Salman Rushdie's essays reveal the personality behind the media figure

July 07, 1991|By Carlin Romano | Carlin Romano,Knight-Ridder News Service




Salman Rushdie.

Granta Books/Viking.

` 432 pages. $24.95. Two years ago, the world's toughest book critic took on Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." In a scenario familiar to literary editors, free-lancer Ayatollah Khomeini savaged his subject so excessively that he turned his hated novelist into a household name.

But even an ayatollah can't work miracles. He couldn't turn a serious, Indian-born British intellectual into a household voice. Despite the global controversy over Khomeini's death sentence that still draws would-be enforcers, the acid opinions of this unwilling underground man remain little known to the public.

Publishing insiders, after all, consider "The Satanic Verses," Mr. Rushdie's irreverent novel about Islam, the most unread best seller since Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose." Mr. Rushdie's highly praised earlier novels, "Midnight's Children" 11 (1981) and "Shame" (1983), drew only modest audiences outside elite literary circles. His energetic cultural criticism appears mainly in England.

"Imaginary Homelands," a collection of Mr. Rushdie's journalism from the last decade, thus provides several services. It gives us a non-fiction Rushdie database, the direct voice of this upsetter of international business-as-usual, without distorting media static. It also unpacks Mr. Rushdie's long-standing general positions -- socialist, secularist, modernist, anti-colonialist, anti-American -- through short outbursts keyed to concrete topics.

Most illuminating, it exposes both the self-righteous side of Mr. Rushdie that made his support among literary peers far shakier in private than in public, and a more recent (and appealing) turn to introspection.

The 70 pieces divide into 12 sections. The first three parts of "Imaginary Homelands" gather his thoughts on what he calls "subcontinental" matters, from the assassination of Indira Gandhi the work of novelist Anita Desai. A particularly representative essay, " 'Commonwealth Literature' Does Not Exist," angrily rejects the marginalization of non-British writers of English.

Section 4 contains Mr. Rushdie's responses to TV and movie subjects, such as Indian director Satyajit Ray and Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning "Gandhi." Section 5 examines a frequent Rushdie concern, the condition of Third World migrants in Britain, and Section 6 focuses on British politics. The next five parts reprint his reviews of books by authors from around the world.

Then the finale: five pieces linked to "The Satanic Verses" crisis. Mr. Rushdie remarks hopefully in his preface that "reason is slowly replacing anger at the centre of the debate."

His articles on India couldn't be more welcome in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. They demonstrate the author's abiding support for a tolerant, pluralistic, secular India, while reminding us of why Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party bears blame bor the violence now threatening it.

Mr. Rushdie offers similarly blunt insights on issues as varied as the migrant experience, assassination, censorship, zealotry and literary reputation. He comes to each dispute with formidable weaponry: clear, forceful stands; fierce intelligence; a storehouse assimilated information. At the same time, "Imaginary Homelands," like a multihour documentary, spotlights his considerable flaws as man and thinker.

Devoted to pluralism in the abstract, Mr. Rushdie often displays sarcasm, inaccuracy and "Olympian disgust" -- a charge he levels against ideological opponent V. S. Naipaul -- when confronted by opposing views or inconvenient facts.

One example comes in a typical screed against American society, where he refers offhandedly to "the murderer Goetz who walked free after shooting down the man who asked him for a five-dollar bill on the subway." But Bernhard Goetz didn't kill anyone, didn't walk free and was hardly "asked" by one man for a fiver. (Rushdie's version makes it sound as if Goetz gunned down a Franciscan with a jar.) He does manage to spell Goetz's name correctly.

Mr. Rushdie's literary judgments also prove more confident than convincing. He cockily observes that Henry Miller's "reputation has more or less completely evaporated." Recent cover reviews of dual Miller biographies in both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times suggest otherwise. In a 1985 piece, he smugly declares that it's "hard to conceive of, say, an Indian Paul Theroux, becoming obsessed with the railways of the United States. . . ." Then Mr. Naipaul published his travel book on the American South. The world just won't conform to Mr. Rushdie's preconceptions.

His problems as a critic reflect his troubled, contradictory personality. Eager throughout his career to excoriate British and Western tradition, to fight its cultural imperialism, he unfortunately shares its desire to be magisterial. He constantly displays imperialist literary reflexes, dropping the references and allusions of an arch Western dogmatist.

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