Salman Rushdie – An Author, Novelist, Essayist and Sometime Critic

Salman Rushdi

Salman Rushdi

Anglo-Indian novelist, who uses in his works tales from various genres – fantasy, mythology, religion, oral tradition. Rushdie’s narrative technique has connected his books to magic realism, which includes such English-language authors as Peter Carey, Angela Carter, E.L. Doctorow, John Fowles, Mark Helprin or Emma Tennant. Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by the former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989, after publishing SATANIC VERSES. Naguib Mahfouz, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, criticized Khomeini for ‘intellectual terrorism’ but changed his view later and said that Rushdie did not have ‘the right to insult anything, especially a prophet or anything considered holy.’ The Nobel writer V.S. Naipaul described Khomeini’s fatwa as “an extreme form of literary criticism.”

“Insults are mysteries. What seems to the bystander to be the cruelest, most destructive sledgehammer of an assault, whore! slut! tart!, can leave its target undamaged, while an apparently lesser gibe, thank god you’re not my child, can fatally penetrate the finest suits of armour, you’re nothing to me, you’re less than the dirt on the soles of my shoes, and strike directly at the heart.”
(from The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999)

Salman Rushdie Biography

Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) on 19 June 1947. He went to school in Bombay and at Rugby in England, and read History at King’s College, Cambridge, where he joined the Cambridge Footlights theatre company. After graduating, he lived with his family who had moved to Pakistan in 1964, and worked briefly in television before returning to England, beginning work as a copywriter for an advertising agency. His first novel, Grimus, was published in 1975.

His second novel, the acclaimed Midnight’s Children, was published in 1981. It won the Booker Prize for Fiction, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), an Arts Council Writers’ Award and the English-Speaking Union Award, and in 1993 was judged to have been the ‘Booker of Bookers’, the best novel to have won the Booker Prize for Fiction in the award’s 25-year history. The novel narrates key events in the history of India through the story of pickle-factory worker Saleem Sinai, one of 1001 children born as India won independence from Britain in 1947. The critic Malcolm Bradbury acclaimed the novel’s achievement in The Modern British Novel (Penguin, 1994): ‘a new start for the late-twentieth-century novel.’

Rushdie’s third novel, Shame (1983), which many critics saw as an allegory of the political situation in Pakistan, won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. The publication in 1988 of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, lead to accusations of blasphemy against Islam and demonstrations by Islamist groups in India and Pakistan. The orthodox Iranian leadership issued a fatwa against Rushdie on 14 February 1989 – effectively a sentence of death – and he was forced into hiding under the protection of the British government and police. The book itself centres on the adventures of two Indian actors, Gibreel and Saladin, who fall to earth in Britain when their Air India jet explodes. It won the Whitbread Novel Award in 1988.

Salman Rushdie continued to write and publish books, including a children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), a warning about the dangers of story-telling that won the Writers’ Guild Award (Best Children’s Book), and which he adapted for the stage (with Tim Supple and David Tushingham. It was first staged at the Royal National Theatre, London.) There followed a book of essays entitled Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 (1991); East, West (1994), a book of short stories; and a novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), the history of the wealthy Zogoiby family told through the story of Moraes Zogoiby, a young man from Bombay descended from Sultan Muhammad XI, the last Muslim ruler of Andalucía.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet, published in 1999, re-works the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the context of modern popular music. His most recent novel, Fury, set in New York at the beginning of the third millennium, was published in 2001. He is also the author of a travel narrative, The Jaguar Smile (1987), an account of a visit to Nicaragua in 1986.

Salman Rushdie is Honorary Professor in the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was made Distinguished Fellow in Literature at the University of East Anglia in 1995. He was awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1993 and the Aristeion Literary Prize in 1996, and has received eight honorary doctorates. He was elected to the Board of American PEN in 2002. The subjects in his new book, Step Across This Line: Collected Non-fiction 1992-2002 (2002), range from popular culture and football to twentieth-century literature and politics. Salman Rushdie is also co-author (with Tim Supple and Simon Reade) of the stage adaptation of Midnight’s Children, premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2002.

Shalimar The Clown, the story of Max Ophuls, his killer and daughter, and a fourth character who links them all, was published in 2005. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award.

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is The Enchantress of Florence (2008). He became a KBE in 2007.

Prizes and awards

1981 – Arts Council Writers’ Award
1981 – Booker Prize for Fiction Midnight’s Children
1981 – English-Speaking Union Award Midnight’s Children
1981 – James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) (joint winner) Midnight’s Children
1983 – Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist) Shame
1984 – Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (France) Shame
1988 – Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist) The Satanic Verses
1988 – Whitbread Novel Award The Satanic Verses
1989 – German Author of the Year The Satanic Verses
1992 – Kurt Tucholsky Prize (Sweden)
1992 – Writers’ Guild Award (Best Children’s Book) Haroun and the Sea of Stories
1993 – Austrian State Prize for European Literature
1993 – Booker of Bookers (special award made to celebrate 25 years of the Booker Prize for Fiction) Midnight’s Children
1993 – Prix Colette (Switzerland)
1995 – Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist) The Moor’s Last Sigh
1995 – British Book Awards Author of the Year The Moor’s Last Sigh
1995 – Whitbread Novel Award The Moor’s Last Sigh
1996 – Aristeion Literary Prize
1997 – Mantova Literary Prize (Italy)
1998 – Budapest Grand Prize for Literature (Hungary)
1999 – Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
1999 – Freedom of the City, Mexico City (Mexico)
2005 – Whitbread Novel Award (shortlist) Shalimar The Clown
2006 – Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book) (shortlist) Shalimar The Clown
2007 – International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (shortlist) Shalimar The Clown
2007 – KBE
2007 – Man Booker International Prize (shortlist)

Critical Perspective

Novelist, essayist, travel writer and screenwriter, martyr for free speech and purveyor of story as political statement, Rushdie has not only achieved the singular distinction of being recognised as an artist in his own lifetime but is also arguably the most prominent novelist of the late 20th century, both for his literary achievements and for the controversy surrounding them. Like Marquez in Spanish, Rushdie has taken history as his subject and fictionalised it, thus instituting a new genre. He has received almost every award in the course of a near 30-year career and has become the living image of the romantic writer; worldly, erudite and knowing, equally at ease with the purveyors of pop culture and the intellectual arbiters of literary taste, scabrous critic of colonialism, be it political, social or cultural, and, despite his deep connection to the events of his time he remains somehow removed from the ordinary sphere of existence; abstract, aloof, distant.

In his novel Shame (1983), Rushdie writes, ‘is history to be considered the property of the participants solely?’ and in Imaginary Homelands (1991), a collection of essays on racism in Britain, he calls for ‘books that draw new and better maps of reality, and make new languages with which we can understand the world.’ Both of these quotes offer keys to an understanding of the author. Rushdie is renowned for taking symbols and figures from different myth systems and religions and interweaving them with different juxtapositions: themes from Islam and Hinduism are interwoven with figures from English literature and English literary references. His work advocates that the cultural exchange brought about by Empire has enriched rather than cheapened contemporary literature; in his fiction Rushdie has demanded the right, in a fractured and confused post-colonial climate, to be a part of the telling of one’s own history. Rushdie has challenged official historical truth, launched vituperative attacks on petty nationalism and the censorship of the state, all the while wrapping his readers in the magic realist swirl of dreamscape and fairytale in which the conventional is challenged with astonishing wit and intellectual daring.

Rushdie’s narrators are unreliable and intrusive; the ‘I’ narrating is essentially an essayist, Rushdie’s literary default setting. These narrators cajole and harry, taunt and tease with a thunderous irreverence; what is the significance of fictions they ask, what purpose do they serve, what role do they play? Rushdie’s belief is in the transformative power of fiction; stories posit alternative realities, they reclaim the past and through the smashing of convention via the element of the fantastical, proffer a utopian vision of the future.

Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus (1975), is often overlooked in any overview of the writer’s oeuvre, perhaps because it lacks the marked sense of geographical and historical context which characterises his later and more acclaimed work. Grimus, the tale of Flapping Eagle, the novel’s immortal hero, who travels to Calf Island after seven hundred years of sailing the seas with the hope of regaining his mortality, is a beautiful book; funny and often surprisingly touching. A science fiction based hybrid of religious myth and literary pastiche, Grimus has all the simplicity and sense of magic of folktale, and all the complexity of a deeply questioning philosophical novel. Grimus introduces in raw form many of the themes developed by Rushdie in his later writing, such as displacement, unstable identity and cultural hybridity.

Rushdie followed Grimus with the Booker Prize for Fiction winner, Midnight’s Children (1981), which traces India’s development from independence and partition in 1947, through the secession of Bangladesh to the state of emergency under Indira Ghandi. The history of India is given phantasmagorical form by the novel’s protagonist and narrator Saleem Sinai, a Hindu child raised by wealthy Muslims, who comes to believe his own life is a metaphor for the state of his country. Saleem has decided to tell his life story and the story of India as he is, quite literally, falling apart, ‘I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug.’ The children of the book’s title are all born at midnight on the day India’s independence is declared. There are 1,001 of them and all have a special ability. Saleem’s is telepathy and it is this gift which allows him to discover the truth about his own identity and those of the other children. Considered by many to be Rushdie’s masterpiece, Midnight’s Children is extraordinary for its vast historical sweep and the confidence of its archly modernist prose. It recalls Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum but distinguishes itself by its dazzling pyrotechnic display of style: the dizzying array of puns and alliteration, word play and rhyme is at times breathtaking for its exuberant bravery. Rushdie has stated that Joyce and Grass taught him that anything was possible in literature, that boundaries are arbitrary limits imposed by man, that art with belief in itself can rewrite any set of conventions, however firmly entrenched. With Midnight’s Children, Rushdie proved that he was more than capable of upsetting the literary apple cart.

Following Midnight’s Children was Shame (1983). Set in the fictional country of Peccavistan, it is a thinly veiled satirical history of Pakistan and recalls historical events through the prism of a family drama involving a military dictator and his mentally retarded, ultimately murderous daughter. Less effusive and energetic than Midnight’s Children, it is a darker, subtler, work.

As politically contentious as these books were, Rushdie is most famous, however, for the extraordinary furore surrounding the fatwa-inspiring The Satanic Verses (1988), which earned him international notoriety amongst Muslims for its unfavourable depiction of the prophet Mohammed, and its fictional reworking of an apocryphal episode from Islamic history. Coloured by the controversy surrounding the novel, the actual merits of it are, even now, often overlooked. Although it may not, stylistically speaking, be Rushdie’s most accomplished work, it is none the less an astoundingly ambitious novel: a cutting satire on the state of migration in the United Kingdom and a vivid and compelling exploration of good and evil, religious faith and fanatical belief. It asks us to discern reality from the illusory and although Islam charged Rushdie with incorporating events depicted in the Koran, this is something that Rushdie vehemently denied.

In recent years Rushdie has looked to the West for his inspiration. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) retells the myth of Orpheus through the lives of two 20th century Indian-born rock stars as well as detailing the history of rock and roll in America, whilst Fury (2001) is the tale of a brilliant man, in decline and exiled in New York, groping for meaning as he stumbles through his increasingly tense liaisons with women half his age.

Whatever Rushdie does next will be a literary event: it could not be anything else.

Garan Holcombe, 2004

For an in-depth critical review see Salman Rushdie by Damian Grant (Northcote House, 1999: Writers and their Work Series).

Author statement
‘It seems to me, more and more, that the fictional project on which I’ve been involved ever since I began Midnight’s Children back in 1975 is one of self-definition. That novel, Shame and The Satanic Verses strike me as an attempt to come to terms with the various component parts of myself – countries, memories, histories, families, gods. First the writer invents the books; then, perhaps, the books invent the writer.

But whenever I say anything about my work I want to contradict myself at once. To say that beyond self-exploration lies a sense of writing as sacrament, and maybe that’s closer to how I feel: that writing fills the hole left by the departure of God.

But, again, I love story, and comedy, and dreams. And newness: the novel, as its name suggests, is about the making of the new.

None of this is quite true; all of it is true enough.’