A paean to storytelling
Following the trails of Imaginary Homelands (Penguin Books, 1992) and Step Across The Line (Modern Library, 2003), comprising essays written and lectures given by Salman Rushdie between 2003-2020, Languages of Truth is Rushdie's third collection of nonfiction works and is as a delectable read as its predecessors if not more.
Languages of Truth opens with the essay titled "Wonder Tales" in which Rushdie probes deeply into the nature of fiction and the paths literature can and should tread on while ruminating on its past history and where it is headed. "Wonder Tales", perhaps the finest essay pertaining to literature he ever penned down, is a paean to the art of storytelling—a homage to the blending of the real with the surreal, of the natural with the supranatural, a tribute to the immense power of the fictionality of fiction and the imaginativeness of the imagination, an ode to the power of fiction to tell truths better than blunt truths are capable of.
Rushdie sees us as storytelling animals who need stories to sustain the soul. To him, story is the unnatural means we use to talk about human life, our way to reach the truth by making things up. Asgard and Valhalla, Olympus and Mount Kailash are not merely imaginary mythical lands, embedded therein are our deepest thoughts about our own natures and our doubts and fears as well.
Rushdie has always been in favour of the use of the fabulous to reach the truth, to reach the real through the unreal has been the cornerstone of almost all of his works till date. The amalgamation of fact and fiction to explore reality has been the most favourite trope of Rushdie's almost half a century long literary career and it is no wonder that he is a staunch supporter of the use of the surreal.
From Grimus (Random House, 2003) to Victory City (Random House, 2023), Rushdie's fascination with the wonder tales is palpable in everything he writes. The influence of myths and legends is so apparent in almost all of his works that it doesn't come as a surprise that someone, who has drawn so much from that inexhaustible cornucopia of myths and legends and the wonder tales of the East and the West, would be so enamoured by them.
Human nature is complex, capacious and contradictory in its manifold manifestations and Rushdie is confident to sing along with Whitman—"Very well then I contradict myself." Rushdie rejoices in the protean power of literature to be able to sing the song of contradiction and complexity, to be able to celebrate our ability to be, simultaneously, both yes and no, both this and that.
Rushdie has often remarked ruefully on the present plight of India and likes to compare it with the past India, with the past Mumbai where he grew up. He believes that India in his childhood days was a harmonious place; religious zealots were not running riots back in his days and he seems to believe that he lived in a truly secular India which is now backsliding into a Hindu majoritarian state devoid of the secular ideologies held high by its founding fathers.
In an essay on his friend Christopher Hitchens who staunchly supported Rushdie on all fronts after the infamous fatwa, he writes movingly and reminisces about Hitchens' last birthday whilst likening his late friend to Voltaire. Like his friend the late Christopher Hitchens, Rushdie too is a polymath of the highest order. Profound and sharply well articulated in his idiosyncratic and penetrating prose, almost every page of Languages of Truth exudes Rushdie's sharp wit, brilliant humour, and incisive erudition.
A panoply of disparate essays ranging from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Vonnegut and Marquez, from Beckett to Roth, from Hamzanama to Salgado, from defending the freedom of artists to vehemently censuring censorship, from myths to musings on the pandemic—Languages of Truth presents some of the very best writings of Rushdie which do not fall in the flank of fiction. It would be a Herculean task anyway to put his best fictional works inside a single binding.
Najmus Sakib studies Linguistics at University of Dhaka and is a maester at the school of self-loathing. Reach out to him on X at @sakib221b.