchantress of Florence (2008). Olivia Cole dissects it in the UK’s independent. The prose, Olivia writes, is lackluster. Period. So while Midnight was a gem the rest of his oeuvre oscillates between mediocre to unreadable.

In between, because our ink-guzzler produced parchments of tolerable -- and intolerable --prose, the British government decided to knight him. I have no doubt in my head that the entire knighthood drama was a political event. Rushdie is a smooth operator. He possesses a mind matter that is part political, part literary. He supported [unlike most intellectuals] the US-UK illegal war on Iraq. No wonder Elizabeth II put her scepter on Rushdie’s bald head and uttered those magical words in her queenly voice: Rise Sir Salmon. [That is how they pronounce him: Salmon, which means a fish not his real name Salman, which is Arabic and means secure]. The flicker of the wand on the head was humbling, Salman said. The brilliant Tariq Ali correctly calls the likes of Rushdie belligerati. [Belligerent and literati]

Salman is still riding on the reputation of Midnight's Children, and the infamy afforded him by the fatwa. Most of his more controversial and mediocre books are not stocked in great numbers because there is no demand. Rushdie has been a has-been for two decades. To his credit, Salman Rushdie is a fairish Postmodernist writer because of the constant themes of coexistence on display in his many works. He aptly emphasizes the independence of local societies and human existence. That’s it. He is no genius.

The truth be said, I like his interplay of words, his tales, his magical realism. I abhor the shallowness, hypothticality and pretence of his canvas. I maintain he is Salman and not Salmon.

And he is hugely over-rated.