Book Review: Plotting the Rushdie-verse

Venturing to chart out the territory traversed, discovered, and marked by a prolific writer like Salman Rushdie – whose artistic and political expressions not only range across genres and disciplines, but also remain at the heart of innumerable critical debates and discussions – calls for a project characterised by the rigour and precision of a cartographic mission. Mapping out the Rushdie Republic: Some Recent Surveys, edited by Tapan Kumar Ghosh and Prasanta Bhattacharyya, takes on this exciting and undeniably arduous task which certainly caters to both scholars who are well-versed in Rushdie and beginners who await their initiation. This comprehensive collection of essays and articles on Rushdie’s works brings into its purview an array of perspectives from eminent stalwarts (who are known for their various commentary on Rushdie, or on post/colonial, post/modern, Indian/English literatures, and so on) alongside newer critics/scholars emerging on the grid of literary and academic topologies. An extensive introduction written by one of the editors (Bhattacharyya), and a substantially revealing interview with a major critic of Rushdie (Timothy Brennan), methodically plots out the premises along the lines of which the anthology unravels as a significant appendage to the steadily expanding field of studies on Rushdie.

The cartographic enterprise embodied by the book hinges upon its endeavour of portraying a schema for the ‘Rushdie Republic’ – the euphemistic coinage, referring to Rushdie’s creation of what the editors call a “historicized geography” (analogous to, although distinct from, the Platonic, idealised ‘Republic’) wherein ideal/mythic/surreal/hyperreal representations of real/material/tangible locations, populated by real lives, divulge the hybridity innate to the cultural imaginaries of the “temporal order of the world” (xii). Such a mapping, as this collection effectively upholds, demands two standpoints in order to read not only the world envisioned through Rushdie’s craft, but also the material, politicalized, capitalist world that conditions the production and dissemination of his art. To those ends this compendium contextualizes Rushdie and his works (his literary pieces – including his fiction and non-fiction – as well as his editorial contribution and screenplay) within postmodernist, post-colonialist, diasporic, and magic-realist frameworks which frequently overlap in his writings. The notions of home, nation, cosmopolitanism, globalization, multiculturalism, and so on are but a few of the contemporary yet universal issues that exemplify the coordinates that delineate this study as a whole. Aiming to serve as an “introduction to/reappraisal of Salman Rushdie as a creative writer” (viii), the chief argument of this study is that Rushdie is essentially defined by his fabulous and awe-inspiring imagination that is engaged in the unwavering telling and retelling of stories irrespective of his persona of a writer of fiction or nonfiction. All the critical essays/articles in the collection are directed towards underscoring that multifaceted imaginative mind which ardently challenges any dictum of purity or absoluteness; which explicitly advocates free speech denouncing any form of isolated, insulated, prejudiced dogma; which unequivocally propounds a dialectic, fluid, and hetero-glossic world-view constituting and constitutive of interwoven stories.

9781443897846Sustaining such a thesis throughout, the critical surveys are catalogued (perhaps corresponding, as it were, to the cartographic triangulation method) into three sections. According to the book’s Introduction1, the first segment comprises an interview with Timothy Brennan – one of the pioneers in the assessment of Rushdie’s works and their evolution. His intensively critical insight, shared with Tapan Kumar Ghosh and Sisir Kumar Chatterjee, sets the baseline for the entire investigation. The second part, dedicated to what the editors call the ‘Macro-Analyses’ of Rushdie’s worldview, situates Rushdie and his creative production within social/cultural/political/economic contexts. The third portion of the study, encompassing a ‘Micro’ analytical methodology, is focused on critical inquiry into Rushdie’s works. This section – further schematized into a subsection each on his fiction and non-fiction – deals with close readings of his texts, of course from several angles of approach. Charting the prospect(s) at the outset, the conversation with Brennan codifies the terrain of Rushdie’s intellectual legacy in terms of his writing ability, the authenticity of his voice, his political non/commitment, his artistic and commercial success, self-portrayal in his texts, possible theoretical approaches to his works, so on and so forth. Following this broad overview, the exploration in the Macro Section is plotted along the axes of Rushdie’s evocation of politics vis-à-vis the stylistic and narrative aspects of his works (in Tariq Rahaman’s study); of his debt to ancient worldviews and of the discursive constructedness of mythical/historical world (observed by Anjali Gera Roy); of his secular godless world defined by the imperfection of human knowledge/enlightenment (argued by Tapan Kumar Ghosh); of his interstitial linguistic and lexical manoeuvring that jettisons his colonial/postcolonial identity in order to uncover an international one (contended by Prathim-Maya Dora-Laskey); and of his national, transnational, and post-national visions (in Bill Ashcroft’s study). Likewise, the Micro analyses provide a thorough index to highlight how Rushdie’s works can be read within contexts of aesthetic/mystical traditions (Rakesh Sarkar, Neil Ten Kortenaar, Anindita Mitra); can be studied as markers of narrative, generic, and stylistic novelty (Anasuya Bhar, Nalini Natarajan, Nishi Pulugurtha, Samrat Laskar); can be used to examine the politics of readership/reception and authorial deliberation (Taj-uddin Ahmed, Chidananda Bhattacharya, Siddhartha Biswas, Sandip Ain, Debasish Lahiri, Piyas Chakraborty); can be looked at as challenging hegemonic fundamentalism and consumerist malaise (Arindam Ghosh, Abhijit Gupta, Sisir Kumar Chatterjee, Sajal Kumar Bhattacharya); and can be considered as advocating liminality, hybridity, confusion, incomprehensibility, and above all plurality (Pier Paolo Piciucco, Sisir Kumar Chatterjee and Abhijit Gupta, Adam Perchard, Subir Dhar).

A commendable attribute of this compilation is the consciously calculated resistance against any single/singular parameter to view Rushdie or his works. As the Introduction avows: “entering the world of Rushdie is like facing the truth of relativity” (xxxv). In other words, despite recognizing him as “undoubtedly one of the most accomplished practitioners of contemporary fiction” (viii) in the very opening lines of the Preface, the volume does not indulge in uncritical adulation. Such a restraint, coupled with the candid presentation of his probable shortcomings that delimit his art, the book encapsulates a significantly holistic depiction of the ‘Rushdie Republic.’ Thus, celebrations of “the triumphant quality of his imagination” (xxxvi) are undercut by the criticisms on “his absence in any relevant forum of debate” in spite of his stature “as the champion of free speech and concomitant human rights” (xxvii). The acknowledgement of his writing style that debatably thwarts the forces of globalization that subsume local culture (ibid.) is juxtaposed by his reluctance towards political transformation (xxviii), or the “gradual drying up of [his] creative juice” (xxv). While the handful of existing formidable books on Rushdie study label him as a Third World Intellectual2 , limit a study to mostly his fiction3, or focus on a specific theme4 , this book in question offers a multifaceted overview (devoid of restrictive thematic configurations) of Rushdie and his various artistic undertakings.

Part of the book’s credence is indeed founded upon the sheer breadth of critical discussions it graphs. Moreover, spanning across less than four hundred pages, this wide-ranging collection (including its well-mapped Index as well as the succinct biographical sketch of Rushdie) never comes across as a daunting read. Such a range is unmistakably one of the most distinctive aspects of this volume prominently setting it apart from others5 on the subject, although a slightly narrower and therefore sharper focus could have added to the depth of this endeavour. On the other hand – given the breadth of this discussion, including Rushdie as an editor, screenplay-writer etc – tracing his footsteps on the audio/visual landscape of broadcasts and podcasts could enrich the third section of the book (especially since the study emphasizes on Rushdie as a story-teller). Further, since the approach of the study is to engage in the dynamics of mapping and remapping the ‘Rushdie Republic,’ striving to chronicle the evolution of the writer and his creation, it makes little sense to segregate the studies of his fiction and non-fiction. In other words, given the considerable attention paid to biographical and historical conditions that determined Rushdie’s creative production, the study would have been elevated with a dialogue among his fictional and nonfictional creations (for instance, strictly from a perspective of compositional timeline, can The Jaguar Smile and The Satanic Verses be compartmentalized into two separate sections?).

Although the aforementioned scopes of development remain open, they in no way whatsoever undermine the impact of this collection dedicated to the ever-expanding ‘Rushdie Republic.’ Surveying the realm of Rushdie’s creation – from both micro and macro vantage points – this study effectively locates itself embedded within the current tectonic shifts that perturb the national (Indian) as well as the global scenario amounting to a world marked by terrorism, intolerance, xenophobia, refugee crises, curbed free speech, and fundamentalist threats to true democracy. Recalibrating the contours of studies on Rushdie, Mapping out the Rushdie Republic: Some Recent Surveys re-examines and reassesses the terrain with an engagement with preceding volumes as well as setting the ground for unchartered trajectories of further study.

Notes:

  1. It is to be observed that the organizing principles that categorize the contents of the book, as stated in the ‘Introduction’ – although methodologically coterminous – are slightly at odds with the structure presented in the ‘Preface’. According to the latter, the three sections into which the contents are classified are dedicated respectively to thematic/theoretical/stylistic aspects of Rushdie’s works, Rushdie’s fiction, and his nonfiction. Evidently considering Brennan’s interview to be a prefatorial overview, the ‘Preface’ does not align itself with the Introduction. This discordance is quite interesting as it self-reflexively allude to the book’s resistance towards adhering to any absolute approach to the subject.
  2. See Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989) by Timothy Brennan.
  3. See, for example, Salman Rushdie (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007) by Andrew Teverson.
  4. See, for example, Salman Rushdie and Indian Historiography: Writing the Nation into Being (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) by Nicole Weickgenannt Thiara.
  5. See, for example, Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie (New York: GK Hall, 1999) edited by Keith M. Booker.

About the Author

Rajarshi Banerjee is an M Phil (English) from the University of Hyderabad. He is from Kolkata, but has been living in Hyderabad for the last six years. He takes great pleasure in exploring aspects of Reading and Readership, and loves experimenting with Narration and Narratives. The intersections of Visual Arts, Science, and Literature are his favourite areas of interest; along with Posthumanism. Calvino, Borges, Eco, Kafka, Bukowski, Atwood, and Rushdie are some of those – among so many others – who influence his writing in one way or another.

Published in Issue 75 (Sep-Oct 2017) of Muse India


To find out more about Mapping out the Rushdie Republic: Some Recent Surveys and to purchase a copy, click here.

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