Given Salman Rushdie’s personality and the quality of his writing, reviews of his works can be a great deal of fun to read, and probably to write as well. Dalrymple’s review in the New Criterion of Rushdie’s new memoir of his time spent under threat of death is no exception. I am tempted to quote only this passage: “unfortunately Rushdie’s book is long and he is not a good writer”. But here’s more:
it [is] worth quoting from the preface to [Arthur] Koestler’s account of his time under sentence of death. “The main difficulty,” he said, “was the temptation to cut a good figure.” This is a thought whose concision and precision is quite beyond Rushdie’s powers; and when Rushdie feels that he cannot cut a good figure, as when he recounts his issuance of a grovellingly insincere recantation of his supposed apostasy, he cannot bring himself (as would be natural) actually to quote it. What Rushdie does not realize is that no one with any imagination would blame him for it; here truly was an instance where, if things had been different, things would not only have been different but very different. Anyone can understand how a man under a real threat of death might recant ignominiously in the hope of living longer. As Koestler says, “To die—even in the service of an impersonal cause—is always a personal affair”: another of his many thoughts that is worth more than the whole of Rushdie’s 656 pages.
To judge by his writing, Rushdie thinks in clichés. I opened the book at random and found the following:
He was deliberately trying to up the ante, and so far the Iranians were hanging tough and refusing to fold. But there was only one way to go now.
Perhaps a desperate need to escape a mind full of clichés explains the exaggerated imagery of much of his writing, the magic realism with both the magic and the realism removed (in contrast to that of his most ill-chosen, because inimitable, model, Gabriel García Márquez). With him, unlikelihood serves for imagination and emphasis for force.