Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticisms 1981 - 1991 by Salman Rushdie

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Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticisms 1981 - 1991 by Salman Rushdie

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A selection of essays that range from the enlightening and amusing to the impenetrable and uncomfortable.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099542254

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We read some authors because we know we're going to enjoy them. Others, we feel somehow obliged to read. If we consider ourselves readers, and certainly if we have any pretensions (I use the word advisedly) to being well-read, then there are some books and more particularly some authors with whom we are required to become familiar.

From the announcing of the Fatwa and through all that followed, I felt that probably I should acquire some clue as to what it was all about. There was no urgency though. So little time, so many books. Other authors commanded more power to engage my delight or horror or imagination or intellect. When Midnight's Children won the Booker of Bookers I had to give in. I had to read Salman Rushdie. I just had to know what all the fuss was about.

I started, reasonably enough, with Midnight's Children. My conclusion? Sort-of enjoyed it, but exceedingly glad I didn't have to review it! I found it dense, hard work, and was never entirely convinced that I understood it.

Next up: Imaginary Homelands. Having in many ways struggled with Midnight's Children, I wondered if the essays might be an easier route to understanding the author, to understanding his standing, to finally getting what all the fuss is about.

That it was only partially successful, I am happy to own as my own fault. As a white, working-to-middle-class English woman, I have my prejudices. If I fight against them as strongly as I like to think, then I shouldn't have been as angered as I was by Rushdie's attack on white British. I shouldn't feel affronted that I'm not a good-enough reader for this high-brow literary take on the world.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here; let's start with the basic structure of Imaginary Homelands. Subtitled "Essays and Criticism 1981-1991", it is just that. A collection of writings over the course of a relatively recent and relatively important decade in world politics covering the personal, the political and the literary fields which are Rushdie's genuine homelands.

The current Vintage paperback edition appears to be a simple reprint of the original 1991 version, carrying Rushdie's own introduction from that year. That's a shame; it would have been interesting to have the author provide a new introduction for this 2010 edition to contrast with his own views from twenty years ago. Its absence leaves one wondering if there is no contrast to be had, and none of his views have altered.

By the author's own definition the writings are grouped thematically. The first three sections are grouped around (1) the book Midnight's Children, (2) the politics of India and Pakistan and (3) the literature of what we in the west choose to call the subcontinent. We then move on to movies and television. Section 5 is about the experience of the migrant. Six takes us into reflections on the Thatcher/Foot election of 1983, Charter 88 and the questions of Palestine. Sections 7 through 11 are straightforward literary criticisms of writers from around the world. Then finally, obviously, we must come to the fall-out from The Satanic Verses.

There were things to be learned from the first five sections, particularly on the political history of India and Pakistan, of which I am as woefully ignorant as anyone else of my generation brought up in a country that tends to focus its history lessons in Roman Britain, Viking endeavour, and the glory days of the Tudors… and then skirts over most of the rest until we get to the wars of the 20th century, which automatically lead to a narrowing of focus from world events to western economic history.

Unfortunately, the overriding feeling I came away with was a personal dislike of the author. He was coming across (to this reader) as someone with a huge shoulder-chip. No-one disputes that what we did in the days of the Raj was often heinous and unforgiveable. What we did at partition was, frankly, idiotic. How our state government has treated the immigrants from our former colonies ranges from welcoming to reprehensible (depending on the home-needs at the time no doubt). Some of our institutions at the time these essays were written were undoubtedly riddled with racism and populated by racists. None of this, in my view, warrants the accusations levelled at the you of Rushdie's writing. You is anyone who (by accident of birth) happens to be white British, happens to have been brought up in the language of the times, and happens to have absorbed some of the idioms. Sorry, Mr R. but I do use some of the forbidden expressions, and whatever you may say, I do not mean to cause offense by them.

Many of these essays speak of the white-on-black racism of the times. I am old enough to remember the riots. I don't deny the truth of any of it. But I am offended in many ways by the author's take on the situation at that time, which implies that the only racism in this country is white-British-against-any-and-all-immigrants-of-colour, but welcoming of white arrivals.

For immigrants read anyone who is first-to-fourth-or-fifth generation non-indigenous. It is only part of the story. To make it the whole story as he seeks to do, misses the point. The point is that racism in this country exists between races of colour just as much (if not more so) than it does between white and black/brown/yellow/whatever! There is a suggestion that we do not respond the same way to immigrants from other nations, particularly white immigrants, as we do towards blacks and Asians, be they incoming or local-born. This is one of the reasons I'd have appreciated an updated introduction. More recent events show that those of my fellow-countrymen who (mistakenly) think that immigration is counter-productive for this country, will level their spleen and bile at incomers of all colours and creeds (and none) and that many of those fellow country-men were recently incomers themselves. I wonder if the author now recognises this.

A further point missed in these debates of race relations is that of the cliché. We consider – he tells us – Blacks (Africans and African Americans) to be good athletes and Asians to be studious. This is – he tells us – purely a cliché with no founding in truth.

Strange then that our Premier League football teams are, I hesitate to use the word 'dominated', but certainly heavily populated by superb players of ultimately African extraction. Similarly our track and field teams. I suspect their absence from the tennis courts is entirely down to the 'class' system and nothing to do with race. It doesn't mean that there aren't Asians and whites up there with them, just that on balance, this is a field in which they excel.

Strange also, that our academic professions – medicine, the law, politics – attract a higher proportion of Asians than other non-white ethnicities. The continued white domination here, I'd claim, is entirely down to class and money and nothing to do with tendency to intellectual endeavour.

Rushdie is a writer. As such he should understand the derivation of the word cliché. It is not possibly for a cliché to become such, but that it be fundamentally grounded in a measure of truth.

I was by this point really beginning to dislike the man and his views.

Then he started to talk about Maggie Thatcher. Consider this fiction he begins, and posits a nominal Prime Minister (Maggie May) who does what her namesake genuinely did: increasing taxation, worsening unemployment, decimating the manufacturing base, eradicating labour representation, halting the housing programme, denying millions the right to automatic citizenship by birth, squandering the revenues of north sea oil, selling off the nationalised industries as soon as they had started to pay back the money the state had pumped into them…

It shouldn't be possible to redeem yourself in only four pages. A General Election proved that it can be done. I was back on his side.

The long sections of literary criticism that follow the erudition on Charter 88 and the situation in Palestine (which let's face it has not improved since those times), I found very heavy weather. I'm sure those who enjoy Newsnight Review will enjoy the in depth discussions on writers who the rest of prefer just to read rather than analyse: Ishiguro, Graham Greene, John Le Carré, Eco, Grass and Böll. As for the remainder, I'm happy enough to confess total ignorance of Ransmayr, Calvino, Schneider and Pynchon. A hole in my education no doubt – but not one that Rushdie convinced me I needed to fill.

On the other hand he does manage to elicit humour from Stephen Hawking, and from an interview with Michael Herr that exposes the sheer absurdity of Vietnam.

Only at the very end does he finally grab my attention again, when he turns to the crux of the matter. I am left wondering whether Rushdie would be the totem he is (to use his own notion) were it not for the Fatwa. I'm absolutely sure he'd have settled for being less-well-known and less-well-paid in exchange for a normal life, but the imponderable is whether he would ultimately have also been less well respected as a writer.

That we will never know. For me however, by far and away the most interesting of these writings were his take on the response to The Satanic Verses. I'm hugely indebted to him for In Good Faith which means I now understand exactly what the argument was about (without having to read the novel!). The remainder of that essay, his Herbert Read memorial lecture (Is nothing Sacred? 1990) and One Thousand Days in a Balloon is the case for the defence. Upon which I unreservedly acquit. Freedom of speech is, as he says, nothing without the freedom to offend. Religion does not exist outside of historical context. Secularists can be as fundamentalist as those of faith. In these very personal pieces, he allows his intellectualism to slip and talks in a much more human voice – one that echoes his rants on the 1983 election, Charter 88 and Palestine. In this mood I warm to the man and his views.

I could just really live without the lit crit which served mainly to remind me why I hated it so much at school.

On balance? If you enjoy the novels, I'm sure you will find this book as 'profound, passionate and insightful' as the blurb suggests. If, like me, you are the kind of person who is more irritated than entertained by the literati expounding their depth of knowledge of the esoteric unimagined intentions of authors too dead to contradict… then I'd recommend you borrow rather than buy. There are sections I would urge you to read – but much that might leave you cold.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Midnight's Children is probably still compulsory reading... though I'd say more enjoyable if you don't think too hard about what it all means.

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Buy Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticisms 1981 - 1991 by Salman Rushdie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticisms 1981 - 1991 by Salman Rushdie at Amazon.com.


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