The first recorded Muslim book-burning in Britain took place in east London in 1938. By symbolically burning A Short History of the World by HG Wells, the Muslim community hoped to avenge its portrayal of the Prophet Mohamad as a “man of considerable vanity, greed, cunning and self-deception”. Half a century later, in 1989, another book was publicly burned in Britain for its perceived mockery of Islam: The Satanic Verses. In a ferocious display of human intolerance, the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Salman Rushdie to death on a charge of blasphemy. It was only a shame that such an “indifferent” work of literature should have put so many lives at risk, said Roald Dahl.
Dahl was not the only writer to voice misgivings at the time. The late John le Carré was another who seemed sceptical of Rushdie’s literary abilities – “it seems to me he has nothing more to provide than his own insensitivity” (in retaliation, Rushdie called le Carré “a pompous ass”). Rushdie’s subsequent fiction did little to convince his detractors, being a familiar impasto of postmodernist self-reflexive preening and wordy philosophical humour.
His last novel, Quichotte, loosely based on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century Spanish “anti-novel”, Don Quixote, was surprisingly rather good, though not half as good as his 1981 Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, still his best book. Whatever his literary talents, Rushdie is a polymath of towering cleverness.
His latest essay collection, importantly titled Languages of Truth, mingles jokey allusions to Charlie Brown and Eminem with the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, Franz Kafka and “my old pal Marianne Faithfull” (the name-dropping is a Rushdie trademark). Included are a couple of addresses Rushdie made to north American university students on their graduation day (“Dear class of 2015”). These are bin-scrapings but Rushdie is eminent enough to merit their inclusion.
In the days before he became famous, Rushdie was an advertising copywriter, who came up with slogans for Aero chocolate bars (“the bubbliest milk chocolate you can buy”) and other confections. In a fine autobiographical essay, Another Writer’s Beginnings, Rushdie considers the glittery allure of 1970s London ad-land. In time off advertising he liked to eat at the venerable Gaylord Indian restaurant on Mortimer Street and browse the “post-hippie” Compendium bookshop in Chalk Farm, not far from Camden Lock.
Along the way, Rushdie commends the Italian director Federico Fellini as “the supreme artist of enervated sloth” (whatever that may mean) and lambasts Danny Boyle’s multi-Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire for its “tawdry” and sentimental view of modern-day India.
Born in 1947 in Bombay to “irreligious” parents, Rushdie is well placed to write of our mixed-up planet. As a public school-educated “cultural-in-betweener”, he can afford to live in some comfort in New York. His vision of the world as a global village is conditioned by years of hobnobbing with the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harold Pinter (whose “political passion” he says he admires), Carrie Fisher and Christopher Hitchens.
Like Hitchens, Rushdie repudiates religious fundamentalists of any stripe. The “often extremely sexy” Arabic folktales contained in The Thousand and One Nights annoy censorious Islamists and are therefore to be applauded. Rushdie’s stance of atheist superiority is no less intolerant or blinkered than that of believers. He calls himself a “hardline atheist”, but the world is not necessarily as he thinks it is, or wants others to think it is.
Throughout, Rushdie praises International PEN, a respected free-speech literary organisation to which many writers belong. To his credit, though, Rushdie lambasted the 200-odd members of PEN America when they decided in 2015 not to present the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris with the newly established Freedom of Expression Courage Award. While not everyone admired the satirical French magazine’s crude cartoons and mockery of aspects of Judaism, Catholicism and Islam, only Islamist terrorists and “progressive” liberals were apparently offended by it.
Though wide-ranging, many of the essays are marred by a portentous note. “We live in the age of the world turned upside down” (when did we not?). “Ours is the age of secrets” (when was it not?). In the closing essay, Pandemic, Rushdie chronicles his recovery from Covid infection last year. It’s the best piece in the collection: engagingly reflective and fear-ridden.
Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020 by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, £20)