Book Review

Wonder Tales and More

Man alone is the storytelling animal.
Languages of Truth


My own copy of Midnight’s Children, described to me by a cousin as a piece of chocolate so rich you could only take a few bites at a time, but which I crammed down anyway, carried the following inscription written inside by its giver: “To Alia—for when the shortest note just became a little shorter. Love, Jaffer.” I had been haranguing this poor Jaffer to scribble a note inside, because at the time I felt it was the right thing to do when you presented someone with a book and especially a novel. The joke, however unintentional, worked. Salman Rushdie does not, in any of his writings, nor, by his own admission, in his speech, incline towards such brevity.

Languages of Truth[1], Rushdie’s 20th book and third essay collection, is as expansive in scope as his literary sensibilities. It gathers essays from the last 17 years (2003–2020), taken from literary criticism, commencement and foundation speeches, tributes to (famous) departed friends, lectures and, in a happily surprising twist, art reviews. Divided into four parts, the first examines Rushdie’s tender and enduring love for what he calls “wonder tales,” the myths and folklore, from East and West, that captured his childhood imagination—and never let go—and the fabulist and magic realist traditions (the latter an inadequate term) that are its descendants. Part II covers authors ranging from his friend playwright Harold Pinter to Danish melancholic Hans Christian Anderson, as well as thoughts on adapting art from one genre to another (say, novel to screen), the role of autobiography in fiction, and a review of David Remnick’s biography of Muhammad Ali. Part III, largely taken from PEN America and other speeches, delves into the political; in the fourth and final section Rushdie the art critic winningly leads us from the Mughal Emperor Akbar to a 2009 Kara Walker exhibit in Los Angeles.

But in swallowing so much of the world, it never quite gets digested. If the volume is meant to be presented as a venerated artist’s, thinker’s and activist’s take on the American cultural and political landscape of our still young twenty-first century, then it is not a coherent or particularly original one. Nor does its structure provide any sort of road map to coherence; only a few of the essays are dated, and no chronology or context provided beyond informing us an essay has been adapted from a speech or lecture (and when it has, it still reads like a commencement or foundation speech, written not for a reader or editor but a graduating class or gala). Much of the takeaways are platitudes—that America is divided because it cannot agree on the same story, that the word novel indeed means “new,” that it takes moral courage to speak the truth—Well, yes and yes. The collection itself largely fails to offer anything new, as if it were tackling yesterday’s queries and problems.

As for the current moment: Trump is bad. So is cancel culture. Autofiction is tiresome. Religion is (still) stupid. COVID is just a plague.

Nevertheless, he charms with a rosy nostalgia for a lost Bombay, his trials as a young writer in England stumbling determinedly to find his voice, delightful historical asides, and the sheer enchantment and sense of fun with which he regards literature.

Rushdie’s opening essay, “Wonder Tales,” takes us back to first things: the ancient mythology, both Eastern and Western, that would provide a blueprint for the literature that followed, and the subsequent “wonder tales” that captured his childhood imagination. Treasured among his memories are trips to the university library of Aligarh, riding behind his grandfather on a bicycle (fictionalized as Dr. Aziz in Midnight’s Children, in those pages biking instead in Agra). Yet these were not moralizing gods. Zeus and the gang behaved as badly as their human subjects, as did their Hindu counterparts. But while the Western gods of Olympus and their stories are today relegated to the sidelines of daily life, no longer occupying center stage, the pantheon of Hindu deities are alive and well in India. When, in 2012, Jyoti Singh died of horrific wounds after being raped and thrown off a moving bus in New Delhi, sparking outrage worldwide, an Indian state minister said that she had crossed the Lakshman rekha line—the magical line in the epic poem Ramayana that the god Ram draws around his lover Sita to keep her safe while he is away. By taking a bus at night with a male friend, Jyoti had crossed the line and therefore brought about her punishment. “It should be said,” Rushdie reminds us, “that in most traditional versions of the Ramayana, including the original version by the poet Valmiki, the story of the Lakshman rekha is not to be found.”

In particular, Rushdie returns to The Arabian Nights, tracing its likely Indian origin through Persia and all the way to France, where in the eighteenth century Antoine Galland wrote his additions, “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” most well known to Western audiences today (perhaps in part with help from Walt Disney). His interest, however, lies in the framing device, Princess Scheherazade turned storyteller night after night to prevent her murderous husband from parting her head from the rest of her: “Did Scheherazade and her sister, Dunyazad, finally after one thousand nights and one night and more, become murderers and kill their bloodthirsty husbands? It was, I confess, the bloody aspect of the frame story that first attracted me to The Arabian Nights.”

The wonder tales had them all—sex, bloodshed, injustice, power and a lively smattering of genies, djinns and ghouls though, alas, no flying carpets. In a Columbia class taught by Penguin Random House VP, Erroll McDonald (who many years ago complained, “People think I’m the Saddam Hussein of publishing”), he corroborated the enduring legacy of this kernel of storytelling. A successful story, he informed students, requires two elements: “fighting and fucking.”

“Wonder Tales,” which provides some limited sense of through line to the collection, presents a rather unnecessary but passionately delivered binary: “kitchen sink realism” vs. the fantastic, the fabulist, the wonder tale. Realism’s legacy, according to him, is more “plentiful,” culminating now in the obsessive cataloguing of Knausgaard over the imagination. Should young writers, as they are frequently instructed, write what they know? Only “if what you know is really interesting,” he advises. Because right now, “as anyone who has experienced a creative writing class can testify, there’s a lot of stuff about adolescent suburban angst.” (Yes—I can testify. I can also testify that the sheer volume of twenty-something MFA students writing their “memoirs” is stupefying.)

Are we succumbing to James Wood’s “hysterical realism”? Is hyperrealism a passing fad? Not so, at least, the fantastic, even if there’s less of it. For example, “what in Latin America became known as magic realism is not a passing fad. It is a recent manifestation of a tradition that manifests itself in every language in every age . . . Kafka’s giant insect in The Metamorphosis, Bulgakov’s devil making mayhem in the Moscow of The Master and Margarita, and Charles Dickens too flow alongside García Márquez.”

The human experience is often too large, too contradictory, too multitudinous to be conveyed adequately with realism, and through the “untruth” of the fantastic, the surreal, greater truths are revealed and could only but be revealed: “The trouble with the term “magic realism”—that when people say or hear it—they are really saying or hearing only half of it, “magic,” without paying attention to the other half, “realism.” And even if many of us live small, quiet lives, how self-contained can they be anymore? The novels of Jane Austen, Rushdie reminds us, betray not a peep of the Napoleonic Wars. For Virginia Woolf and British writers of her time, the colonies, on which their societies depended, are a distant whisper, a convenient way to be rid of a character, create a complication. Today the world seeps in, through our screens, through globalization, the sheer speed with which information travels. Even if we choose to ignore it, or, let’s say, dwell in a small mountainous village with no internet connection, what happens when the truths we take to be self-evident, the facts of our lives, suddenly betray us?

A description of the world contains facts, certainly, and facts, as we’ve seen, are fluttery elusive creatures, but there are armies of fact lepidopterists chasing after them, and sometimes they do get nailed to the wall, like moths. Inside any given “reality” [. . .] there will be a number of nailed-down facts—the name of the president, the age of your spouse, the place occupied by your favourite sports team in the weekly standings—but there will also, often, be nailed-down fictions—common prejudices, ignorances, mistakes, and items of state propaganda (which come these days in a range of attractive colors)—masquerading as facts.

Then one day the picture of the world breaks. You wake up one day and find that you have indeed been transformed into a giant dung beetle. Or Hitler invades Poland. Or you’re an advertising executive who looks like Cary Grant, and you’re mistaken for someone else, someone who looks like Cary Grant, and a few scenes later you’re being chased by crop-duster aircraft and hanging off Mount Rushmore.

Or, more moderately, your parents, those larger-than-life figures, expire, and you are handed a piece of paper called a “death certificate,” as if you needed to be told. Your partner leaves you. You win a free trip to another country when you’ve never crossed a border. Your body fails you. So, the “fantasy is not whimsy.” It reaches “the real by a different route.” As Rushdie elegantly observes, the Arabic rendition of the formulation “Once Upon a Time”—kan ma kan—translates to, “It was so, it was not so.”

Shakespeare’s legacy to the English-language writer, Rushdie holds, is the gift of this metamorphosis, which characterizes the fundamental instability and fluidity of the human experience. Hamlet, for one, is at once a ghost story, a murder story, a political drama, a psychodrama, a revenge tragedy, a love story and postmodern play-within-a-play—“but it’s still a ghost story, still the story of a dead father howling for vengeance.” Literature, like life, is protean.

An encompassing aspect of Rushdie’s own metamorphosis is the migration experience, perhaps even doubly relevant today than when the 13-year-old would-be author set off from tropical Bombay for boarding school in England. Or perhaps 13 is too late in the game, marked as he was as a member of the immediate post-Partition generation, at the time the world’s largest mass migration in history, with its ghost trains, arriving at their stations from east or west, carrying their dead human cargo. (It directly affected his family as well. Two of Rushdie’s aunts chose to migrate to Karachi, the Pakistani port city he openly detests.) As he observes, “A transitional generation is exceptional, it is neither of the past nor wholly of the future, and it was my gift as a writer to have that unique moment as my birthright.”

The boarding school days were dark ones. Here, Rushdie encountered racism for the first time. Once the cherished eldest and only son, he was now judged and received based on his color, origin, accent, otherness. It was to remain this way until graduation. So dismal was the experience that Rushdie, who had already received admittance to Cambridge University, asked his parents for permission instead to attend college closer to home. Fortunately, his father convinced him to accept the admission offer, because Cambridge “healed the wounds of school and showed me an England in which I might be able to live . . . at Cambridge I discovered a tolerant Britain that erased my memories of another, racist one.” His subsequent declaration that he wanted to become a writer was less well received. Writing, his father (like any parent) objected, was a hobby and not a career. After paying for an elite education, his son was going to remain in England and write? “A piteous cry, entirely involuntary, burst out of my father, expressing what he most profoundly thought: ‘What,’ he cried, ‘will I tell my friends?’”

Nevertheless, one of the things Rushdie is most proud of is refusing large wads of cash from the advertising agency where he worked to become a full-time staffer. Instead, he chose to devote what time he could to the undertaking of the mammoth five-year project, Midnight’s Children, which would catapult him to fame. In this endeavor, another metamorphosis took place: “On Friday nights I would come home to Kentish Town in North London . . . and I would ritually take a long hot bath to wash the week’s commerce away and would emerge as a novelist, or so I told myself.”

The infamous fatwa would metamorphose Rushdie once again, from a novel writer into a political thinker and free speech advocate. Unfortunately, these concerns are largely encompassed through PEN America speeches, decidedly bland and operational. Worse still are the commencement speeches. In advising fresh graduates to plunge “deep into the stuff of life . . . all the way up to the armpits,” he is doing his duty to impart uplifting and motivational words of wisdom to the next generation. But why do readers need to read it in print? It feels rather like page filler. Unless one turns the genre upside down, like David Foster Wallace did with This Is Water, originally delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, informing students, frankly, just how much life after college was going to suck, then there is little reason to include these graduation rituals. Elsewhere, Rushdie provides laundry lists of persecuted artists, including Ai Weiwei, Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari and Pussy Riot, and with the similar energy of a wise adult speaking to college kids, advises us to sign the petitions, join the protests and speak up for liberty. It’s not untrue. Just boring.

One can, of course, understand the centrality of free expression advocacy in Rushdie’s life. None but he can perceive the ordeal of his decade underground. Which is why, perhaps, he can be forgiven for returning to his familiar screed against religion in general and Islamic society in particular. Not that there is anything wrong with atheism, or legitimate critiques of the Islamic world. But Rushdie’s (understandable) bitterness shows through. It might do him good to read some of those commencement speeches in the bathroom mirror, as he wisely counsels students to resist the dogmas of their day. These are old and common criticisms of the author though, but then so are his words.

Fortunately, Rushdie’s wit and humor return in the final portion of the book, as he turns his cosmopolitan eye to the world of art. Interspersed among essays about art and photography, Rushdie recalls his friendship with the late actress Carrie Fisher (proving wrong, he says, those people who say that men and women cannot only be friends), as well as celebrating the Christmas season in Cambridge as an atheist. Marriage and children changed him from a “Christmas refusenik” in London to a nonbelieving celebrator of a truly English Christmas. Thanks to his two sons, demanding the end-of-year festivities, there are now “tall trees decked with ornaments, and holly, mistletoe, turkey, stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, brandy snaps, crackers, the whole nine yards, even the brussels sprouts . . . There is the queen on TV. There is an annual ocean of wrapping paper. There are stockings. There are Christmas sweaters.”

In his final essay, Rushdie warns us not to read too much into COVID-19. A plague is just a plague. It is not a sign from god, the universe or nature. It does not mean that human beings will change in any great way. In his charming essay, “Heraclitus,” he explores, and ultimately rejects, the Greek philosopher’s belief that character is destiny. Yes, Charlie Brown must kick the ball, and Lucy must remove it before he can, no matter how badly fans want to see Charlie hit it just this once. It is their ethos. Captain Ahab must pursue the whale, his obsession. Bartleby the Scrivener will always prefer not to. Joyce’s Leopold Bloom shall accept Molly’s infidelity. It is their fate.

There are the characters who follow their fate. And then there are those who don’t. When a person’s vision of the world is suddenly rent apart, when the will is forced, he or she must now act beyond the rules of their reality. “Heraclitus’s dictum doesn’t take into account the liquid things about life, the gaseous things, the things about people and stories and language and perception and yes, moral values that don’t play out, that aren’t dependable.” The things, in short, that the magic realism, fabulist and wonder tale traditions seek to capture; the ever changing, protean conditions placed upon us. And if character is not destiny, it is a consoling thought. And perhaps a plague is not just a plague, but some kind of impetus for change. Are the George Floyd protests one such catalyst, or will they fade into history? “Time will tell.” Will we return to our post-COVID world and behavior once it’s all over, whatever that means? It remains too early in the story to know.

Salman Rushdie did not spend the pandemic baking bread. He did not spend it writing. Aside from penning, then rubbishing, 100 odd pages, he confesses, “The roar of the real world was deafening and left no quiet place in which an imagined world might grow.” Instead, he watched movies. French new wave cinema, “peak-period” Marilyn Monroe, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa. It was this “private film festival” that reenergized him once again for work. In a May 2021 interview in the Guardian, Rushdie revealed he is writing his first play, a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of Helen. Wonder tales revisited.
[1]LANGUAGES OF TRUTH: Essays 2003–2020, by Salman Rushdie. Random House. $28.00.