A review of Step Across This Line by Salman Rushdie

The essays in this collection are, without exception, witty, intelligent, acerbic, moving, thoughtful and above all, truthful. Celebrating secular freedom of thought and speech, personal responsibility and courage, together they form a thesis. The book reads quickly, and all of the pieces are interesting, illuminating their subject matter while always putting things into a larger context.

Review by Magdalena Ball

Step Across This Line:
Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002
by Salman Rushdie
Hardcover: 320 pages
Random House
ISBN: 0679463348; 1st edition (September 2002)

Salman Rushdie is as good an essayist as he is a novelist. That is a serious accolade. It is possible that he is one of the finest novelists of our century. His imaginative, distinctive and extraordinary novels have earned him significant awards, as well as the dubious distinction of a Fatwa, one imagines partly for the intensity and beauty of his prose and his strong adherence to a philosophy of truth, and a humanistic secularism which is strongly informed by the mythological heritage of his multiple cultures. Rushdie’s non-fiction, which includes Imaginary Homelands, a collection of essays and criticism, The Jaguar Smile and The Wizard of Oz, along with a wide range of published essays and columns from newspapers and magazines is similarly powerful, full of insight, conviction, humour and the love of both language and life which have made him famous.

Rushdie’s latest collection, Step Across This Line is split into four parts, the first is a series of randomly published essays on topics as diverse as The Wizard of Oz, literary criticism, writing, film, rock music, bread, on being photographed, religion, US politics, South East Asian politics and his first trip to India after the Fatwa. The second part is a series of writings on “the plague years” – a 10 year period when he was in hiding from the death sentence issued by the Iranian leader Khomeini. The third part, is a chronological sequence of New York Times columns, running from December 1998 to March 2002, and which look at a range of current events during that period. The fourth part, which inspired the title, is the transcript of the 2002 Tanner Lectures on Human Values, given at Yale University.

The essays in this collection are, without exception, witty, intelligent, acerbic, moving, thoughtful and above all, truthful. Celebrating secular freedom of thought and speech, personal responsibility and courage, together they form a thesis. The book reads quickly, and all of the pieces are interesting, illuminating their subject matter while always putting things into a larger context. The first , “Out of Kansas” is a superb piece of literary analysis focusing on the film The Wizard of Oz. The topic of one of Rushdie’s non-fiction books and one of his earliest literary influences, his deconstruction and reconstruction of this apparently lighthearted film is a terrific piece of work, at once courageous and respectful, leading us through the range of straw men and illusions to Dorothy’s ultimate crossing of the boundaries of Kansas to the discovery of herself. In his essay “In Defence of the Novel, Yet Again,” Rushdie takes on George Steiner’s comments that we are getting very tired in our novels. Celebrating the novel’s diversity, Rushdie argues that: “The novel is precisely that ‘hybrid form’ for which Prof. Steiner yearns. It is part social enquiry, part fantasy, part confessional. It crosses frontiers of knowledge as well as topographical boundaries.” (58) Eloquently Rushdie states that: “literature, good literature, has always been a minority interest. Its cultural importance does not derive from its success in some sort of ratings war, but from its success in telling us things about ourselves that we hear from no other quarter. And that minority – the minority that is prepared to read and buy good books – has in truth never been larger than it is now.” (60)

Even in essays celebrating football, rock and roll or his influences, there is always an aim to produce something universal:

Afloat and terrifyingly free upon these boundless seas, the writer attempts, with his bare hands, the magical task of metamorphosis. Like the figure in the fairy-tale who must spin straw into gold, the writer must find the trick of weaving the waters together until they become land: until, all of a sudden, there is solidity where once there was only flow, shape where there was formlessness; there is ground beneath his feet.” (69)

The importance of a broad minded secularism which celebrates freedom and the intrinsic good runs through the section on the plague years. Rushdie’s refusal to be silenced, to give us his life, his sense of self-worth, and his ability to depersonalise the Fatwa is inspiring:

“I have had to understand not just what I’m fighting against…but also what I am fighting for, what is worth fighting for with one’s life. Religious Fanaticism’s scorn for secularism and for unbelief led me to my answer. It is that values and morals are independent of religious faith that good and evil come before religion: that…it is perfectly possible, and for many of us even necessary, to construct our ideas of the good without taking refuge in faith.” (252)

The topical columns, many of them written quite recently, span the USA 2000 Presidential campaign (with a very funny Seuss inspired verse), Arundhati’s dam protest, film festivals, the Sept 11th attacks and a very powerful piece on the Hindu-Moslem bloodletting in Gujarat. Even for this diehard athiest, Rushdie’s last sentence is, like much of his writing, hard hitting in its clarity “So India’s problem turns out to e the world’s problem. What happened in India, happened in God’s name. The problem’s name is God.” (403)

Rushdie has been criticised for his egoism, and there are a number of self-referential pieces in this book, but never does he trivialise or focus too far inwards. There is humour, generosity, even a relaxed good natured quality to this work which makes it very enjoyable to read – light, even while it makes the heaviest points. It is exceptionally well written, with crisp, joyful prose, light puns and the deepest insights. Even at its most personal, when writing of his attempts to get a film made of Midnight’s Children, a trip with his son to India, on being photographed by Avedon, his struggles against Britain’s refusal to show solidarity during the height of his troubles, or a visit onstage with Bono of U2, there is always a turning point where the basic thesis of freedom and secular decency becomes the point of the piece, as he writes to the six billionth person in the world: “Imagine there’s no heaven, my dear Six Billionth, and at once the sky’s the limit.”

For more information, visit: Step Across This Line: Collected…

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