Like many celebrated musicians of my youth, Cat Stevens has a plethora of “Greatest Hits” albums and CDs (yes, I still enjoy vinyl and have drawers full of compact discs). While Salman Rushdie may believe that he has little in common with the singer with whom he has shared a long-running war of words, the writer also recycles and re-packages previous pieces as evident in his vital book, Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020.
Stevens, who adopted the name Yusuf after his conversion to Islam, once foolishly (a more apt word might be “cruelly”) seemed to support the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa ordering Rushdie’s execution. In part, because he has backed away from his remarks, suggesting that they were “stupid and offensive jokes,” his songs continue to give me great pleasure. But there will always be a small scar, like a scratch on vinyl that mars the listening pleasure.
Rushdie, who adopted the name “Joseph Anton” in his 2012 memoir, is a shape-shifter like Cat/Yusuf. While he makes no mention of his decades-long conflict with Cat/Yusuf in Languages of Truth, he does mention countless other cats, cool and otherwise, literary lions and tigers who pounce in the boxing ring. Just as a casual listener of popular Top 40 songs might want to own the greatest hits rather than a complete collection of a singer’s albums, a casual reader of the New York Times bestsellers might want a nicely packaged collection of Rushdie’s essays rather than read all that he has written. Languages of Truth is for that reader. (Rushdie’s novels, of course, require a different kind of attention altogether.)
The serious reader will find this book to be a memoir that tells more about Rushdie than his Joseph Anton. Here are a few key elements of what an effective memoir can do (courtesy of a class I took at Stanford with John Evans):
- Tell a story about the past
- Fill in gaps in a story
- Correct or change an understanding
- Argue with the past
- Elevate a perspective, especially one that has been silenced or marginalized
- Inform or teach
In Languages of Truth, Rushdie uses his own life story to remind us that “… history is a garden of forking paths … although things did go one way, they might have gone another and who would we be then, how differently might we have thought or acted, might not our destinies have shaped our characters rather than the other way around?”
As a novelist, Rushdie understands that inflection points are key to character development: “At the heart of the novel is and always will be the human figure, which is to say human character, and the nature of the novel is to show the human figure in motion through time, space, and happenstance, and if we don’t care about the character, we rarely care about the novel.” The same is true with Languages of Truth: if we don’t care about the essayist and his emotional truth, we won’t care about the essay.
With Languages of Truth, Rushdie has this reader caring deeply: deeply about gossipy, surface matters like why he gave himself the pseudonym “Joseph Anton” (“Joseph” for one of his favorite writers – Joseph Conrad – and “Anton” for the other – Anton Chekhov); deeper, in the way of memoir, as a fellow child of the Indian diaspora; and perhaps deepest about the most substantial matter called truth (“I began to remember the stories that had made me fall in love with literature in the first place, tales full of beautiful impossibility, which were not true, but by being not true told the truth, often more beautifully and memorably than stories that relied on truth.”).
What Rushdie does marvelously in this collection of essays is subtly moving between situation and story. He tells the caring reader about the shifting situation of his life from Bombay to Cambridge to America (along with that tragic time of the Satanic Verses when he went into hiding in safe houses to keep the threat of the fatwa at arm’s length). This surface situation is what unserious readers casually take away from memoirs; it can be fun and entertaining, but it doesn’t get to the heart of what the literary writer is attempting to convey: his story, the wisdom about his many languages of truth.
Although some readers might be put off by the fact that Languages of Truth is a collection of essays, many of them previously published, those readers who are comfortable looking beyond the individual threads and seeing the weave as a whole will be rewarded by Rushdie’s insight about truth. He makes the compelling argument that “a painting of a starry night is no less truthful than a photograph of one; arguably, if the painter is Van Gogh, it’s far more truthful, even though far less ‘realistic.’” Rushdie tells his starry truth through different contexts: the writer’s life, the friend’s life, and the artist’s life. Not surprisingly, he stands by his truth about literature from the magic realism tradition.
Those of us who have long admired Rushdie’s engagement with his truth would prefer that he lives to write many more books with an ever-inked pen that lives in a magically sequestered century – safe from fatwas and pandemics. This will mean that those who would like to impose their truths on the rest of us will not be safe from Rushdie’s pen. May he continue to hear the voice of his Cambridge professor, Arthur Hibbert, from whom he learned that “you should never write history until you can hear the people speak.” May we continue to hear Salman Rushdie’s voice courageously speak truth to power by insisting that the “past is contested territory … reality is not a given but a thing we make.”
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza -For teachers John Evans, Tom McNeely, Katharine Noel, Ron Nyren, Angela Pneuman, and Eric Puchner with whose guidance in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, RCO hopes to publish his debut novel, Double Play.
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