Imaginary Homelands

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 32)

Even before The Satanic Verses (1988) appeared and became an international episode—with riots and book-burnings in Great Britain, India, and Pakistan; bomb threats and bombings at bookstores and Rushdie’s publisher’s offices in England and America; a death sentence and a bounty of $5.2 million placed on Rushdie’s head by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini; and the author driven underground, guarded at an undisclosed location by the Special Branch of Scotland Yard—Salman Rushdie had already established himself as one of the most important writers in contemporary Britain.

His second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), was awarded the prestigious Booker-McConnell Prize; his third, Shame (1983), was also highly praised. Throughout the 1980’s, Rushdie also wrote essays, eloquently and often: about the politics of religion and race in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Indira Gandhi’s India, and Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan; about writers and books from India and Pakistan, Africa, Britain, Europe, South America, and the United States; about the vocation of the writer and the powers of literature, the potential of the imagination and the dangers of censorship; and, repeatedly, about migration as the archetypal experience of the twentieth century. Imaginary Homelands brings most of these essays together with the several major statements Rushdie has written in the wake of The Satanic Verses controversy to form what amounts to an extraordinary intellectual autobiography.

Born in Bombay, Rushdie was sent to be educated in England at fourteen and made that country his home. Although his parents were members of the Muslim minority in India, neither they nor he was religious. At fifteen, he reports in “In God We Trust,” he lost his faith and found himself “drawn towards the great traditions of secular radicalism—in politics, socialism; in the arts, modernism and its offspring.” He attended Rugby, where he experienced British racism at first hand, and Cambridge, where he discovered the writers who shaped his own aspirations, and then spent several years as an advertising copywriter. Gradually, the experience that he would make his own—the experience that had made him—pressed itself upon him as an inevitable subject. Migration—losing one’s country, language, and culture and finding oneself forced to come to terms with another place, another way of speaking and thinking, another view of reality—is Salman Rushdie’s great theme; metamorphosis is its metaphor, and reflections on migration and metamorphosis permeate these essays as thoroughly as embodiments of them populate his novels.

“Writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates,” Rushdie says in this collection’s title essay, “are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt.” Such a writer comes to understand, however, that “we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.” In his own fictions, Salman Rushdie has created just such imaginary homelands: an India of the mind in Midnight’s Children, a Pakistan of the mind in Shame, an Islam, Bombay, and London of the mind in The Satanic Verses. While they are not precisely real, these imaginary homelands capture the essence of reality as seen through the eyes of characters who, like their author, face the challenge of straddling two cultures.

The word “translation,” he points out, comes from the Latin for “bearing across,” and “having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in the translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.” As he writes in an essay on John Berger, “the migrant is not simply transformed by his act; he also transforms his new world.” As Rushdie has amply demonstrated in his own writing, the gains from this transformation are real and many.

One such gain is a tremendous potential for reinvigorating both the language and the form of the novel. Rushdie’s works overflow with a mélange of voices, images, and inventions: digressions and disquisitions, anecdotes and myths, mundane details and philosophical meditations, puns, jingles, song lyrics, catchphrases, names, and ideas that only he could have brought together. Drawn from both the world he left behind and the world into which he has been thrust, they expand one’s sense of what is while enriching one’s sense of what the novel can be and do.

“Description is itself a political act . . . [R]edescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it,” Rushdie writes, and this suggests another contribution that the migrant can make to world culture. By describing the world as he does in his fiction and nonfiction, Rushdie can help to change those aspects of society that he so often laments and protests against in these essays: the institutional racism and nostalgia for past glories of...

(The entire section is 2121 words.)