Languages of Truth Coasts on the Surface

I just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s book of essays, Languages of Truth, that my father had bought last year. If it appears to be a timely read, considering the attack on his life in New York recently, so it is. If one thinks about why he attracts so much hate and vitriol even today, it’s because his writings are about the exact opposite – universalism of emotions, thoughts that transcend boundaries and lands, and a “healthy disrespect for religion”, as he himself puts it.

Languages of Truth is a compilation of his essays written between 2003 and 2020, and they deal with a variety of subjects, mostly to do with writing, of course. It has to do with reading books, the love of literature and good writing, of using language to connect humanity and to express oneself. Reading it, one realizes how wide and deep his reservoir of literary knowledge is, and in how engaging a manner he presents it to his readers. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that many of his writings contained in the book are lectures and talks he has given during the past two decades.

The book is divided into four parts and each part reveals a different aspect or dimension of Rushdie’s writing. Part One has a collection of his essays on the wonder tale form of story-telling. These were lectures he gave at Emory University in Georgia, USA, and through them he emerges as a speaker who can open new ideas and new ways to explore the world of reading and writing. In an essay itself titled Wonder Tales, Rushdie explores the intricacies of fantasy writing as opposed to realistic writing. He says that the treasure of fairy tales and folk tales exist in almost every culture in the world, and also makes the unusual observation that the origin of most of the stories in Arabian Nights are probably Indian.

“The book that we now usually call The Arabian Nights didn’t originate in the Arab world. Its probable origin is Indian; Indian story compendiums too have a fondness for frame stories, for Russian-doll-style stories within stories, and for animal fables. Somewhere around the eighth century, these stories found their way into Persian, and according to surviving scraps of information, the collection was known as Hazar Afsaneh, ‘a thousand stories’. There’s a tenth century document from Baghdad that describes the Hazar Afsaneh and mentions its frame story about a wicked king… this book is the missing link of world literature, the fabled volume through which the wonder tales of India travelled west to encounter, eventually the Arabic language and to turn into The Thousand Nights and One Night, a book with many versions… to move further west, first into French, in the 18th century version by Antoine Galland, who added a number of stories such as Alladin and the Wonderful Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

I am none the wiser on this subject, but comparing wonder tales from the eastern and western canon, fables, fairy tales and mythological stories, Rushdie writes that the reason why they work, and have survived time and are still told, is because they speak of human truth even better than realistic writing. He writes:

“The Western writers I have most admired, writers such as Italo Calvino and Günter Grass, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaac Bashevis Singer, have all feasted richly on their various wonder-tale traditions and found ways of injecting the fabulous into the real to make it more vivid and, strangely, more truthful.”

In another essay, Proteus, Rushdie explores the idea of what it means to be Protean in narrating or even interpreting one’s experiences. Here, he asks what is real in realistic fiction, or even ordinary about it? It is only when it is elevated from the ordinary that it becomes a story worth telling and retelling. In other words, it must be shape-shifting and metamorphing in an organic fashion, for it to be Protean.

“This is what I am wrestling with, this great shapeless mutating blob that can’t even agree  with itself about what it actually is, this is what I am trying to give shape to, and speaking for myself, speaking now not so much as a writer but as a reader, I’d rather put my trust in writers who acknowledge the battle, who make you see that any shape they impose on the blob is only provisional, that their own picture of the world gets in the way, that it’s hard to step outside the time frame.”

In Heraclitus, Rushdie discusses the importance of characters in writing stories. He goes from discussing Charlie Brown and Lucy in Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip to Bartleby and several others, while also telling us that Heraclitus’ Fragments inspired many a writer and thinker, including Montaigne, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Jung. I haven’t read Heraclitus’ Fragments, but from the few samples Rushdie shares, they seem more like aphorisms; he also says that the best recent translation of Heraclitus’ Fragments is by Brooks Saxton of Syracuse. He discusses Heraclitus’s idea of a person’s ethos or daemon as defining their character. It is character as fate. Then, Rushdie asks, if Heraclitus is spot on. If character is all there is. He answers, well, no, there is something called chance. Chance too can determine a story and things can turn on a dime.

Rushdie at the Hay-on-Wye literature festival in UK, 2008; Image: Alexander Baxevanis on Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

While I agree with the importance of characters in a story, I tend to disagree with the idea of character as fate. Character is not destiny or fate, it is shaped by one’s circumstances. And especially in stories, those circumstances that compel a person to behave in a certain way, or shape his or her character must come through. So, it is all a question of time, I suppose, and circumstances. Character as fate, is possibly an ex post facto way of looking at life, not while life itself is unfolding. Besides, character as fate can be so limiting in possibility and can rob the person of agency, when characters can also be shown to possess free will and overcome their circumstances.

Rushdie writes:

“Character can shape destiny powerfully and must be allowed to do so in the novel whenever it can, but the surreal too is a part of the real; the surreal is the strangeness of the world made visible. Heraclitus, who taught us that a man’s ethos is his daimon, also wrote:

‘Pythagoras may well have been

The deepest in his learning of all men. And still he

Claimed to recollect details of former lives,

Being in one a cucumber and one-time a sardine.’ (#17)

I’m with Pythagoras on this. I want the story of the whole Pythagoras, the square on his hypotenuse as well as the sum of the squares on his other two sides, and I wouldn’t feel I knew Pythagoras properly if I didn’t also know about those secret, earlier lives spent far away from mathematics as a cucumber, or a sardine.”

I doubt Heraclitus said anything of the sort, but Languages of Truth has many such interjections that are not true, including from the film, Casablanca. In Another Writer’s Beginnings, he describes his own journey to becoming a writer, telling us of his early reading and writing influences in India, his journey to Cambridge in Britain to study and later to take up writing as a career; in fact, he treats his entire writing life as one of migrations.

Part Two of the book is about other writers that Rushdie read, admired and even happened to know. Most of the essays in this section were lectures at events to commemorate those writers’ lives. In his essay on Philip Roth, as with Harold Pinter, he writes from his personal friendship with them and his intimate familiarity with their work. In Philip Roth, Rushdie compares him with Saul Bellow and says that to understand the heart of Jewish America, one must read both these authors well. He talks of Roth and Bellow both starting out by writing small and then writing larger than life works. Rushdie says that when Roth’s character, Nathan Zuckerman, seemed to run out of steam, and rope, and stories, Roth took a look inward and outward, and found an entire new wellspring of stories waiting to be told.

“I have long believed that there are only two kinds of a really good novel. One is what I call the ‘everything novel’, what Henry James called the ‘loose, baggy monster’, the novel that tries to include as much of life as possible. The other is the ‘almost nothing novel’, the novel that, so to speak, plucks a single narrative strand from the head of the goddess and turns it in the light to reveal truth… The interesting thing about Bellow and Roth is that they have been both kinds of writer at different points in their career.”

Needless to add, Rushdie does discuss Philip Roth’s political leanings and views and the influence of that on his work as well.

I am not sure if I should call the second section of the book, literary criticism, but there is some of that as Rushdie discusses famous authors and their works. I found his essay on Samuel Beckett very disappointing, and thought that Rushdie’s introduction to a book called Lunatics, Lovers and Poets, commemorating the 400th death anniversary of Cervantes and Shakespeare in 2015, beside the point altogether. The former is much too short and doesn’t even try to go beneath the surface to understand Beckett, especially since it was meant to be an introduction to Beckett’s Complete Works. While the latter is all about Cervantes and Shakespeare and a comparison of them, when it was meant to be an introduction to a book comprising stories by six Spanish authors who were inspired by Shakespeare and six English authors on stories inspired by Cervantes.

Equally disappointing is Rushdie’s essay on David Remnick’s book on Muhammad Ali, King of the World. I hadn’t heard of his book on Muhammad Ali, but Rushdie’s essay meant to be an introduction to the book reads like a review of the book rather than an introduction. Then, he makes the terrible mistake of directly comparing Remnick’s book with Ali’s autobiography, which is quite unnecessary.  

“I remember reading Ali’s autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, when it came out. It’s not a good book, poorly ghostwritten and King of the World, among its many virtues, performs the service of telling Ali’s story better and more truthfully than he did.”

Part Two also has essays on autobiography and the novel as well as on adaptation, which would fall under literary criticism. In Autobiography and the Novel, Rushdie discusses whether novels ought to be autobiographical and the higher gossip surrounding writers whose lives resembled what they wrote about, and whether that necessarily means that their novels are autobiographical. In recent years, we have also witnessed the rise of a new genre in fiction, auto-fiction, of which Karl Ove Knausgard is an established exponent. Rushdie does write about some similarities between characters in Midnight’s Children and his own family, but of course, the novel is in no way autobiographical. In Adaptation, he writes about film adaptations of books and what standards we measure them by. Considering they are meant for a different medium, and considering the liberties screenplay writers take with books, should we even expect them to be faithful to the book? Rushdie writes about his own experience of writing the screenplay for Midnight’s Children, and I was reminded of how Graham Greene wrote screenplays for many of his own novels. In the ultimate analysis, Rushdie contends that the film adaptation must at the very least preserve the essence of the book, the spirit of it.

If Part Two of Languages of Truth is part literary criticism, Part Three is Rushdie as activist for the freedom of expression and right to express opinions freely. This section contains essays that are mostly speeches given at PEN America events as well as writings for them. It is about writing that seeks to inform and educate, whether through fiction or non-fiction and about the travails of writers from countries in Africa, Latin America and China who are constantly under threat for writing about the truth. But the best piece in this section is not for PEN, it is about Christopher Hitchens who Rushdie knew well and who defended him against the fatwa. He wrote about their friendship on the day Hitchens died, and about what drove him to rush to Rushdie’s defence.

Rushdie at a PEN America event, 2014; Image: Ed Lederman on Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

“He and I found ourselves describing our ideas, without conferring, in almost identical terms. I began to understand that while I had not chosen the battle, it was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I had loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humourlessness, philistinism and the new offence-culture of the age). Then I read Christopher using exactly the same everything-he-loved-versus-everything-he hated-trope, and I felt… understood.”

This, and The Liberty Instinct essay in Part Three are good and worth reading. I must mention one curious essay in this section, though. Half-woman God is about the eunuchs of Bombay and Rushdie describes his meeting with one of them, Laxmi, who agrees to talk to him about their community and their predicament.

Part Four sees Salman Rushdie as art lover and critic. He writes about certain artists and visiting their exhibitions, from Bhupen Kakkar and Francisco Clemente to Taryn Simon and Kara Walker. The best essay in this section is The Composite Artist: The Emperor Akbar and the Making of the Hamzanama, which describes Akbar’s 14-year labour of love, while still under guardianship at the age of 14, before he took over the reins of his empire in a full-fledged manner. Rushdie writes:

“At the behest of a monarch who was only fourteen years old when he commanded it and twenty-nine when it was done, and under the supervision of two grand-masters of Persian painting, more than one hundred Indian artists worked to complete fourteen large volumes containing one hundred folios each and in doing so, created the distinctive manner, technique and aesthetic of Mughal Indian painting – created it in an extraordinary collective act.”

There is an essay on Amrita Shergill’s letters as well, but I wish it had delved deeper into her life and her work. That is pretty much what I would say about the entire book, actually. Most of the writings don’t delve deep enough to make clear and important arguments, to call themselves essays. Perhaps they required more work, since most were modified, edited and expanded from lectures or introductions to books. I wonder why publishers seem to be obsessed with introductions and forewords in recent years, when most of them are quite awful actually. And as always, I suspect large parts of this book too are the result of meddling by Perfect Relations idiot bosses and their cronies in BBDO India.  

For a writer who has lived decades under a death threat, the essays particularly in Part Three are quite feeble, when one would have expected writing that was more visceral. And for someone who took to magical realism like a duck to water, it’s not surprising to see why wonder tales mean so much to Rushdie. Or why his essay on ‘Gabo’ Garcia Marquez speaks to writers and to journalists. 

If you’re looking for incisive, analytical, passionate writing on truth, you won’t find it here. What you will find is a mellow Rushdie looking back at his own work through his encounters with other writers and cultures.

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