How does he do it?
There isn’t really a Salman Rushdie and me in the same way that there is a Lauryn Hill and me, or a Barack Obama and me. I’ve only read three of his books, and one, The Satanic Verses, I wasn’t all that impressed with (but you can’t buy that kind of publicity, hyuk hyuk). I would read more of Salman Rushdie’s books but you know, can’t be fucked, life’s too short etc. They’re all indirectly about the Indian subcontinent, it just doesn’t interest me enough.
Still, I’ve loved the other two I’ve read: Midnight’s Children, a whimsical fictional look at the beginnings and developments of the Indian and Pakistani nations through the eyes of a magical child/teen/adult, and Fury, a look through fiction at the concept of America and New York City as the all-powerful cultural and money capital of the world (c. 2000, pre-towers, pre-Bush budget deficits. Pre-fear).
Salman Rushdie, to refresh our memories, was the one who wrote The Satanic Verses, for which the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stated to the world in 1989 that every good Muslim had a duty to kill Salman Rushdie if the opportunity presented itself, and he had to go underground for a decade. Both the Italian and Japanese translators of the book consequently met their end. The fatwa is still in place.
The Satanic Verses is not quite a good enough book to spend time analysing, so I won’t. And Islam (or any religion) is not coherent or rational enough to analyse either, so I won’t. Suffice to say the fatwa is utterly despicable, a stain on the face of the tolerance and forgiveness that humanity and particularly organised religion is supposed to represent.
Salman Rushdie was called an apostate, someone who saw the Muslim truth and turned his face away. Yet Islam and Rushdie’s personal struggle with it is always in his work. His main characters in Midnight’s Children question Islam but it is always there, especially when they move from India to Pakistan, the country named after purity itself. Rushdie is quietly critical of austere Pakistan, “the land of a thousand untruths,” against India, that whirling land of humanity in its most basic form where paradoxically (or maybe because of that) anything is still possible, the “land of a thousand different realities”.
But I was sidetracked. The first character of the story uneasily tries to recapture his faith upon returning home to Kashmir from Germany, but hits his nose when he bows to perform his prayers and vows to never kiss earth for any god or man again. “This decision, however, left a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber.” The same thing happened to me. I had ditched going to church and the Bible was a crock but nonetheless I was still content to say thank you to God whenever I passed through a yellow light at an intersection or scored a penalty kick in an indoor soccer match. God was there. But then a year and a half ago I was foolish enough to read The God Delusion by an author who couldn’t just let people be happy. I don’t remember any of his arguments but suddenly God was no longer there in my mind, I was no longer saying thank you at the vital unimportant moments, suddenly girls who believed in God were no longer a turn-on for me. He was no longer watching the world, I was suddenly adrift and merely one person against the world, and suddenly things would no longer turn out all right, I will live a meaningless life and then simply die. I hate you Richard Dawkins, hate you hate you hate you. You ruined my fucking life.
All that over a mere non-fiction book. To me, very little non-fiction is worth my reading, since none of it is written stylishly enough for my tastes. Hell, maybe that’s why I like Salman Rushdie’s stuff.
Salman Rushdie, to me, has always been a triumph of style and observations over any sort of storyline. Fury is a thin story that is a mask for Rushdie’s wonder at the concept of America: Even Anti-Americanism is a concession that America is the only game in town. Have all empires been this undeserving, or is this one particularly crass? Anyone in any part of the world would love to be wearing even the cheap knock-offs that are sold daily on the streets of New York. Because of the immense goddamn power of America, the immense fucking seduction of America, those bastards in charge get away with… He includes New York Yankee baseball players, Patrick Kluivert and the ultimately doomed Dutch Euro 2000 effort (“stir the races together and you get the most beautiful people. I want to go to Surinam, and soon”), Mexicans speculating on machines that eat food (“Jou better wise up, hermano. They got machine now eat food for fuel, jou hear that?”) foul-mouthed but apologetic immigrant cabbies, ad jingles, overheard stories in the street.
He also covers the emotional moments very well, and in a very understated way. ‘ “Let me,” her begged her. “Believe me. I’m the one.” One night, out of the blue, she let him, she said she believed.’ A line that completely made it worth the price of stealing The Satanic Verses from some shop in the city seven years ago ($0). Then there is Mila’s rejection in Fury, an insertion of deep loss into regular knockabout life, one that I should Xerox and send to Bolivia:
“You’re a lucky man, because evidently you’re an optimist. Only a wild optimist throws away what’s most precious, what’s so rare and satisfies his deepest need, which you know and l know you can’t even name or look at without the shutters closed and the lights out, you have to hide it until somebody comes along who’s smart enough to know what to do, somebody whose own unspeakable need just happens to make a perfect fit with your own. And now, now that we’ve got there, when the defences are down and the pretence is over and we’re really in that room that we never allowed ourselves to believe could exist for either of us, the invisible room of our greatest fear – right at very moment when we discover there’s no need to be afraid in that room, we can have whatever we want for as long as we want it, and maybe when we’ve had our fill we’ll wake up and notice that we’re real living people, we’re not the puppets of our desires but just this woman, this man, and then we can stop the games, open up the shutters, turn out the lights, and step out into the city street hand in hand… this is when you decide to… An optimist is a man who gives up an impossible pleasure because he’s sure he’ll find it again just around the bend. Me, by the way, I’m a pessimist. My view is that not only does lightning not strike twice, it usually doesn’t strike once. So that was it for me, what happened between us, that was really it, and you, you just, damn, damn. I could have stayed with you, did you ever work that out? Oh, not for long, just thirty or forty years, more than you’ve got, probably. Instead I’ll just marry Eddie. You know what they say: charity begins at home.”
He was thinking, You can’t marry him, you mustn’t, but such advice was no longer his to give. “You’re telling yourself that what we did was wrong,” she said. “I know you. But what we did wasn’t wrong,” and here her eyes filled with tears. “We were just comforting each other for our terrible feelings of loss. It wasn’t wrong at all. It was play. Serious play, dangerous play, maybe, but play. I thought you understood that. I thought you might just be that impossible creature, a sexually wise man who could give me a safe place, a place to be free and to set you free, too, a place where we could release all the built-up poison and anger and hurt, just let it go and be free of it, but it turns out you’re just another fool.”
That is it. That is the perfect description of one love once it is over, then and there. That was it for me. That’s why I care about Salman Rushdie. I don’t give a shit about Islamic fundamentalists, and I don’t care that he’s old and cantankerous in real life, because it’s not legitimate to criticise the artist’s work by his life and personality, only on the work itself. Which incidentally is also why Amy Winehouse is my girl whatever the shenanegans, and will continue to be as long as she keeps releasing such fantastic music. But that’s unlikely, because I think that pain of living is already too much for her, similar to what happened to Lauryn Hill.