Embracing Islam

Patrick Parrinder

  • Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 by Salman Rushdie
    Granta, 432 pp, £17.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 14 014224 X

‘Our lives teach us who we are,’ Salman Rushdie observed in one of three widely-read and somewhat contradictory statements of faith that he published last year. These are now reprinted at the end of Imaginary Homelands, a compendious collection of book reviews, cultural critiques and political essays written over the last ten years and, for the most part, in much less fraught circumstances. Inevitably one’s reading of the volume is dominated by the fact that it is by the author of The Satanic Verses, a book which has brought down more vilification on its author’s head than any other text in the history of the novel. In February 1990, after a year spent in hiding under the protection of the British Security forces, Rushdie’s essay ‘In Good Faith’ reiterated his stance as a secular man, a man without religion, and one who was ‘not a Muslim’. Then last December he published a three-page declaration: ‘Why I have embraced Islam’.

Rushdie’s religious change of heart is, of course, a matter for his own conscience. As a public act, however, it is clearly meant to invite a response. Together with his decision not to permit further translations or a paperback edition of The Satanic Verses, it must surely help to resolve the painful impasse in which he found himself after the widespread Muslim demonstrations against his novel. Whether the Ayatollah Khomeini’s crazy fatwa against him can be lifted is another matter.

Since the controversy erupted, Rushdie has several times appealed to the good sense of the British Muslim community, speaking, for example, of the furore over The Satanic Verses as a ‘family quarrel’. (The family quarrel also shows some of the characteristics of the family romance, as we shall see.) His return to the Islamic fold ought to ease the immediate political and religious crisis. What it leaves unsolved, and perhaps even exacerbates, are the literary problems involved in understanding and forming a judgment about The Satanic Verses. Throughout the storm unleashed by the novel’s publication it is remarkable how seldom its literary merits have been addressed. The Ayatollah and his henchmen made a virtue out of their failure, inability or outright refusal to read the book for which they professed so much hatred. As for those Western intellectuals critical of Rushdie, we need only recall the Oxford professor of philosophy who entered the lists without conceding any obligation to take account of the novelist’s contention that his work had been tragically and wilfully misread.

The six Muslim scholars who met Rushdie on Christmas Eve 1990 to ratify his religious conversion seem, however, to have been convinced that The Satanic Verses had been misunderstood. Other Muslims, such as the anonymous author of a lengthy analysis of the novel that was recently circulated to university English departments, have arrived at the same conclusion. Unfortunately, the notion that Rushdie’s intended meaning has been overlooked, and that his detractors are therefore incompetent textual readers, is itself problematic for modern literary theorists. Rushdie has to shoulder the authorial responsibility (though it should be remembered that his publishers and booksellers have also been the target of actual or threatened terrorist attacks), but what he cannot claim, so these theorists would argue, is the authority to decide his own text’s meanings. He is left at the mercy of others’ misreadings – or, indeed, non-readings.

In the long run, common sense is likely to guarantee that Rushdie’s statements about his own meanings do not go unheard, at least in literary circles. But in contemporary Western intellectual life there is no longer automatic assent to the values of correctness or fidelity in textual reading, or even to the privileging of truth over error. Rushdie himself shows the impress of this cultural iconoclasm. The penultimate piece in Imaginary Homelands is his 1990 Herbert Read Memorial Lecture. Its title, ‘Is nothing sacred?’, indicates a credo which is widely shared amongst contemporary writers and academics; one example is Angela Carter’s declaration that ‘In the pursuit of magnificence, nothing is sacred,’ quoted on the cover of her book Nothing Sacred (1982). In his lecture Rushdie spoke of his love for literature, but refused to say that literature was sacred. He admitted that he now had to wrestle with the notion of sacredness which, a short time before, he would have brusquely dismissed. Literature was necessary, he argued, but we should not call it sacred lest we ‘become what we oppose’. Ten months after this lecture was published Rushdie was meeting the Islamic scholars and affirming the ‘oneness of God and the genuineness of the prophecy and the Prophet Muhammad’.

Though he has laid out his contradictions as a journalist and essayist with courage and candour in his new book, he has not explained very much. The ‘why’ in ‘Why I have embraced Islam’ is surely a misnomer. Has he now become what he earlier opposed, or thought he opposed? Have the certainties of faith replaced the proud scepticism of the deconstructive phase of the Western intellect? His recent affirmation does not imply an abject surrender to ‘fundamentalist’ religion, though it does, of course, enact Rushdie’s submission to the will of God and to the knowledge of the sacred. (The word ‘Islam’ itself means submission.) Rushdie distinguishes between calling himself a Muslim and claiming to be a good Muslim, and elsewhere he has stressed that there is a place in Islamic tradition for doubts, ribaldry and irreverence as well as for obedience. Nevertheless, he has opened a new chapter in his life as a writer, which must lead to a redescription of all that preceded it. Must his earlier stance as a secular intellectual be regarded as evidence of spiritual error, or of a failure of self-knowledge? Can his commitment to the art of fiction remain unchanged?

A collection of essays and reviews should give some hints as to what sort of artist Rushdie has been, or has wanted to be. Partly because of his punchy, no-nonsense style – a style in the sharpest contrast to the prolix and garrulous narrators of his novels – the hints are not easy to gather and interpret. The journalist and the fabulator seem, at times, like two different people. Of the 75 pieces here, many are very brief, and getting on for a half are devoted to other contemporary novelists. Rushdie is, with some well-deserved exceptions, a generous and enthusiastic reader of his competitors. But he shares with every fiction critic the unsatisfactoriness of having to spend a good deal of his thousand words describing, without giving away too much about, the plot of a novel unknown to his audience. If the resulting articles do not always reprint well, a similar unevenness is to be found in the political pieces, some of which seem to have been included merely to remind us of their author’s radical credentials. Such tired writing as his intervention in the 1983 General Election campaign (‘it is just conceivable that even now, in this eleventh hour, a rage can be kindled in the people ...’), or his defence of Charter 88 (‘Mr Hattersley’s hatred of change condemns him, I fear, to the fate of the dinosaurs’), might better have been left in decent obscurity.

There are other, more substantial and effective political essays. ‘The New Empire within Britain’, originally a Channel Four talk, was widely circulated on video by the Commission for Racial Equality. Here, in terms that the likes of Geoffrey Howe and Norman Tebbit found inflammatory, Rushdie revives the ‘two nations’ trope to describe the position of blacks and Asians as ghettoised, second-class citizens within British society. This theme was taken up in The Satanic Verses with its barely noticed championship of the Asian poor in ‘Mrs Torture’s’ London. Rushdie has described his novels as a ‘migrant’s-eye view of the world’, and his essays are insistent in claiming that – though born in middle-class Bombay and educated at a British public school and King’s College, Cambridge – he can identify imaginatively and politically with the migrant’s experience. The depth of his suffering during the Satanic Verses controversy can hardly be separated from this claim.

In Rushdie there are various levels of migrant experience. He is, first of all, a self-styled ‘Bombaywallah’, a product of the brashest, most cosmopolitan and eclectic metropolis of the Indian subcontinent, who continues to comment from his position of exile on subcontinental culture and politics. India and Bombay are his imaginary homeland, and (though he rejects the emotions of patriotism and nationalism) he writes with a special urgency of that country’s need to preserve its plural and secular democracy against the growing threat of ‘communalism’ or the politics of religious hatred. From his position as a migrant, Rushdie rejects any belief in an ‘authentic’ national identity, as we see in his outspoken diatribe against the presuppositions of ‘Commonwealth Literature’ specialists. Nevertheless, he seems content to describe eclecticism as the ‘very essence of Indian culture’.

At the next level of migrant experience, he is no longer a Bombaywallah but a Third World citizen who finds himself in exile in the First World. That is, he participates in a mass migration to a world where the very colour of his skin defines him as alien. Migration to the First World was a positive move while the West still stood for the dream of political advancement for all humanity; now, however, the West is losing its ideological ascendancy. If the First World is becoming a redoubt, the home of a defensive rather than an expanding civilisation, then the Third World migrant cannot settle in it without abandoning his own society’s aspirations. His is an emigration without a landfall.

There is, however, a third level, at which the migrant experience can be seen as still more universal. In some sense, we are all migrants nowadays; perhaps, indeed, we always were. The idea that the bedrock of human experience is to be found in a monolingual, monocultural ‘organic community’ is little more than an imperialist’s fantasy. Trade, exogamy and the astonishing diversity of primitive languages suggest, it might be argued, that bilingualism is as central as monolingualism to the human condition. Rushdie himself uses a rather different argument, asserting that the very word ‘metaphor’, deriving from the Greek words for ‘bearing across’, describes ‘a sort of migration’. The experience of leaving or losing one’s homeland and crossing a frontier is, perhaps, inscribed in the very structure of imaginative experience. Rushdie, however, does not pursue this more metaphysical concept of migration, though it would seem to be implicit in the archetypal figures of the wanderer and storyteller around which his novels are constructed. ‘I too, like all migrants, am a fantasist,’ declares the narrator of Shame, and the proposition may be a reversible one.

In Rushdie’s prose the migrant occupies a specific geographical and temporal position, ‘wandering between two worlds’. (In The Satanic Verses these are, literally, Bombay and London.) In the introduction to Imaginary Homelands the last decade is described as a period of political and cultural interregnum during which, ‘as Gramsci would have said, the old was dying, and yet the new could not be born.’ The reference to Gramsci is rather strange here, since the writer whom Rushdie is indisputably echoing is Matthew Arnold. Although ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’, Arnold’s great poem on the ‘two worlds’ trope, seems profoundly antipathetic to Rushdie’s temper, it has some relevance to the dilemma in which the novelist currently finds himself. Arnold’s poem is an apology for quietism, an attitude that Rushdie in the past has found intensely irritating; he pours scorn on it – too stridently, he now confesses – in an essay on Orwell and Henry Miller called ‘Outside the Whale’. Arnold visits the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse and contemplates it through the lens of his famous melancholy. The new world powerless to be born was that foreseen in the heroic but failed efforts of the Romantic poets. They proved the deadness of the old world, but did not bequeath a new one to their less energetic successors. Arnold compares his own generation to children reared in the shade of the ancient abbey walls; their eyes and ears are enchanted by the glamour of passing soldiers and the music of huntsmen moving through the forest, but they are not capable of leaving their gloomy homeland and following these beings who symbolise other modes of life. The soldiers going forth ‘To life, to cities, and to war’ may be said to stand for the commitment to political struggle, while the musical huntsmen and the laughing ladies represent the appeal of the aesthetic life, and the power of art. Against these is set the grim, silent symbol of ecclesiastical authority. Arnold’s poem is an unwilling acknowledgment of the residual force that the abbey exerts over those who may have thought they had outgrown its spiritual certainties. The ‘children’ turn away from the call of the banners and bugles, not because of any passionate conviction, but simply on account of their emotional and cultural exhaustion.

Up to the point at which he embraced Islam, Rushdie’s novels and essays were full of the bloody-mindedness of the soldiers and the clamour of the huntsmen. He spoke of the novel as a form of ‘secular revolt’ on the part of an artist whose mission it was to ‘argue with the world’, to make ‘as big a fuss, as noisy a complaint about the world as is humanly possible’. The satirist Baal in The Satanic Verses voices the poet’s obligation to ‘shape the world and stop it from going to sleep’. But if the novelist should be noisy and quarrelsome, he should also give pleasure. Rushdie writes engagingly and lavishly about the comic fantasies of Italo Calvino, author of ‘the most outrageous fiction about fiction ever conceived’, who tells us ‘joyfully, wickedly, that there are things in the world worth loving as well as hating.’ Rushdie’s own novels tap the same vein of surrealistic carnival, in which values and expectations are turned upside down. The writer indulges his propensity to be ‘somewhat of the devil’s party’, though it was his misfortune in The Satanic Verses to serve as an advocatus diaboli reviving the Western demonology of Islam and its prophet.

Yet if the essays in Imaginary Homelands bear witness to Rushdie’s capacity for profane enjoyment, they are also full, early and late, of a longing for the simplicities which, for many, have been abolished in the Post-Modern era. He values carnivalesque fiction with a strong moral purpose. For all his doubts whether anything is sacred, the Rushdie of these essays is both an old-fashioned radical and an old-fashioned sentimentalist. Quarrelling with the world, he strives to assert the simple truths that the world denies. ‘The truth may be hard to establish, but it still needs establishing,’ he writes in one of several unacknowledged echoes of George Orwell. He rejects the fiction of high formal intelligence and calculated entertainment, complaining of recent novels by Umberto Eco and Julian Barnes that they are too cerebral and dispassionate for his liking. Tackling a major contemporary writer who seems to have settled for quietism – V.S. Naipaul – Rushdie attributes his ‘utter weariness’ to a withering of the heart.

Imaginary Homelands is the self-portrait of a brash and quarrelsome writer who wants (and, I should say, deserves) to be loved. ‘Is nothing sacred?’ was his declaration of love, this side idolatry, for literature and the form of the novel. Elsewhere he writes of his love for Bruce Chatwin, and applauds Calvino’s whimsical notion that what set off the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe could have been ‘the first truly generous impulse, the first expression of love’. In his current seclusion he is heartened by the example of Philip Roth, for whom an early accusation of being anti-semitic was the real beginning of his imaginative ‘thralldom’ to Jewish culture. Rushdie, too, seems compelled to quarrel with, and to crave forgiveness from, what he loves most. ‘What I know of Islam,’ he writes in the final paragraph of this book, ‘is that tolerance, compassion and love are at its very heart.’ He hopes that ‘the language of enmity will be replaced by the language of love.’ Perhaps Muslims will now find the magnanimity to respond to this challenge, and to end or at least mitigate Rushdie’s torment as a homeless wanderer between two worlds.