BORN: 1947, Bombay (now Mumbai), India
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
Midnight's Children (1981)
The Satanic Verses (1988)
East, West (1992)
The Moor's Last Sigh (1995)
Salman Rushdie began his writing career quietly, but he quickly became one of the twentieth century's most well-known writers, not only for the ire he attracted from Islamic fundamentalists after the publication of his 1988 work, The Satanic Verses, but also for his thought-provoking examinations of a changing sociopolitical world landscape in works like Midnight's Children and Shame.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up with India Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born on June 19, 1947, into a middle-class Muslim family
in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. His birth occurred just two months before India achieved its independence from England, a coincidence that later inspired his novel Midnight's Children. He is the only son of Cambridge University–educated lawyer and businessman Anis Ahmed Rushdie and teacher Negin Butt Rushdie. After attending the Cathedral Boys' High School, at fourteen he continued his education in England at the Rugby School. Speaking of his time there, Rushdie told New Yorker contributor Ian Hamilton he “had a pretty hideous time from my own age group: minor persecutions and racist attacks which felt major at the time.…” Rushdie's family joined him in England in 1962, though two years later they would move to Karachi, Pakistan to start a family business. In 1965 Rushdie enrolled at King's College, Cambridge. After earning a master's degree with honors in 1968, he pursued acting at the Fringe Theatre in London. In 1969 and into the 1970s, Rushdie worked as an advertising copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather and for Ayer Barker, but by 1975 was well into work as a full-time novelist.
Confident First Novel Rushdie's first novel, Grimus, initially attracted attention among science fiction readers. In a Times Literary Supplement review, Mel Tilden called the book “engrossing and often wonderful” and dubbed it “science of the word…, one of those novels some people will say is too good to be science fiction, even though it contains other universes, dimensional doorways, alien creatures and more than one madman.” Though critics variously described the work as fable, fantasy, political satire, or magic realism, most agreed with Times Literary Supplement's David Wilson, who determined it “an ambitious, strikingly confident first novel.”
In 1976 Rushdie became an executive member of the Camden Committee for Community Relations, which assisted emigrants from Bangladesh, and served until 1983. The experience of dealing with others' cultural displacement, along with other incidents about this time, sensitized him to the problem of racism in Britain, where he “saw the fractured identity of exiles, emigrants, and expatriates, their sense of loss…” and whereby he also “became sensitive to his own designation as ‘Indian,’; which simultaneously place[d] him inside and outside of British culture.”
It is the Indian culture that informed his second book, Midnight's Children, an allegory which chronicles the history of modern India through the lives of 1,001 children born within the country's first hour of independence from Great Britain on August 15, 1947. Among these 1,001 is the novel's protagonist, Saleem Sinai, who tells his story in the context, wrote New York Times critic Robert Towers, of the country's “stupendous Indian past, with its pantheon, its epics, and its wealth of folklore … while at the same time playing a role in the tumultuous Indian present.”
Winner of the Booker Prize Midnight's Children—which was then favorably compared to several important works, from Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude to V. S. Naipaul's India: A Wounded Civilization and has since made such lists as The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels at number ninety—was almost unanimously well received and won England's most exalted literary award, the Booker McConnell Prize for fiction, in 1981.
Rushdie's third book, Shame, also blends history, myth, politics, and fantasy in a novel that is both serious and comic but extends further with its exploration of such issues as the uses and abuses of power and the relationship between shame and violence. The idea for the novel, reported scholar Ronald Hayman, grew out of Rushdie's interest in the Pakistani concept of sharam—conveying a hybrid of sentiments, including embarrassment, modesty, and the sense of having an ordained place in the world. In developing this concept, Rushdie told Hayman, he began “seeing shame in places where I hadn't originally seen it.”
Human Nature and Politics In discussing Shame, Rushdie also explained how he would “be thinking about Pakistani politics and … find there were elements there that [he] could use,” having as he did a “feeling of stumbling on something quite central to the codes by which we live.” These central themes would inform his next works, a nonfiction account of the political and social conditions Rushdie observed during his 1986 trip to Nicaragua, and his fourth novel, one which would make his name known even to nonreaders.
Exceptionally Controversial Fourth Novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie's fourth novel, outraged Muslims around the world. They pronounced it an insult to their religion. It caused demonstrations and riots in India, Pakistan, and South Africa, during which a number of people were killed or injured. The book was banned in several countries, and bookstores the world over were firebombed. Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini charged Rushdie with blasphemy, and proclaimed that the author and his publisher should be executed. Multimillion-dollar bounties were offered to anyone who could carry out this fatwa, or decree, and several people involved with the book's publication were subsequently attacked, seriously injured, and even killed, as was Rushdie's Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, who was stabbed to death at the university where he taught in Tsukuba, Ibaraki.
Rushdie's wife of thirteen months, author Marianne Wiggins, went into hiding with him when the death threat was announced. She soon emerged and indicated that their marriage was over. The first fatwa was delivered via radio on February 14, 1989. Although Rushdie began making public appearances again in 1996, every February 14 since, says Rushdie, he receives a “sort of Valentine's card” from Iran, reminding him they have not forgotten.
In 1990 Rushdie released the fantasy novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a bedtime story written for his son Zafar but one that also is said to have an important underlying message for adults. Critics interpreted the message as being not only a prescient call for global environmentalism but a suggestion that artistic freedom not be stifled. Richard Eder, in his Los Angeles Times Book Review, suggested, “Rushdie defies the Ayatollah's curse. It is he, not his persecutor, who is the true defender of the Third World.”
Transitions to Shorter Fiction In 1995, six years after the fatwa, Rushdie published the collection East, West. Nine short stories sectioned into three different locations—India, Europe, and England. Its central theme is what the author described to Newsweek interviewer Sarah Crichton as “cultural movement and mongrelization and hybridity,” a reflection of Rushdie's own background, a “heritage … derived from the polyglot tumult of multi-ethnic, post-colonial India,” wrote Washington Post Book World's Shashi Tharoor. Each story in East, West contains characters embodying diverse cultures who interact on a variety of social and emotional planes, all of which, wrote John Bemrose in Maclean's, “beneath their infectiously playful surfaces, ponder the imponderables of human fate.”
Likewise, in another 1995 work, Rushdie was not only back on the best-seller lists but again blending caricature, satire, and politics. The Moor's Last Sigh is an undisguised parody of the politics and powerful fundamentalist leaders of India. Almost a mirror to Satanic Verses, the book was immediately pulled from Indian bookstores and subjected to an embargo by the Indian government.
While many like Paul Gray of Time asserted that The Moor's Last Sigh “is much too teeming and turbulent, too crammed with history and dreams, to fit into any imaginable category, except that of the magically comic and sad,” Rushdie told Maya Jaggi in New Statesman that the novel was a “completion of what I began in Midnight's Children, Shame, and The Satanic Verses—the story of myself, where I came from, a story of origins and memory. But it's also a public project that forms an arc, my response to an age in history that began in 1947 [when India became democratic socialist]. That cycle of novels is now complete.”
A Switch to Mainstream Fiction After publishing The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which many found too complicated and too layered, Rushdie tried for more mainstream fiction. Fury appears initially to be more straightforward than many of his previous novels, but millennial paranoia, the Internet, American consumerism, and civil war in a small third world country are all themes that find their way into the work. Some critics commended Rushdie's scathing view of American society; others concentrated on singularly successful elements of the work. Still others showed dismay, calling it instantly “obsolete.”
In late 2005 Rushdie recovered with Shalimar the Clown, the story of a former U.S. ambassador to India who is murdered by his Muslim driver. Mixing elements from the Ramayana, a classic work of Indian literature, Rushdie creates what one critic for Kirkus Reviews called “a magical-realist masterpiece.” Rushdie also published a number of essay collections. Some, such as “One Thousand Days in a Balloon” and “Why I Have Embraced Islam” were written after he was forced into hiding; others, showing a writer gradually forming his own concepts of truth and beauty in literature, date from before the fatwa. These works, Commonweal reviewer Paul Elie elaborated, “serve as a reminder that once upon a time”—before the wrath of fundamentalist Islam fell upon on the author's head—”he was just another middling British writer, holding forth on this and that with more intelligence and enthusiasm than was required of him.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Rushdie's famous contemporaries include:
William Henry (Bill) Gates III (1955–): American entrepreneur and founding head architect and chief executive officer of Microsoft, named the richest man in the world by Forbes between 1995 and 2007.
Florence Griffith-Joyner (1959–1998): American track-and-field Olympic medalist who set world records in the 1980s.
Tony Kushner (1956–): American playwright most famous for his play Angels in America, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Azar Nafisi (1955–): Iranian academic and writer best known for her best-selling book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.
Jerry Seinfeld (1954–): Award-winning American comedian, actor, and comic writer whose show, Seinfeld, was named by TV Guide “the greatest American television program of all time.”
Works in Literary Context
The Symbolism of Common Items Rushdie's opus has contributed to the literary, cultural, and political world in many ways. Rushdie has primarily made a career out of poking fun at religious fanatics of every stripe. One technique of Rushdie's to further this aim was to infuse common objects with enormous symbolic significance. In Midnight's Children, for instance, pickled chutney is one of the main images for India's cultural and social maelstrom; in The Satanic Verses, bad breath plays a vital role in telling good from evil. Few other writers dare to found entire symbolic structures on items as replaceable as a sheet with a hole in the middle, but to Rushdie it undoubtedly seems a worse exercise in illogic to kill people over the contents of a so-called “holy” book. Rushdie is known to take influence from a range of creative minds including Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, and Gabriel García Márquez.
Works in Critical Context
The Controversial Satanic Verses (1988) Rush-die's habit of using the outrages of history made The Satanic Verses (1988) a book of frightening precognition. In the novel, a complex narrative that tells several stories within a story in a manner that has been compared to One Thousand and One Nights, Rushdie has a writer sentenced to death by a religious leader. The writer in the book is a scribe meant to chronicle the life of a prophet who—as the writer of the book enjoys riddling—both “is and is not” Mohammed. Creating this character, who exists within a psychotic dream of one of the two men who fell from the airplane, was a natural extension of Rushdie's personal horror at fundamentalist Islamic rule. It is this dream sequence that ignited fatal riots in India and prompted Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence.
Religious objections to the novel stem from sections of the book that concern a religion resembling Islam and whose prophet is named Mahound—a derisive name for Mohammed. Many Muslims claim that Rushdie repeatedly makes irreverent use of sacred names throughout the book. For his part, Rushdie has argued that The Satanic Verses is not meant to be an attack on the Islamic religion, but that it has been interpreted as such by what he called in the Observer “the contemporary Thought Police” of Islam who have erected taboos in which one “may not discuss Muhammed as if he were human, with human virtues and weaknesses. One may not discuss the growth of Islam as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology born out of its time.” New Republic's Michael Wood noted, however, that “the pervading intelligence of the novel is so acute, the distress it explores so thoroughly understood, that the dullness doesn't settle, can't keep away the urgent questions and images that beset it. This is Rushdie's most bewildered book, but it is also his most thoughtful.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who also succeeded in publishing some of the most socially or politically controversial works of all time:
The Jewish Peril: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), an opinion work by an unknown author. In this work, conspiracy theories are presented that urge anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and world dominance by way of media and other control.
Lolita (1955), a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The tragic-comic Humbert Humbert in love with a preadolescent girl made critics violently oppose the “pornographic” implications and the book—as one of the “filthiest ever”—was often banned from publication.
Responses to Literature
- Read The Satanic Verses. Think about who the narrator is. What does he say that helps identify him? How does he treat the people he speaks about in the book?
- Also, as you read, consider what makes this book so provocative that someone or some group would want to censor it and hurt (or even kill) its author. Make note of anything you see as possibly objectionable (to yourself or others).
- In The Satanic Verses, what clues reveal that Satan is the narrator? What do you think Rushdie is hinting at by having the devil tell a story of “holy”content? How do you think the book offends? Why, for example, do you think Muslim people would protest the work?
- After you have made notes and discussed the narrative point of view and provocative content, take a partner from class. Each of you choose a side and set up a debate: One of you take the side of Salman Rushdie. One of you take the side of Ayatollah Khomeini. Before the debate, make a list of at least four reasons to support your side of the argument. Once you have your lists, exchange them. As you read your opponent's list, choose one reason that you understand to some degree, and write that down on a side sheet of paper. You do not have to agree with that one supportive point. Just write it down.
- Return your original lists to each other. Develop a short argument in your favor (as either Rushdie or Khomeini). Create a brief introduction that states your case, then bring in the reasons you listed. You may want to embellish with facts, metaphors (comparisons), authoritative quotes, or other important details to support your side. Add your opponent's reason to the end of your argument. Precede it with a signal word or phrase—granted, true, understandably—to show your audience you are respecting your opponent's way of thinking. This is called a concession. You do not give in or agree completely, but you acknowledge the opposition. Then, you return to your concluding points in your favor: “I still say….”
Laporte, Victoria. An Attempt to Understand the Muslim Reaction to the Satanic Verses. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.
Petersson, Margareta. Unending Metamorphoses: Myth, Satire and Religion in Salman Rushdie's Novels. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1996.
Weatherby, W. J. Salman Rushdie, Sentenced to Death. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1990.
Commonweal, (September 25, 1981); (December 4, 1981); (November 4, 1983), Una Chaudhuri, review of Shame (December 4, 1992): 590; Sara Maitland, “The Author Is Too Much with Us,” (February 9, 1996): 22–23.
Express India (April 15, 2004).
Kirkus Reviews, unsigned review of Shalimar the Clown (June 1, 2005): 608.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. Richard Eder, “English as a Wicked Weapon,” (January 7, 1996): 3, 13.
Maclean's. John Bemrose, “Tower of Babble.” (October 9, 1995): 85.
New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 23, No.1 (Winter 2006).
New York Times. Robert Towers, review of Midnight's Children (April 23, 1981).
(London) Observer. (February 19, 1989); (November 11, 1990): 1.
Shift (June–July, 1995): 3–4.
Times Literary Supplement (February 21, 1975); (May 15, 1981); (September 9, 1983); (September 30, 1988); (September 28, 1990); Michael Gorra, “It's Only Rock and Roll but I Like It,” (April 9, 1999): 25.
Washington Post Book World (March 15, 1981); (November 20, 1983); (January 29, 1989); (January 8, 1995): 1, 11; Michael Dirda, “Where the Wonders Never Cease,” (January 7, 1996): 1–2.
Bill Moyers. Portraits: Salman Rushdie (Interview). On Faith and Reason. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/moyers/faithandreason/portraits_rushdie.html. Last updated on May 17, 2007.
Books and Writers. Salman Rushdie (1947–). Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rushdie.htm. Last updated on May 17, 2007.