Critic's Notebook; Telling Truth Through Fantasy: Rushdie's Magic Realism
20 Dec, 2006
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death sentence against the author Salman Rushdie, a half-dozen deaths and hundreds of injuries in Pakistan during riots over his novel, the subsequent disappearance of ''The Satanic Verses'' from bookstores around the world and a continuing international furor - had such events occurred in a novel (even one of Mr. Rushdie's own fantastical productions), they would have been dismissed by critics as the improbable inventions of a writer bent on satire or absurdist mischief.
That these events have actually come to pass only serves to underscore the ability of reality to continually overtake our imaginations - a predicament, oddly enough, that has long troubled writers like Mr. Rushdie and that has indelibly shaped the character of their work.
Writers throughout this century, in fact, have struggled to render a reality that has seemed increasingly unreal. World War I fostered the fragmentations of modernism; World War II raised new questions about the limits of language and perception. And in the wake of the 1960's - which witnessed the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the divisive war in Vietnam and growing unrest in the third world - novelists, both here and abroad began to experiment more freely with alternatives to naturalism.
In this country, Donald Barthelme created surreal fictional collages that used Brechtian devices to force the reader to re-examine his relationship with the printed word. Norman Mailer temporarily turned to journalism as a substitute for fiction. And Philip Roth, who noted writers' ''inability or unwillingness to deal'' imaginatively with ''our cultural predicament,'' experimented with such comic fantasies as ''Our Gang'' and ''The Breast.'' In other countries, writers embraced a kind of phantasmagorial writing known as magic realism - a narrative technique used by Mr. Rushdie, himself, in his earlier novels, ''Midnight's Children'' (1981) and ''Shame'' (1983), as well as ''The Satanic Verses.''
It is no coincidence that magic realism - which combines heightened language with elements of the surreal - has tended to flourish in troubled areas of the world, or that many of its practitioners have sought to describe calamitous events that exceed the grasp of normal description. The transactions between the extraordinary and the mundane that occur in so much Latin American fiction are not merely a literary technique, but also a mirror of a reality in which the fantastic is frequently part of everyday life - a reality in which military death squads have effectively turned the word ''disappear'' into a transitive verb. Similarly, the grotesque inventions of Gunter Grass's ''Tin Drum'' serve as a perfect mirror of the novel's subject - German history before, during and after World War II.
In the case of Mr. Rushdie, he has used the hallucinatory devices of magic realism to try to capture, metaphorically, the sweep and chaos of contemporary reality, its resemblance to a dream or nightmare. For instance, in ''The Satanic Verses,'' strange and impossible events occur: an orphan girl subsists on a diet of butterflies; two men fall from an airplane and miraculously survive; one sprouts an angelic halo, and the other, a tail and horns. The characters' bizarre adventures, the novel's numerous dream sequences, the convolutions of its plot, the melodramatic effusions of Mr. Rushdie's prose - all are meant, in some heightened way, to give the reader a sense of just how fantastic recent history has become.
Many American and British writers have reacted to the growing confusion of the public world by focusing on the more accessible world of the self. Earlier Indian writers like R. K. Narayan and Anita Desai have withdrawn from the turmoil of their times to create charming miniaturist portraits. Mr. Rushdie, however, has always maintained that the writer has a responsibility to tackle the larger issues of the day. ''It seems to me imperative that literature enter such arguments,'' he wrote in an essay, ''because what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is truth and what untruth, and the battleground is our imagination. If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history's great and most abject abdications.''
''There is a genuine need for political fiction,'' he continued, ''for books that draw new and better maps of reality, and make new languages with which we can understand the world.'' It is necessary, even exhilarating, he wrote, ''to grapple with the special problems created by the incorporation of political material, because politics is by turns farce and tragedy, and sometimes (for example, Zia's Pakistan) both at once.''
In ''Midnight's Children,'' Mr. Rushdie used a hyperbolic narrative - by turns lyric and vulgar, street smart and allusive - and a cast of improbable characters (a telepathic narrator, a child who can travel through time, another who can change sex at will) to create a parable of modern Indian history. His next novel, ''Shame,'' turned from India to a country that was ''not quite Pakistan,'' using a character named Raza Hyder as a kind of fictional surrogate for Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the former President of Pakistan. As Mr. Rushdie saw it, the story he wanted to tell was ''a tragedy on a very large scale,'' but its ''protagonists are not tragic actors.''
''It's as if you had 'Macbeth,' '' he said, ''and you cast a group of second-rate vaudeville clowns in it, and you have clowns trying to speak those great lines.''
When ''Shame'' was published in 1983, many critics, here and in Great Britain, remarked upon the author's gift for comic invention. ''Mr. Rushdie particularly delights in palpable absurdities such as those resulting from Raza Hyder's attempt to impose Islamic fundamentalism upon his country after seizing power,'' wrote the critic Robert Towers in The New York Times Book Review.
In one episode cited by Mr. Towers, a simpering foreign journalist asks Hyder if he has a ''point of view about the allegation that your institution of such Islamic punishments as flogging and cutting-off of hands might be seen in certain quarters as being, arguably, according to certain definitions, so to speak, barbaric?'' Hyder replies: ''We will not simply order people to stick out their hands, like this, and go fataakh! with a butcher's knife. No, sir. All will be done under the most hygienic conditions, with proper medical supervision, use of anaesthetic etcetera.''
In light of recent developments, many aspects of ''Shame'' now seem less satirical than oddly prescient. In one passage, the narrator expresses little surprise that a Pakistani man, living in London, has killed his daughter for sleeping with an English boy: ''We who have grown up on a diet of honour and shame can still grasp what must seem unthinkable to peoples living in the aftermath of the death of God and of tragedy: that men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altars of their pride.''
In another aside, the narrator muses upon the fate of Islamic fundamentalism. ''Autocratic regimes find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith,'' he says, ''because people respect that language, are reluctant to oppose it. This is how religions shore up dictators; by encircling them with words of power, words which the people are reluctant to see discredited, disenfranchised, mocked.''
In ''The Satanic Verses,'' a character named Gibreel similarly observes that ''something was badly amiss with the spiritual life of the planet.'' ''Too many demons,'' he thinks, ''inside people claiming to believe in God.''
One of the multiple ironies of Mr. Rushdie's situation, of course, is that his own words in ''The Satanic Verses''- the words of a novelist, not a religious zealot - are now being taken so solemnly by his Muslim opponents, who literally want to make them a matter of life and death. It's a situation not unrelated to the one that obtains in countries in other regions - from Latin America to Eastern Europe - that have responded to writers' work with jail sentences, torture and exile. Just this week, the playwright Vaclav Havel was sentenced to jail by a Prague court for inciting illegal protests and obstructing the police; Mr. Havel maintained his innocence. His plays have not been produced in Czechoslovakia in 20 years.
To writers in America, the stakes are considerably different. At worst, a writer risks bad reviews, embarrassment, a loss of self-esteem; at best, a writer garners fame, money, fancy invitations. Given this situation in which freedom is taken for granted but writers are often looked upon as glorified entertainers, it's not surprising that booksellers were so quick to remove ''The Satanic Verses'' from their shelves. Nor is it surprising that many authors, who were initially silent, are now condemning one another for not doing enough in defense of Mr. Rushdie's book.
As for Mr. Rushdie, he remains in hiding in Great Britain, where he doubtless has time to begin work on a new novel. Although he once observed that his fictions often contain characters close to himself - but exaggerated ''to make things easier to discuss'' - he will have difficulty, this time, embellishing the ''farce and tragedy'' of what has happened in real life.