- Beowulf Sheehan
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, led 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 novel, Fury, set in New York at the beginning of the third millennium, was published in 2001.
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 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.
Salman Rushdie became a KBE in 2007. In 2008, Midnight's Children won the 'Best of the Booker' Prize. He also co-edited The Best American Short Stories (2008) with Heidi Pitlor. Recent novels include Shalimar the Clown (2005), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award; The Enchantress of Florence (2008); Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015); and The Golden House (2017). His novel Quichotte (2019), a modern-day retelling of Don Quixote, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He is also the author of a travel narrative, The Jaguar Smile (1987), an account of a visit to Nicaragua in 1986.
How to capture, within 1001 words, all the hype and hyper-realism, the epic scale and elephantine form, the textual pyrotechnics and verbal exuberance, the notoriety and over-sized celebrity, of a writer as gigantic as Salman Rushdie? One response would be to fall to pieces, as Saleem does, quite literally, when faced with the sheer size and incommensurability of India’s history in Midnight’s Children (1981).
Another would be to run with the hyperbole, as does cultural critic Sukhdev Sandhu:
'Rushdie … is one of the world’s most famous writers. Any upscale Manhattan party on whose dancefloor he hasn’t shaken his ass by midnight might be considered a failure. His novels sell in their hundreds of thousands, Midnight’s Children (1981) was adjudged Booker of Bookers in 1994.' (Sandhu, 2003)
We might add to this impressive list that Rushdie’s writing has spawned a minor academic industry of its own, with over 700 articles and chapters already written on his fiction, and no less than 30 book-length studies focusing on Rushdie’s life and works. The problem with this hyperbolic approach is that it leads to sweeping generalisations about Rushdie that ignore, as Sandhu goes on to point out, ‘the historical and geographical specificities which give his fictions such gristle and throb’.
A more modest, microscopic account of Rushdie would seem sensible in this context: one that can account for the formal plasticity of the author’s work in terms of Indian oral traditions rather than global postmodernism; or his cinematic allusions in terms of Bombay cinema of the 1950s rather than a general, Westernised conception of ‘Bollywood’; or his writing in terms of its discrete literary concerns, minor shifts of emphasis and thematic developments, rather than through catch-all labels such as ‘magic realism’ or ‘post-colonialism’. Indeed, it could be argued that the continued critical neglect of Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus (1975) has to do in part with its atypical qualities and its stubborn resistance to generalisations as such.
Grimus was even idiosyncratic in terms of its immediate reception, being something of a flop when first published, or ‘too clever for its own good’ in the author’s words. The novel is set on the imaginary Calf Island and follows the quest of Flapping Eagle by way of a curious blend of styles that incorporates modernism and existentialism, American Indian and Sufi mythologies, as well as allegory and science fiction. Unlike his subsequent writing, all of which reveals a firmly geographical imagination (despite and perhaps because of its preoccupation with dislocation), there is a certain boundlessness about Rushdie’s first novel, which critics like Timothy Brennan have argued explain its neglect. What is suggestive in terms of the later fiction is Rushdie’s fascination with the central ideas of admixture and migration.
Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983) and The Satanic Verses (1988) are Rushdie’s best-known works to date, and are sometimes regarded together as a trilogy. Midnight’s Children is, among other things, a fictional history of post-Independence India, a story we are asked to read through the lens of Saleem Sinai’s life. Born in the midnight hour of Independence, Saleem, along with 1001 other children, is gifted with magical powers which lead in both creative and destructive directions. Born to poor Hindu parents, brought up by wealthy Muslims, Saleem is a bastard child of history and a metaphor for the post-colonial nation.
According to Rushdie the falsification of history in Midnight’s Children was a symptom of his own status as a migrant writer living in London and trying to capture an imaginary homeland through the imperfections of childhood memory. It is this theme of migration which grows increasingly central to the content of the next two novels. Shame is a magic realist rendering of Pakistan, and like Midnight’s Children uses a private family saga as a thinly-veiled allegorical model for the nation’s public and political history. The ancestral home upon which the novel focuses is a gothic, subterranean and labyrinthine setting where the windows only look inwards. As such it serves to suggest the dark violence, repressive consciousness and secretive character associated with Pakistan in the tumultuous years after 1947.
In The Satanic Verses the schizophrenic migrant imagination that intermittently erupts into the primary narrative fabric of Shame takes a hold of the entire text. The novel begins nearly 30,000 feet above sea-level in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on an aeroplane. As the Indian protagonists Saladhin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta tumble to the ground, they begin to metamorphose into satanic and angelic forms. The novel’s depiction of the history of Islam famously resulted in a fatwa being pronounced on Rushdie. Beyond the offending passages, however, is a novel that is as critical of Thatcherism as it is of Islam, with both 1980s London and ancient Jahilia/Mecca becoming parallel universes associated with emergent cultures of intolerance and fundamentalism.
Written in the shadow of the fatwa, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) is a children’s story for adults and a gripping allegorical defence of the power of stories over silence. Similarly, his next novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), though reminiscent in certain respects of Midnight’s Children, and set mainly in India, deals with themes of isolation and death that recall the author and the ‘Affair’. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) is an altogether more exuberant novel. Both a love story and a history of rock music from the margins, the book is a celebration of some of Rushdie’s central themes to date (movement, hybridity, transformation) by way of Greek mythology and the Orpheus/Eurydice myth.
Along with his next novel, Fury (2001), The Ground Beneath Her Feet suggests a new preoccupation with issues of globalisation (rather than the ‘mere’ transnationalism of earlier works). In other ways, though, Fury is another atypical novel. Set mainly in New York and relatively detached from South Asian contexts, the book is Rushdie’s most condensed fiction to date, avoiding the characteristic sprawling narrative strands that span generations, periods, and places.
Shalimar the Clown (2005), Rushdie’s ninth novel, has been hailed by a number of critics as a return to form. Set in Kashmir and Los Angeles, it develops many of the themes present in Fury but, according to The Observer, in a ‘calmer’ and ‘more compassionate’ manner. Ostensibly a story about love and betrayal (familiar themes in Rushdie’s earlier work), there is a fresh urgency about this book with its meditations on post-9/11 terrorism. The Enchantress of Florence (2008), Rushdie’s next novel, was also one of his most structurally challenging works to date. It is beyond simple summary and represents, on the surface at least, a turn from present to past, from politics to poetics (of course, the two are mutually constitutive). Focusing on a European’s visit to Akbar’s court, and his revelation that he is a lost relative of the Mughal emperor, the novel was reviewed in glowing terms in the Guardian as a ‘sumptuous mixture of history with fable’.
In 2012, Rushdie published his long awaited memoir, Joseph Anton (a combination of two of his favourite authors: Conrad and Chekhov). The 650-page book is a treasure trove for fans of the writer. Written in the third person, Joseph Anton contains intimate portraits of Rushdie’s parents and first wife, his years in hiding and his mixed relations with the police who were his guardians, his literary and political friends and foes, as well as a whole string of tantalizing biographical insights into the mind of the man behind the stories.
A sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and one of his most critically acclaimed works in recent years, Luka and the Fire of Life (2010) returns initiated readers to the familiar landscape of Alifbay and the world of Haroun and his great storytelling father, Rashid. When Rashid falls, unexpectedly, into a deep sleep, it is only Luka, Haroun’s younger brother (now not so young: eighteen years have passed since his adventure), who can save him from oblivion. It is a rescue attempt that takes Luka on a magical journey that rivals even Haroun.
While Rushdie has always been best known as a novelist, he is also an artful essayist (Imaginary Homelands, 1991 and Step Across This Line, 2002); an influential, and sometimes controversial, editor (The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1997 and The Best American Short Stories, 2008); a surprisingly economical short story writer (East, West, 1994) and an astute cultural critic (The Wizard of Oz, 1992). For Rushdie, it seems, excess, superabundance, and multiplicity are more than just aesthetic concerns, they are also a vocation.
Dr J Procter, 2013
For an in-depth critical review see Salman Rushdie by Damian Grant (Northcote House, 1999: Writers and their Work Series).
'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.'