Real Magicians

East, West: Stories

by Salman Rushdie
Pantheon, 214 pp., $21.00

The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories

by R.K. Narayan
Viking, 312 pp., $23.00

R. K. Narayan
R. K. Narayan; drawing by David Levine

Some years ago, in an essay called “A Writer’s Nightmare,” R.K. Narayan imagined himself a citizen of a strange country called Xanadu, where the government printer had made a grave error; five tons of forms meant for the controller of stores had been turned out with the heading “controller of stories.” Five tons of paper is no mean amount, and an official must be invented to make use of it. Perhaps, indeed, this is a matter in which government should have interfered before?

The Government has observed that next to rice and water, stories are the most-demanded stuff in daily life…. Every moment someone or other is always asking for a story.

And so there is to be a Central Story Bureau, with four directorates, one each for plot, character, atmosphere, and climax. Authors contemplating a story would have to fill in a form, obtain a treasury certificate, submit a synopsis, and obtain authorization. Unauthorized story tellers would be fined. Bad story tellers would have their ink bottles smashed.

Narayan’s joky but chilling little fable has given way to a worse nightmare, the one which Salman Rushdie is living day by day. It is now some six years since the Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on his head, exhorting “all zealous Muslims” to avenge the insults to their faith contained in The Satanic Verses. Khomeini is dead, but the edict remains in force; the author leads an unsettled life under police protection.

Rushdie is not now subject to purely literary judgments—if such things can be—but to a complex of political-ideological-literary judgments. One cannot respond to his writing in any uncomplicated way, or say an uncontentious word. This is a state of affairs which some British commentators see as unfortunate. When East, West appeared in the UK recently, the critic D.J. Taylor suggested:

Of all the misfortunes to affect a writer, one of the most dismal must be an awareness that the simple act of picking up your pen has become a highly charged political act, open to misrepresentation by friend and enemy alike.

Dismal? It is frightening, certainly, yet in a way horribly exhilarating. We have been returned to a world where ideas matter, where words cause riots, where they cause the world to change. The Ayatollah’s death sentence is a hideous tribute to the power of words, and Salman Rushdie is certainly aware of this. His plight has forced him to become a politician, canvassing the support of Western governments, but he has made an imaginative response to it as well. In his 1990 novella, Haroun and The Sea of Stories, Rushdie imagined an enemy of imagination called Cultmaster Khattam-Shud, whose ambition is to dry up the Ocean of the Stream of Story. This tyrant hates stories, because he aims to rule the world, and fiction creates an alternative world, a multiplicity of worlds he…

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