‘Imanginary Homelands‘ Salman Rushdie
21 post-its: possibly the current blog record. But then again, Rushdie is one of my favourite writers, and it turns out that he has even more to say in essays than he does in his novels. And yes, all of this is justification for the terrible etiquette of not only blogging on the same author twice, but doing so in two consecutive blogs.
It is impossible to read this compilation of essays without seeing pre-emptive echoes of his recently re-ignited post-fatwa fate everywhere. Divided into 12 thematic sections, it begins with ideas on his Booker Prize winning novel, ‘Midnight’s Children,’ and in the very first essay of the collection Rushdie writes:
“So literature can, and perhaps must, give the lie to official facts. But is this a proper function of those of us who write from outside India? Or are we just dilettantes in such affairs, because we are not involved in their day-to-day unfolding, because by speaking out we take no risks, because our personal safety is not threatened?…”
By the last section, some intense pieces on ‘The Satanic Verses,’ after the bitter irony of those earlier words have given way to his fate of living through years in hiding under threat of death, we are presented with an essay on the differences between theory and reality:
“…what I’ve described is the Balloon Debate, in which, as the speakers argue over the relative merits and demerits of the well-known figures they have placed in disaster’s mouth, the assembled company blithely accepts the faintly unpleasant idea that a human being’s right to life is increased or diminished by his or her virtues or vices – that we may be born equal but thereafter our lives weight differently in the scales…
I have now spent over a thousand days in just such a balloon; but, alas, this isn’t a game…”
The rest of the collection covers countries and continents, literature and movies, politics and art and, especially, literature: after getting through a variety of essay compilations recently, I’m starting to see the same names regularly, giving myself a few more authors to look out for in future, but also leading me to question whether people in the arts are members of such a small gang that they all read each-other, and write essays on each-other. This would explain why I always see the same writers’ names on book blurbs.
What surprised me, (maybe because I haven’t read any of his novels for quite a while), was how much humour there was in these pieces, often right next to deeper and darker thoughts. Here are some of the things I book-marked, be they pieces of inconsequential trivia or questions of life and death:
“Bad times, after all, traditionally produce good books…”
After having recently read a book on the role of translation, which featured a chapter on how authors cope linguistically with representing a foreign setting when writing a book, I enjoyed seeing this criticism of Kipling:
“In the Soldiers Three stories the Hindi/Urdu words are simply sprinkled over the text, like curry powder…”
soon followed by a possible explanation for the lack of integration of the source language into his work:
“‘Kipling’s manuscripts in the British Museum…show that he tried several times to write his name in Urdu, but oddly enough did not succeed once. It reads ‘Kinling’, ‘Kiplig’ and ‘Kipenling'”…
On the Hobson-Jobson dictionary of Anglo-Indian language:
“…a shampoo was a massage, nothing to do with the hair at all, deriving from the imperative form – champo! – of the Hindi verb champna, ‘to knead and press the muscles with the view of relieving fatigue…'”
A theory of US vs British humour, (similar to one I have been formulating, and which will soon be revealed on the release of my novel):
“It has been said that the difference between the American and the British approach to comedy is that American comedy begins with the question, ‘Isn’t it funny that…?’ …whereas British comedy’s starting-point is the question, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…?'”
Rushdie on Terry Gilliam on America:
“‘America bombards you with dreams and deprives you of your own…'”
Rushdie quoting South African dissident and writer Rian Malan:
“An English South African is a soutpiel, ‘salt dick,’ because he has one foot in South Africa and the other in England, ‘a straddle so broad that his cock dangled in the sea…'”
Rushdie on travelling across Australia with English travel-writer Bruce Chatwin:
“I remember many etymological snippets. ‘The word bugger comes originally from the pejorative French verb, bougrir – to make love like a Bulgarian’…”
On Stephen Hawking, (and showing the kind of humour which makes him one of my all-time favourite writers):
“Here is General Relativity itself, and Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe. Over there is the defeat of the Steady-state Theory by the Big-Bangers, and to the right (or maybe to the left) is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle…”
Salman also has a catty side:
“The plot of Foucault’s Pendulum (which begins on page 367 of this 629-page book)…”
although I’ll agree to disagree with him on Umberto Eco‘s prose, (I like it; Salman doesn’t).
On Augustus Caesar and Ovid:
“It is one of the great paradoxes of this war that the Sword wins almost all the battles, but the Pen eventually rewrites all these victories as defeats…”
Interviewing Michael Herr, Vietnam veteran and one of the men behind both ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’:
“‘All the wrong people remember Vietnam. I think all the people who remember it should forget it, and all the people who forgot it should remember it…'”
On religion in the sub-continent:
“A few years ago I came across a rather brave and also slightly ludicrous attempt at enumerating the total number of gods at present extant in India, from the most minor tree- or water-sprite to Brahma and Allah themselves. The figure arrived at was, astoundingly, 330 million, that is, roughly one god for every two and a quarter human beings…”
“Life without God seems to believers to be an idiocy, pointless, beneath contempt. It does not seem so to non-believers…”
And finally, if citation is an indication of influence, then Jorge Luis Borges may well be the most influential man in literature: I have lost track of how many authors I have read who quote Borges and, specifically, his short story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths‘, (although ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote‘ and ‘The Library of Babel‘ are close behind it). Here, it is used to introduce an essay on Philip Roth, who retired days after I read it. I hope it was nothing to do with me.
Borges on the Argentinian 2-peso coin
If you haven’t read any Borges, go out and get some before my next blog comes out.
If you haven’t read any Rushdie, ditto.
Jorge Luis Borges