It is not necessary to know very much about India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims, or have any working knowledge of their languages and dialects to find Salman Rushdie’s books enjoyable--simply a love of literature, and the beautiful writing that can be accomplished with the English language. Take this opening section from Midnight’s Children:
One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man. This decision, however, made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history. Unaware of this at first, despite his recently completed medical training, he stood up, rolled the prayer-mat into a thick cheroot, and holding it under his right arm surveyed the valley through clear, diamond-free eyes.
I have been sitting at my computer reading and re-reading this passage wondering what to say about it. It is so rich in everything that is Rushdie to me: magical realism (the rubies and diamonds); religion (the prayer-mat, god or man, a “vacancy”); Indian history (the story begins in Kashmir, a region of India which Pakistan lays claim to); and humor. The funny part is that despite his recently completed medical training, Dr. Aziz does not recognize the “heart-hole” made by his decision to forego his former religion.
I love reading Salman Rushdie! He is one of those few authors that I hold back reading their books because once I have that initial experience it cannot be repeated. But I have read Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses several times each. These are his two most famous books, but for very different reasons. The former was the 1981 winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction; and then in 1993 was awarded the Booker of Bookers, or, the best novel ever awarded the Booker prize. The Satanic Verses though, is how I and many others initially came to know who this Salman Rushdie troublemaker was.
I still remember in 1988 going to my local bookstore in North Miami, Florida (back when small stores like this were more prevalent) to buy a copy of this book which was causing such discontent amongst Muslims around the world. The owner of this store had hardback copies of The Satanic Verses in brown paper bags behind the counter, one of which I purchased. I read through it, though not really understanding what I was reading, or what any of it meant. When asked about it by my contemporaries I probably remarked something along the lines that the writing was very vivid and wonderful, but I wasn’t really sure what it is about. Now that I am more than twice as old as I was then, a more mature reader, and more familiar with Rushdie and his worldview, I do have some idea; but the book remains strange, mysterious, beautiful, and more elusive than Midnight’s Children, or most of his other novels.
The last time I re-read The Satanic Verses I remember feeling very deeply affected by a scene at the very end where Saladin Chamcha returns to India to care for his estranged father who is dying of cancer. I wrote in my reading journal that these passages were in their way more powerful to me than Leo Tolstoy’s great novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. After glancing over this passage, I think I will spare all of you a quote from it. Think pain, destruction of the body by disease, and love.
This morning while thinking about Rushdie I could not help but realize how topical he remains as long as freedom of speech is in short supply in so many places around the world. The attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo just a few days ago is a direct correlation to the entire Rushdie/Ayatollah Khomeini affair from the late 1980s; and it seems that no progress has been made. Rushdie wrote about his experience of nine years in hiding and protection by the British Secret Intelligence Service in his book Joseph Anton: A Memoir. The book is written in the third person, perhaps in a conscious effort by Rushdie to distance himself from these memories and that period of his life. It has its detractors because of this, but having always been interested in this little piece of pre-911 history, I found it quite fascinating.
In closing I would just like to try and assert my love for Salman Rushdie’s writing enough to maybe get a few others to try him. These books are not all he has written, but just the most important to me. He has also written two novels aimed at younger people, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life; along with other novels, essays, and short stories. He is a heartfelt and important contemporary figure in English literature.
--El Gaucho is a pseudonym of Stu Moore. Stu spends his time considering Registrar-related activities at a small liberal arts Jesuit college in the South, and how they might relate to his background in English and Theology.
[Editor's Note: Let the record show that the 52 Authors project was originally proposed by Stu.]