The story behind a story | Book Review: Languages of Truth by Salman Rushdie

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June 06, 2021 1:00 AM

Rushdie takes readers on a literary pilgrimage, bringing to life the art of storytelling and a writer’s quest to ‘approach the truth through lies’

Author Salman Rushdie PIC CREDIT: Rachel Eliza GriffithsAuthor Salman Rushdie PIC CREDIT: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

The title of Salman Rushdie’s new book of non-fiction is instructive. It’s Languages of Truth, not Language of Truth, or Language of Truths. There is only one truth, which is expressed in multiple languages. You can read the famous Rig Vedic adage here, Ekam sat, vipra bahudha vadanti. Truth is one, the wise describe it differently.

One could argue that the postmodern form Rushdie has mostly chosen for his novels isn’t exactly about one grand truth, but a multitude of truths, contesting and challenging each other. Rushdie, however, would say that, for him, truth is a literary experience that is expressed in various forms, and the form he loves most is fiction. Fiction or the fantastic is not an escape from reality; it adds several new dimensions and layers to what one perceives as reality.

Rushdie begins this book with a sentence, “Before there were books, there were stories,” and reflects on the art of storytelling and on his individual search for a narrative. A journey that took him beyond the realm of realism in order to create magical universes of alternative realities. Perhaps the most profound critique of realism as a narrative form has come from Milan Kundera. Rushdie acknowledges and evokes Kundera more than once in his latest book and asserts that “the realist tradition is doomed to a kind of endless repetitiveness”, and hence novelists “must turn to irrealism and find new ways of approaching the truth through lies”.

You can read a manifesto of the new novel here.

Among the finest of some 50 pieces contained in this book are those that carry his reflection on novels and novelists ranging from Leo Tolstoy, Philip Roth, Cervantes, and Samuel Beckett to Kurt Vonnegut. Rushdie divides great novels into two broad categories: the ‘everything novel’ that tries to include almost every aspect of life and the ‘almost nothing novel’ that examines truth in the light of a single thin narrative strand.

In a profound essay, Autobiography and the Novel, Rushdie wistfully remembers that the title pages of the three greatest novels of the 18th century — Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy — didn’t carry the names of their authors. “Just two hundred and fifty years ago it was possible for books to become famous and celebrated…and for the author to remain in the shadows.” A world that seems to have been lost forever in an era that expects writers to make a regular appearance on their YouTube and Instagram channels.

This book follows Step Across the Line that contained his essays and literary criticism from 1992-2002 and Imaginary Homelands (1981-91).

It also records his evolution both as a reader and a writer. When he first read War and Peace, he found the long descriptions of the battle “pretty boring”. But upon reading it 30 years later, he felt that there was never a greater description of war.

There is another such instance. Rushdie has always been, rather dogmatically, partial to English. In 1997, the 50th year of India’s independence, he co-edited a ‘definitive volume’ of Indian writing of the last 50 years. In the thick volume only two non-English writers managed to find some space —Satyajit Ray and SH Manto — with a short story each.

He now revises himself. “Foolishly, perhaps, I have long assumed that English possesses this quality (syntactical freedom and elasticity) to a greater degree than any other language, and so it is salutary to be reminded by David Grossman that other writers in other languages feel the same way.”

Despite a rich acquaintance with literatures of various languages on the planet, it took Rushdie several decades to realise the folly of his perception. Given his eminent position within the global literary establishment, consider the damage it might have done to various languages and writers. Elsewhere in this book Rushdie writes: “When artists enter into politics, the risks to reputation and integrity are ever present.” Well, contempt for other languages and an insistence that one’s own is superior is also a form of linguistic politics that’s unbecoming of a writer.

Besides some insightful essays on stories and storytellers, this book also has some fine pieces on painters like Amrita Sher-Gil and Bhupen Khakhar, and several rather banal short articles. And there is this poignant episode that marks the beginning of his fantastic essay on Roth. In October 2017, Roth wrote to Rushdie requesting him to deliver the inaugural Philip Roth lecture instituted by the Newark Public Library. Rushdie, much younger than Roth, was on the moon to have received the invitation from his literary hero. However, before he could deliver the lecture, Roth died.

Perhaps every passionate reader wants to undertake a pilgrimage to the places that feature in their favourite books. Rushdie once visited Martello Tower, the famous landmark in Dublin immortalised by James Joyce in Ulysses. Describing his emotion, Rushdie wrote how he “succumbed” to “the feeling of having walked into the pages of the great book”.

Languages of Truth, on most occasions, is one such book. A literary pilgrimage. Rushdie himself sets it up. “If you are not a writer, don’t worry: this book won’t teach you how to be one. If you are a writer, I suspect it will teach you a lot.” It will take you on a journey, leaving you in the middle to find a way of your own.

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, received the Atta Galatta Non-Fiction Book of the Year award

Languages of Truth
Salman Rushdie
Penguin Random House
Pp 416, Rs 799

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