With reflections on everything from the rise of autofiction to Trump and Covid, a collection of Salman Rushdie’s 21st-century nonfiction ought to be a treasure trove, but it feels more like watching someone rooting around down the back of the sofa for loose change.
One problem is that, as a rule, these repurposed forewords, op-eds and speeches are plonked down without so much as a date, producing a kind of chronological whiplash as you yo-yo from one obsolete reference to the next. Rushdie promises they are all “thoroughly revised”, but I spotted scant evidence of that, save for a Dominic Cummings-style tweak to a 2018 piece titled Truth, bemoaning “the erosion in public acceptance of... evidence-supported facts about the coronavirus, or climate change, or inoculations for children”.
Staleness is a pitfall in this kind of enterprise, sure, but the bigger problem is Rushdie, who in these pieces tends to be prolix and smug, overly drawn to low-hanging fruit. Celebrating Christopher Hitchens’s comic genius, he points to their 2009 appearance together on a US talk show with the rapper Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), whose “cockeyed animadversions” on al-Qaida prompted Hitchens to call him “Mr Definitely”, “a name so belittlingly funny that it rendered even more risible the risible notions that Mr Def was trying to advance”.
The clip is on YouTube and it’s excruciating; essentially, Mos Def wonders aloud whether Osama bin Laden had become a bogeyman for US foreign policy and Hitchens responds by bullying. Shortly after recounting this episode, Rushdie reprints (with zero awareness) a speech urging students to “stand against the orthodoxies of your time” as “the range of ideas available through mass media diminishes”.
It’s hard not to think that his capacity for political thought has been bent out of shape by the experience of living under Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. Probably yours would be, too, but when he says “far more” British Muslims (“hundreds, perhaps thousands”) “join the decapitating barbarians of Isis... than enlist in the British armed forces”, we should recall that Trump tweeted the same thing in 2015 and the claim was debunked.
As for literature, Rushdie isn’t a critic so much as a connoisseur. When he cites “the great Czech writer Milan Kundera” or “the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert”, it’s a rhetorical tic that slyly basks in reflected glory. His actual arguments tend to dissolve before your eyes – an item on Hans Christian Andersen ends by saying that he stands in a “fabulist tradition that stretches from the most ancient stories all the way to Kafka. That is the best measure of his worth.”
Sometimes, there’s more going on than just busking. A piece on Gabriel García Márquez starts in 1975 with a friend noting Márquez’s influence on Rushdie’s newly published debut, Grimus. “Who?” Rushdie says, before picking up One Hundred Years of Solitude later that day, knowing “almost nothing about the Latin American literary world”. Yet his account of the book soon reverts to the usual grand manner: “What we have here is something extraordinary... it owes something to many people, of course... we see traces of the great writers from whom he learned... traces of Machado de Assis’s Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro...”
The subtext, one can’t help feeling, is that Rushdie out-Márquezed Márquez without reading him and at the same time (thanks to some coyly offstage swotting) was wise – as are “we” all – to what he borrowed from the literature of 19th-century Brazil. Next thing, Rushdie is on the phone to Márquez, who says how much he admires Rushdie, and... sorry, who’s the piece about again?
Something similar happens in a tribute to his friend Carrie Fisher, needlessly framed around the question of whether she and Rushdie might have become lovers (he says that when they met, he was “happily married”, so it “wasn’t an option”, as if it were only down to him).
In all this, there’s a sense of how far Rushdie has come from the hungry figure at one point seen hunting rare sci-fi in a north London bookshop in the early 70s. Picking up his dry cleaning in Hollywood, he runs into Muhammad Ali; Diane von Furstenberg helps him fundraise for a festival involving “the finest voices in world literature”.
It would be thoroughly charming were it not for Rushdie’s tendency to rant about “our dumbed-down, homogenised, frightened present-day culture”, in thrall to “tales of finding oneself through breast-reduction surgery or finding happiness through colossal weight loss; accounts of sporting triumph, triumph on television reality shows”. Well, some of us win the Booker, others Big Brother; what can you do?
• Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020 by Salman Rushdie is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply