Book Review | Fantasy beats autofiction, but ‘magic realism’ trounced by fact

The Asian Age.  | Farrukh Dhondy

Salman contends that publishing today favours the revealing, racially, sexually and culturally situated autobiography

Salman’s essay is not unsympathetic to the hijras and charts the structure of their social existence and pleads for some attention to the risks they face through HIV and AIDS. (Photo: Amazon)

This book could — and perhaps should — have been called “A Defence of Fantasy”. It’s an eloquent, erudite and, in parts, startlingly informative defence of all forms of imaginative, or rather imagined fantasy.

Through essays, lectures, addresses and tributes to dead friends, these themes of the imagination in writing and art emerge, the dominant one being a defence of his own favourite fictional genre of “magic realism”. I don’t think Salman likes the term and insists that the magic, the inheritance that contemporary writers, or at least those of a slightly previous generation, have been bequeathed by the legends and epics of all the nations of the planet, is the rabbit hole to reality.

Salman contends that publishing today favours the revealing, racially, sexually and culturally situated autobiography and names several black American writers (none of whom, I apologetically admit, I’ve read) who draw on or portray their own lives in their novels without the inventions of fantasy that the school of “magic realism” has in the past brought alive. His assessment, though he gives us no summaries or descriptions of the themes or stories of these writers, is fulsome — granting perhaps that there are many fictional vehicles which tell the truth.

There is enough evidence in Salman’s career, with all the glittering prizes and accolades, with the “fatwa” which V.S. Naipaul cruelly alluded to as “the severest form of literary criticism”, and the sometimes nasty reviews of his work (even of this very book in, say, UK’s Observer newspaper) to contend that his work is “Marmitic”. You either love it or you hate it.

(I have taken the liberty of inventing the term in imitation of the word games that Salman says he used to play with his friend and supporter Christopher Hitchens).
The “haters” will be forced to admit that deriving inspiration from the epics, fables and parables from the Arabian Nights, from the Panchatantra, from Beowolf from Götterdämmerung is perfectly legitimate, but they may ask if the resulting constructs live up to the tasks of fiction — to what fiction owes to the “languages of truth”.

Consider the essay in which Salman, writing about the “hijras” of India, begins with a scene from John Irving’s book A Son of the Circus in which a surgeon who is not a surgeon cuts off, without administering an anaesthetic, the penis and testicles of a voluntary male to turn him into a “hermaphrodite” or initiate him into being part of “another sex”. Irving’s fiction is appallingly graphic and may have been the recreation of some researched piece. My own queries to a renowned consultant urethra-genital doctor, about the hijra clans I saw in my childhood wandering around India’s streets, resulted in a different account. Hijras, according to this medical scientist, are not “hermaphrodites” — whatever that is. They are “cryptorchids” — born male with penises, but as they grow the deviant bone structures in their crotches, crush their testicles and prevent them from dropping and developing. Hence, they, through early adolescence, manifest both male and female secondary features triggered by the body producing both male and female hormones — beards and breasts and altered skeletal development. In the West, this deviance in bone structure can be and is easily detected and rectified by nurses and doctors who check on boy babies and release their testicles, as a consequence of which there aren’t any hijras stalking the weddings and traffic light crossings of London, New York and the rest.

Go figure!

These poor cryptorchids, handed over to the hijra clans by in all cases poor and even peasant parents in early adolescence, lead miserable lives as beggars and prostitutes. Turning this phenomenon of the tragic degradation of a society, which should but doesn’t afford adequate medical care to children, into “magic realism” is, to some (me too, yaar!) unacceptable.

Salman’s essay is not unsympathetic to the hijras and charts the structure of their social existence and pleads for some attention to the risks they face through HIV and AIDS. It’s John Irving who sacrifices truth to fictional sensationalism — and some readers mistake it for the truth.

Salman deals at length in one essay about the adaptations of books into films. He finds the adaptation by David Lean of E.M Forster’s A Passage to India absurd and clumsy, as do I, but he forgives him for having given the world Lawrence of Arabia and, for my money, Doctor Zhivago. He ventures no illuminating theory of adaptation from one form to another and, while telling us about the adaptation of his own Midnight’s Children to the stage, says nothing about Deepa Mehta’s film of the same novel. Since he wrote that film adaptation and it wasn’t a successful film, to say the least, some consideration from his insightful mind as to what went wrong would have been illuminating.

It’s not the function of a reviewer to carp about what he wanted to read. The essays and speeches are peppered with insights into Salman’s life as a child in Bombay (which is how he insists on remembering it — he doesn’t approve of “Mumbai”) and his experience of racism in public school in Rugby. There are insights into, or confessions about, his progress into becoming the writer he always wanted to be. And then, after the recollections and paens to dead friends such as Hitchens and Harold Pinter and a panegyric approval of writers such as Philip Roth and notes of his acquaintance with him, there are the outspoken pieces about writers subject to tyrannical, censorious silencing, jailing and death in China, Russia, Turkey and now in previously liberal India.

In an essay entitled “Osama bin Laden (Fish be Upon Him!)”, Salman attacks the hypocrisy of Pakistani policy which supports terrorism while taking billions of dollars from the United States to purportedly fight it.

Salman professes in several of these pieces to be not simply an advocate against but an activist fighter for freedom of speech. He is clearly, in all his attitudes and accomplishments, against the denial of free speech and in support of the voices that have suffered neglect and suppression. It’s a brave and commendable stance, but he doesn’t go on to say what he thinks of the outcry against, for instance, J.K Rowling’s opinion that transgender women are not really women. Germaine Greer also has similar controversial opinions. Should they, in the interests of the free speech Salman so ardently argues for, be heard and challenged through argument rather than censored? A regrettable silence on that one. I would have liked to know.

In his words: “I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write.”