The world was gulled from the start into imagining that a magical star had risen on the literary horizon when Midnight’s Children first appeared. And perhaps, in some respects, it had. Characterized by an extraordinary energy and panache, a new type of writing had been born. There were self- prophesying ‘fireworks’ and ‘gasps’. And we were assured subsequently, in Rushdie’s essay, ‘Outside the Whale’, that this was the real thing, the ‘truth’. The new logos was received with euphoria.
At the same time, Midnight’s Children will surely also be remembered as the moment when writing went on stage and truth went by the board largely because style ceased to be what it had always been – a distinctive mode of expression – and became instead a matter of performance.
All of a sudden, magic realism had been pressed into the service of a form of conjuring – of trickery and jugglery – and literary effect was all. Almost imperceptibly, inspired by Nabokov and Derrida’s notion of ‘play’,’ fiction had entered an era of image-mongering and kitsch.
Writers of an earlier generation would have blushed at the faintly extrava- gant prospect of a protagonist being ‘handcuffed to history’. It would have seemed, if nothing else, a small lapse in good taste. But of course it is not just a single image but a whole Rushdie ‘manner’, with its bizarre mix of pre-Partition gossip and history, seasoned with folklore, fable and oriental- ist cliché and all but turned out like a rich Indian curry, that is in question.
It will not harm us to open our eyes and look not just at Rushdie, the man but also the artist and his work afresh. We also owe it to ourselves to con- sider where, under his spell, fiction – especially in the subcontinent – might seem to be heading. Rushdie is without doubt a clever and courageous writer who has been a cause célèbre of our time. Yet, standing back for a moment from the political context and bearing in mind that we are dealing with a bit of a constructed legend, we must allow that Rushdie is also a writer who has taken great liberties, rendering art somehow frivolous.
He entertains, he titillates, and there are occasional verbal pyrotechnics. But it somehow matters – when we are done with the Arabian Nights and ‘Rabelais’/’Sterne’ and all the ‘colour’ – that there are no real characters and no real catharsis in Rushdie’s work.
These were always, traditionally, givens of fiction. They were part of its overall reality. The protagonist in Bellow’s Herzog no less than Nabokov’s Lolita is, for instance, involved in a form of moral reckoning – and truth. This, above all, is what is meant by artistic truth.
At the same time, both novels are political in their own different ways though neither author felt the need to trumpet the fact as an article of faith. Politics just happened to be unassertively present in their work. There was no dogma involved. The commitment to truth, political or otherwise, was there, but quietly, without needing to be reinforced in essays.
Neither of these two authors engages in ‘storytelling’ as Rushdie does. A story or stories simply get told. In other words, for Bellow and Nabokov, storytelling was not so much a device as a means of recounting a personal experience in historical or political terms. Moses Herzog and Humbert Humbert both contend with historicity. And both are shown as victims of it.
Rushdie, on the other hand, is a spinner of yarns, a conscious teller of tales in which history becomes a kind of decoration, a façade, even a glorious excuse. The Satanic Verses does not just have recourse to what Zoe Heller, in her review of Joseph Anton, calls ‘ludic techniques’. All the book does is show Rushdie as a master of spin and a writer who is non-serious – who is not ludic, just slightly ludicrous.
The offence, for Muslims, lies in the essentially frivolous nature of his work. However, the issue of the fatwa is a little more complex. From the very start, even in Midnight’s Children, Rushdie had been delivering the new kerygma: the ‘good news’ of his own messianic ‘advent.’
Yet storytelling is what Rushdie is good at and cannot resist. So The En- chantress of Florence is, for example, a blend of Renaissance and Mughal ‘history’ and fabulous gush where there are merely gratuitous – and slightly precious – stories within stories.
Shalimar the Clown is not very different. It is an orientalist spoof-cum- thriller-cum-allegory with hints of father-daughter incest against a perspec- tive of global power play and a murder. One is struck by a curious self- indulgence. The characters appear ‘set up’. And Rushdie does not seem to realize that, however inflated, the ‘new’ – or esoteric – does not necessarily make for literary worth.
Shame, more perhaps than any other work of fiction by Rushdie, comes closest to being a serious piece of writing. A fairy tale genre is used to depict – and anathematize – a barely credible country: Pakistan. The take on history is slanted, surreal. The period in which the novel is set is that of Z. A. Bhutto and Ziaul Haq, of Machiavelli versus fundamentalist Islam.
The characters come grotesquely to life. A phantasmagorical perspective is produced by a synthesis of magic realism, realism and quasi-journalism. The style is outlandish yet coheres with the overall extravagance. But there is a generic unease and Rushdie’s earlier gobbledygook persists.
The point to note is that Rushdie is not entirely comfortable with his me- dium and that artifice does not always – quite – turn into art. And whereas writers like Achebe and Keri Hulme tell stories to make profound moral points – about courage and wisdom in the face of despair which is what ca- tharsis is all about – in Rushdie a mere shamanism all too often shows through.
However, the Rushdie imprimatur ensured that Pakistani history of the Seventies and Eighties would henceforth be kosher in the context of fic- tion. Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes reproduced, with some variation, the formula of Shame. The book looks at Gen. Ziaul Haq and theocratic absolutism during its heyday – before its mysterious demise. There is a gay bond between the two principal characters and some deft satire at the expense of lowlife military types.
But irreverence on its own is not enough. Ziaul Haq as history and cartoon character is all too well known. So there is no sense of otherness, of a cross- ing into fiction’s symbolic space. A foregrounding of history in fiction is, in any case, counterproductive. All that does is prove that, while history can be mocked at, it cannot be redeemed. It is only really possible to reclaim history by allegorizing or subtly distributing it, as the greats often do, in the perspective of the lives of given fictional characters.
A slightly different historical formula comes into play in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Here a token Muslim narrator with a sym- bolic beard tells an imaginary American his minimal, 9/11 related story. Characterization is sketchy. A supposedly diplomatic exercise, aimed at clearing the air between East and West, turns out instead to be a form of reprisal.
The cynical Princeton-educated protagonist does not scruple to give his one-man audience an account of the smug satisfaction he feels in the face of the fall of the twin towers along with that of a third ‘tower’: the compli- ant Erica. There is love and, with it, a dose of history. Maybe this is what the West wants. However, crammed with cultural clichés, the novel is slight and clever.
There is also the story of ‘poverty’. That sells better than most in the context of the subcontinent. It then becomes a matter of the Western Conscience and that elicits ecstatic reviews, boosts sales, wins prizes. This gives rise to various fads masquerading as fiction.
Hamid’s latest book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, falls in this cat- egory. A self-help manual, it aspires to be a sort of allegory of the ‘human condition’. The story has to do with economic possibility in ‘rising Asia’ and follows the fortunes of the impecunious addressee transported with his family from country to city where he is ‘helped’ to make good.
The book is really about a largely parvenu, and illicit, Pakistan. Hamid’s curious genre, denying itself the luxury of fiction proper, poses as the real thing by staging a social cliché in more or less basic human terms. This allows for mordant social comment. But the book remains frozen in its particular posture and, as in the case of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is merely a form of classy journalese.
The poverty formula was used with distinction by the Indian author, Ara- vind Adiga in The White Tiger. We have yet another example of a piece of writing which records social reality with a measure of ingenuity though by foregrounding it and without an eye to generic niceties. The focus is on success in the context of a globalized India. Adiga sets out to expose the ‘system’ while at the same time pointing to the range of possibilities, social as well as economic, in the ‘new’ world.
The narrative mostly runs on manual. Adiga makes no bones about this. The writing is slick and the central character has no real identity. No Raskolnikoff, he lacks inwardness. Flat, he is among the social stereotypes that people much work currently being produced in the subcontinent. And the setting is irredeemably local. Such texts are transparently ‘made up’ and reek of retailing rather than creation.
However, fiction in the subcontinent will have to seek ways of reinventing itself – as will fiction in general. At the same time, fiction cannot afford to renege on its traditional concerns or what T. S. Eliot calls ‘pastness’. That is to say that some link with moral consciousness or a quest of sorts, some abiding intuition of value, is called for.
Writing, of course, has its own dynamic. But the reality of a piece of writ- ing speaks for itself. Not only does the narrative voice in such cases ring true. Whether because of a distance or disinterest, we know it is true. A perfect example is A Bend in the River by Nobel laureate, V. S. Naipaul who has invariably shied away from fads.
The story is set in postcolonial Africa at the time of Independence. Ca- tharsis is central to this great novel. The ‘idea’ of Africa, together with place and perspective, matters as much as day to day happenings. Salim, the narrator, with his elegiac tone, understands far more – about animism and primal identity, the colonial moment and the complexity and pain of modernity – than he lets on.
There is an unknowing and Angst throughout, heightened by classic under- statement. Descriptions of a pristine landscape are there not for their own sake but to convey the idea of an implacable nature. The work intrigues specially because of coming across as simultaneously local and transcend- ent, everyday and yet timeless.
It is unfortunate that no one on the subcontinent is writing like this today. Kitsch and gimmickry have always existed. But one presumes that they were not always the norm. The fear is that they may already constitute the prevailing aesthetic in the sphere of fiction. Market forces – assumptions about readers looking for instant gratification – are largely responsible.
That rather doubtful construct, the ‘average’ reader and the industrial yard- stick seem, at least for the time being, to have won out. There is nothing wrong with fiction involving sweepers and rickshaw drivers. However, such populism is just slightly hollow and patronizing. And it is depriving us of a more thoughtful, real and lasting art.