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Other Demons: Editorial on Salman Rushdie's view on magic realism versus surrealism

The extraordinary events in Rushdie's life, set off by the 1989 fatwa against him that resulted with the attempt on his life, can be made credible only by discarding logic as magic realism does

The Editorial Board Published 28.04.24, 08:48 AM
Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie File picture

Being a victim and being in control are contrasting experiences. In a recent interview, Salman Rushdie said that his latest work, Knife: Meditations after an Attempted Murder, was a way of taking back control of the narrative of the 2022 attack when he was stabbed repeatedly on a New York stage and subsequently lost an eye. His account described the changed ways of looking: from a helpless victim to a writer writing about a man lying in a pool of blood. Rushdie was talking of three things — experience, way of seeing and expression. All of these are intricately woven in his best-known style, a form of magic realism. Even without believing in the fantastical, his childhood in India meant that his first narratives were fables and magical tales. Perhaps the extraordinary events in his life, set off by the 1989 fatwa against him that led to a 10-year underground existence and resulted, bizarrely, decades later, with the attempt on his life, can be made credible only by discarding logic as magic realism does.

Abandoning realism, he said, could be a good way to approach closer to the truth of human nature. But now experience itself has abandoned the real, because people no longer live in realism but in surrealism. Surrealism as a post-First World War aesthetic tried to bridge the conscious and the unconscious, juxtaposing disparate objects and experiences in unexpected, even eerie, ways. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is an uncomfortable example. It abandoned logic just as magic realism does, but the latter tends to turn outward, towards society, as in Garcia Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. They overlap too: Kafka’s The Trial or Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, for instance, each takes on qualities of both approaches. But Rushdie’s emphasis in the interview was on the feel of contemporary existence. That seems to have gone beyond magical possibilities; it is now simply surreal.


There is little place for reason in a world where the predominance of hatred and blind violence is not limited to the occasional assassin or just one war but infects the whole world. Meanwhile, logic or the scientific data of years do not impel countries to address climate change, either its cause or its effects, although the seasons are growing hotter and the earth is being battered by intense rainfall, floods, storms and wildfires. Within all this, advances in digital communication lead to addiction, isolation and depression on the one hand, and targeted fake news on the other, which feeds richly into the cycle of misery, fear, hatred and violence. The ground beneath people’s feet is no longer stable, physically or metaphorically. Communication breeds distance and rage; the understanding is challenged every moment. Too many disparate objects are crowding the canvas. Maybe a new style is needed to respond to a world in which the cerebral charge of surrealism and the playful endangerments of magic realism no longer fit.

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