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Salman Rushdie: Magical Realist

13 Aug 2022 8 minute read
Sir Salman Rushdie. Photo Matt Crossick. PA Images

Adam Johannes

I would like to express my solidarity with the writer Salman Rushdie, in hospital, on a ventilator, unable to speak, arm nerves severed, liver damaged and who may lose an eye after being stabbed by an extremist.

I hope this action is not exploited by the media and politicians to whip up racism against minorities, migrants and Muslims.

Once upon a time…the journey of a lifetime began with the turning of a page…My journey to reading the writing of Rushdie began as a teenager. I had read a life changing novel called One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Marquez―who once said he met surrealism running through the streets of Latin America, and that surrealism was born in the reality of Latin America―wrote of a world where eyes saw snow for the first time, a world that seemed to be in suspended animation, outside time, and yet the outside world in the form of new technology or distant massacres of workers seemed to sometimes pierce through the surface, revealing this world was not sealed off from the outside.

After learning that this strange and seductive way of writing fiction was called ‘magical realism’ I began reading all the magical realism novels I could find in my local library.

Mirrors and mazes

Something very peculiar was going on in these novels. They took place in the real world, but there seemed to be another world within the world.

This world came into the light not in the linear histories of Western Europe, but when we plunged into the whirlpool of stories hidden and buried away in popular memory, in folk culture, the conversation of women among each other, and of mothers to their children, in traditional customs and rituals, in old poetry and song, in the wisdom of indigenous peoples and in lightning flashes of histories and geographies that existed before colonialism and before the White European arrived.

For hours at a time, I would read, and let my mind wander into the novel’s worlds of mirrors and mazes. Unlikely things seemed to happen. Human beings changing into animals.

Enslaved people helped to their freedom by the dead. Ghosts of the past who haunted the present and future.

Presents and futures that haunted the past. History was not a straight line. Time was a kaleidoscope. Different stories might happen at the same time, as in the old Renaissance paintings. Sometimes time even reversed its gears and moved backwards.

In this world, I could take nothing for granted. Anything might happen.

New wisdom

I came first to Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, not through his classic history, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, but through his Memories of Fire trilogy a magical realist way of writing history as prose-poem.

Speaking elsewhere of the Mayans who faced an existential threat from colonialism, but won new wisdom in the struggle, Galeano said they had learned that when it comes to freedom, “time, like a spider, weaves slowly.”

This was the Galeano who had called Latin America a woman talking into his ear. Asked if he meant his mother, he replied in the negative, rather he was speaking of the erotic charge of a lover who whispered her secrets to him in the darkness.

The trilogy opened its pages with indigenous histories and myths of creation. The beginning of time. The earth. Humans. Birds, beasts and flowers, and the dreams and portents of the coming of the men who would wear clothes.

Through a Tarot deck full of fragments and episodes of history, folklore and vignettes we are eventually taken from Eden into the dark ages of empire, slavery, genocide and plunder, and the resistance and the light; the class wars for national independence, social justice, democracy and dignity in the face of local and global forces of oppression.

Edward Said, speaking from his Palestinian experience, once argued that in the present age, more so than in other epochs, the exiles, refugees and displaced people, are the leaven of history.

A seamless garment

From the magical realism of Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, a South Asian immigrant to Britain of Muslim heritage, I started see that the power of Magical Realism was, through a seamless garment of realist fiction and magic and fantasy, it was able to narrate the truths of peoples who had lived between worlds, or the resistance of people who lived in worlds brutally defined by another’s world, or the battle to create out of the old shells, new worlds, new identities, new histories, new stories, new beliefs, new customs and new traditions, that by-passed the world of the master and his histories.

Magical realism was a political weapon of the wretched of the earth.

In an interview Rushdie would argue that, “The fable, the surreal story, is just another way of getting at the truth, and if it has good, deep roots in the real — the “realism” part of magic realism — then it can intensify a reader’s experience of truth, crystallize it in to words and images that stay with one. That’s the appeal”.

I was drawn to the writing of Rushdie as I sought to explore my own Anglo-Indian heritage that comes from my father’s side of the family. Midnight’s Children tells the story of a child born at the midnight hour of Indian independence from the British Empire, and the events after partition and the end of the Raj.

The novel’s protagonist, who has the gift of telepathy, discovers that all children born in the first two hours of the new nation have special magical powers, and uses his power of telepathy to assemble hundreds of children from all four corners of the subcontinent to discover the meaning of the gifts.

Meanwhile his family suffers wars and migrations, he loses his memory and regains it in a mythological exile in the jungle, he is a political prisoner, all this a foil to meditate on history, society and politics.

It was a horrifying tragedy that controversy in the late 1980s around his next novel, some offence genuine, but much of it whipped up cynically, would lead to the Fatwa and years of having to live in hiding.

Life of a ghost

In his final interview before he went into hiding, given to the Socialist Worker newspaper in 1989, Rushdie would say, “it’s no pleasure to me to be supported by The Sun when it’s referring to Asians as rats. I’m not on The Sun’s side in that. I’d sooner be with the rats.”

Sadly, but perhaps understandable given the life of a ghost he was forced to live, Rushdie became isolated from the left and popular anti-racist movements he had sided with then,  as he faced not only extremist assassins but hypocritical attacks from politicians and press, exemplified in Labour MPs like Keith Vaz who one day phoned him to offer help, pledging to support him to the end, and almost the next day was marching with the book burners.

The marchers had come from northern towns suffering from economic deprivation after having borne the brunt of Thatcher’s class war.

Far easier for politicians to side with conservative community leaders and the misdirection of alienation onto a novelist as scapegoat, than argue for real solutions to racism and economic exploitation, and defend the freedom of expression of writers, while fighting the racism of the British establishment.

The writer who had once sided with the victims of state and police racism was forced to rely on the state and police to protect his life.

The writer who wrote The Jaguar Smile about the Sandinistas, who sided with the Nicaraguan Revolution against American imperialism was forced to court American leaders to protect his life.

The backlash against a novel which spoke of a migrant experience of British racism was used to whip up racism against migrant communities.

Rushdie would lose his home, freedom, marriage and peace of mind.

Perhaps being at the centre of such a firestorm explains some artistic and political deterioration in later years.

But for me I remember on my teenage bookshelf in my childhood home Salman Rushdie, squeezed between Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Eduardo Galeano and Toni Morrison and those hours of pleasure immersed in new and magical (realist) worlds.

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David Smith
David Smith
1 year ago

Excellent read. Try this before it disappears?

Hell Glibson
Hell Glibson
1 year ago

Is there any limit to mass immigration? The debate surrounding it doesn’t seem to be rational in any way.

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