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Anis Shivani


Which Writer Most Deserves the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature?

Posted: 10/04/11 04:19 AM ET

I don't expect for a moment for this to happen, but I believe no other writer on the face of the earth comes as close to deserving the next Nobel award for literature as Salman Rushdie.

There is only one other writer on the planet who writes with more of a world-encompassing ambition and strength (and greater compassion and humanity)--namely, Orhan Pamuk--and he has already been rewarded.

The fact that Rushdie has been really low on lists of betting odds in recent years is disturbing. If Rushdie goes unacknowledged in his lifetime, it would be one of the most unforgivable oversights in Nobel Prize history--as was the case with Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, and Borges.

More than almost any other writer alive, Rushdie has not only written about a world, but through the power of his writing actually altered that world. He is that rare writer whose imagination has profoundly changed the shape of history.

In this case, we're talking about the Indian subcontinent, home to well over a billion Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and people of every caste and creed. Before Rushdie's Midnight's Children, no writer had written the Great Indian Novel or even dared to attempt it. There was quiet stuff like R. K. Narayan, and some other idiosyncratic fiction in English. Rushdie literally imagined the Indian subcontinent into being--in sometimes idealist terms, I think, but that's very much to the point, it's very much part of literary nation-building--in a way that had never been done before.

If we want to charge Rushdie with the flaw of over exuberance, then perhaps he is guilty. On the other hand, it's quite possible that he underestimated the exuberance and live possibilities of India. In any event, Rushdie's grasp of classes and races and religions in India is complete--nothing eludes him. It's true that it's not possible for him to shed the privileged lens of a sheltered 1950s boyhood in Mumbai, but do we necessarily want our novelists to be working from a lack of definite point of view? It doesn't prevent him from comprehending the lives of people of every class, and that's all that should matter.

With his breakthrough in Midnight's Children--deservedly the most lauded among the Booker Prize winners of the last 30 years--Rushdie created a language whereby Indians themselves could comprehend their own destiny. Compared to the rich, multifarious, contradictory, zany, philosophical, rational, scientific, illuminating language Rushdie created for India to talk about itself, the homilies of Gandhi and Nehru seem mere preludes--often pointless. What Rushdie did was to break the skull of India--frozen in centuries-old platitudes--wide-open. And when he did so, the contents were very colorful, zesty, audible and edible--not at all the dull gray matter we might have expected. Thirty years after the fact, the fruition of his imagination of India at last appears in close view. Even now, however, Rushdie is far ahead of the game. As Saleem Sinai, still the greatest of Rushdie's creations, says at the end of Midnight's Children:

It is the privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.

What we need our writers to do, above all--as Orwell would certainly approve from a politicized standpoint, as would the putatively apolitical high modernists preceding him--is to break through the cant and hypocrisy of diseased, frozen, useless language. For instance, ten years after 9/11, fiction writers have not yet given us a new language to talk about America. We cannot talk about ourselves in the absence of a useful language. A mark of such a linguistic breakthrough is that the fiction stays always ahead of the times--this is most true of Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses, although Rushdie's later novels have also partaken of this rare quality.

Rushdie anticipated--years before the fact--the all-important arguments over globalization; he started presenting its contours long before it was a political and economic reality; and he exceeded the bounds of the debate as they are currently unfolding, even in his earliest presentations (such as in The Satanic Verses).

Rushdie, we might easily argue, is one of the writers who best succeeded in imagining globalization before it happened, as it happened, and perhaps also after it has happened. His later novels, such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet from the 1990s and Shalimar the Clown from the 2000s, are late entries in the sophisticated game of globalization, perceived and explicated from a very deep point of view indeed.

As is also true of the greatest writers, Rushdie embodies in his own self some of the most important contests in ongoing history. The ultimate example of that is the "controversy" surrounding The Satanic Verses, which involved multiculturalism versus fundamentalism, the writers versus the ayatollahs, free speech versus censorship, rationality versus irrationality, transnationalism versus nationalism, tolerance versus bigotry--and ultimately, we might say, the integrity of the self in a postmodern world allegedly bereft of moral footing.

It seems appropriate--and not a little mystical or prophetic--that it was in his own person, his own body, that the global contest over these polarities played out. And it was only a harbinger of much worse to come. The eruption was the first sign of a newly emergent world, and again it was entirely apt that it was 1989--the year the American century started coming to a close, the cold war façade was wrapped up, and the rise of the rest became inevitable--when this pitched battle took place.

Each of his novels--and again, this is a sign of the greatest novelists--fully closes the chapter, so that the subsequent one is never a mere rewrite or restatement, but a higher level of synthesis and argument. Shame was a transitory interlude between Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses, a necessary counterpoint to play down the exuberance of India, if you will, as Rushdie exposed the essential hypocrisy and deceit and depression of Pakistan. Well, that's one thing at least that hasn't changed.

As is well-known, everyone has an opinion about The Satanic Verses, though very few have actually read it--in that sense, it's like Joyce and Proust's great novels. Read it. The Satanic Verses, when all is said and done, might well go down in history as one of the twentieth century's very great novels, along with Nabokov's Lolita, perhaps, or Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book. It may well outlast almost everything else in the twentieth century. So great is the novel that the audience for it has not yet come into being, though the war of clashing fundamentalisms going on for the last ten years ought to have created more intellectual space for it.

What is also not so well-known is that The Satanic Verses is a great novel about race relations--actually, class relations complicated by race and immigration, in a surrealist Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s, whose worst nightmares have always seemed ready to spring to life in similar crises. The book makes one think of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, with its profound Nietzschean refusal of the facts on the ground, its will to power exceeding anything we might expect from a lone artist still rooted in the world. Its Bunuelesque dream sequences offer no release, and its Eisensteinian editing and cross-cutting somehow bring high art to the level of the demotic. It was one of the boldest novels ever conceived--and it may also be the most misunderstood novel of our times. It has lost none of its power to provoke:

What finally finished Salman with Mahound: the question of the women; and of the Satanic verses. Listen, I'm no gossip, Salman drunkenly confided, but after his wife's death Mahound was no angel, you understand my meaning. But in Yathrib he almost met his match. Those women up there: they turned his beard half-white in a year. The point about our Prophet, my dear Baal, is that he didn't like his women to answer back, he went for mothers and daughters, think of his first wife and then Ayesha: too old and too young. He didn't like to pick on someone his own size. But in Yathrib the women are different, you don't know, here in Jahilia you're used to ordering your females about but up there they won't put up with it.

It more or less invented the idea of hybridity--what Rushdie fondly calls mongrelization--which later became an academic industry in the hands of humanities scholars in the 1990s, and despite the irrelevance of the term in the post-9/11 world, continues to provide them fodder for countless books and dissertations. Nonetheless, hybridity is a concept whose time is bound to come--perhaps not now, perhaps another few decades later, but it will flourish into an alternative reality, it will lead to many more books of anti-history.

I think it's only fair to admit that the fatwa controversy following The Satanic Verses broke Rushdie in certain ways. Not that we should have expected him to write the same kinds of novels as he wrote in the 1980s, but it was a rupture of sorts, and it could easily have been fatal. Rushdie, I believe, was honestly speaking to his own community in his first three major novels, as an insider more than an outsider. Henceforth, he was forced to take on the mantle of outsider. The position of insider was ideologically denied to him. This was a very bad break, yet he tried to make the most of it.

All of Rushdie's novels repay careful attention, and not a single one is a failure. The Moor's Last Sigh and The Ground Beneath Her Feet, his two big novels of the 1990s, took the idea of hybridity several steps farther than in The Satanic Verses. He was arguing in those two books that culture is never proprietary to any people, that origins and sources are always in dispute, that people's migrations and exiles are in the end unknowable even to themselves, and that this is all very good. In a sense, he was presenting an almost idealized--certainly humanistic--face to the helter-skelter globalization already taking place in the 1990s. He was pointing out some of its human costs in these books, and asserting that this was still a worthwhile project--perhaps the most worthwhile project of all.

Yes, India is bleaker in The Moor's Last Sigh than in Midnight's Children, but it is also a greater form of honesty to confront the darkness of (Mumbai's) underworld--and he may have done such a good job of it that the subsequent reality almost seems underwhelming by comparison. What Rushdie says about the art of Aurora Zogoiby--feminists should be pleased that Rushdie has presented more strong female characters in every one of his books than almost any other comparable writer--in The Moor's Last Sigh might well be a commentary on himself:

In one or two canvases you saw, on the horizon, the protrusion of a flag-waving lance; but for the most part, during my childhood, Aurora Zoboiby was seeking to paint a golden age. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains crowded into her paint-Boabdil's fancy-dress balls, and the Sultan himself was represented less and less naturalistically, appearing more and more often as a masked, particoloured harlequin, a patchwork quilt of a man; or, as his old skin dropped from him chrysalis-fashion, standing revealed as a glorious butterfly, whose wings were a miraculous composite of all the colours in the world.

Fury, his apocalyptic novel of New York published in 2000--published in the heady days shortly before 9/11--is generally considered his weakest novel, but when I recently reread it, it seemed to me to be a fine accomplishment, again prophetic, full of a foreboding that was really a longing--a goad to his newly adopted country to try to do better, to warn it almost, and he was nothing if not prescient. Malik Solanka of Fury is a different kind of exile--his nature is more implicated in postmodern irony and selflessness (in the sense of lack of grounding, not humility)--and perhaps it will take another few years or decades to fully understand his meaning.

As it is, it is one of the finest novels of late empire, and it's amazing that it could have been written prior to the collapse of the towers. In a sense, Rushdie had already anticipated the final calamity of empire; there was nothing much to say afterward.

Fury inaugurated a very interesting late phase in Rushdie's career, giving us also Shalimar the Clown and The Enchantress of Florence. Shalimar the Clown is Rushdie's retort to the problem of terrorism, but it is far superior than the slew of novels that came out in the 2000s about the subject, because those tended to be reactive to events. Rushdie had no need to work on the basics in a realistic mode--how quaint and implausible the psychological explanations of terrorists sound in the work of lesser novelists!--and was able to move to a challenge to history itself, its uncorrectable wrongs and misdirections, its pretences and disguises. Here Rushdie seems to be challenging both intellectuals and laymen to become history itself, by becoming first incomprehensible to oneself in terms of the normal routines of self-presentation and self-consciousness. I believe that The Satanic Verses remains a key prompter of this later novel, its essential conundrum once again begging for release.

In The Enchantress of Florence, which brings together the enlightened Mughal emperor Akbar and his counterpart in Renaissance Italy, Nicolo Machiavelli, in unpredictable ways, Rushdie is still striving for a dream of diversity that has so far found no real political expression. The followers of Rushdie are debased multiculturalists, ready to settle for scraps and throwaways--polite notions of identity. Rushdie himself is busy connecting worlds in ways that bring us not toward global unity--what an absolute disaster that would be!--but a true multiplicity of ideas and beings, one founded not on fear and envy but--well, now I tend to get mystical, and I should leave it alone.

In my opinion there is no writer in the world today, working in any genre--among writers who have not yet received the award--who deserves the award as much as Rushdie. The diversity and range of his corpus over thirty-five years are almost unbelievable. This is a glaring, almost intolerable, oversight, and one wonders what is going through the Nobel committee's collective mind, what politics and agendas are in play to make such an anomaly possible.

Anis Shivani's has just finished a novel called Karachi Raj, and is starting another one called Abruzzi, 1936. His other books are Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (forthcoming, Nov. 2011), My Tranquil War and Other Poems (forthcoming, early 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (forthcoming, early 2012), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).