|Jan/Feb 2003 Book Reviews|
Random House (September 2002) 454 pages
ISBN: 0 224 06160 7
For someone like me, who has read all of Rushdie's published fiction but very little of his non-fiction, this collection offers an interesting picture of the author. Actually, it's more like a kaleidoscope of glimpses, since the essays date from 1992 to 2002, with several excursions into memories of earlier times. We see Rushdie as an aspiring hippy in 1967 (and the vision of him in "red crushed-velvet flares" is hard to forget!); Rushdie as a serious and outspoken advocate of intellectual and artistic freedom; Rushdie onstage with the band U2; Rushdie the Bombay-born Indian; Rushdie the critic and columnist; Rushdie the football fan; Rushdie considering acting as an alternative career (having played a dancing pixie at the age of seven); and Rushdie the courageous spokesman for oppressed writers.
Many of the essays are lighthearted but, more than anything, I came to admire Rushdie's willingness to speak out on issues of terrorism, security, and religious bigotry of all kinds. He is adamant that writers everywhere should have the right to use their imaginative gifts to the full. He has, of course, first-hand experience of living under the threat of assassination, but he chose to fight it rather than change his life and live in hiding. He wanted, as he says, to live his own life. Who can disagree with that?
Part II of this book, "Messages from the Plague Years," collects together pieces which Rushdie wrote whilst under the Satanic Verses fatwa. He writes of his horror at the deaths of others who became associated with his work, and of the blame which some place on him for these deaths. He writes, too, of all those who have also suffered, and still suffer, from similar accusations and persecution. He writes of the need to fight despair and to keep always in mind that blame lies with the oppressors. And he writes that the oppressors' "assumption of infallibility" is a question of power, not morality. He writes from a personal conviction of the need to fight such oppression, and he argues bravely and cogently for his beliefs. How many of his critics, or his supporters, would be as brave were they under similar threat?
What does not destroy us, it is said, makes us stronger. There is no doubt that Rushdie is now a strong, combative, determined and opinionated man. But clearly, it is his nature to be argumentative. He was well trained, he tells us, by growing up in a family dominated by formidable women: "to be heard in this company you must not only raise your voice but also have something interesting to say." So perhaps it is not surprising that in his essays, especially those in Part III of this book where his journalistic pieces are collected, he has become something of a pundit and expounds on Globalization, Islam and the West, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, American politics, Indian abortion and even Reality TV. Perhaps, too, it is only a function of the choice of essays included here, that he seems to have no doubt about the rightness of his views.
As always, Rushdie writes with imagination, clarity and flair, and these essays cover a very wide range of topics and moods. I particularly enjoyed the humour and perception of Rushdie's critical deconstruction of The Wizard of Oz, and his diary entries about his return to India with his son, Zafar, in July 2000. His occasional comments about sources in his own work are enlightening. His response to the Daily Mail's claims that his protection cost the British taxpayer millions of pounds sets the record straight. And his Human Rights lecture at Yale (from which this book takes its title) is an interesting mixture of prosaic public lecture, personal memory, a moral stand expressed with spirited integrity, and polemic.
Rushdie, himself, has crossed many frontiers in his life and, especially, in his writing. Judging by the essays in this book, he now treads fearlessly where many others fear to tread, he is unafraid of crossing boundaries—always ready to cross the line—and because of this, his writing is, by turn, pleasing, amusing, argumentative, confrontational, angry, sad, controversial. It is almost never dull.