- Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation
Timothy Brennan has written an important book; its frames of reference ("Third World"; "Myths of the Nation") and terms for discussing Rushdie ("cosmopolitan writer" vs. "frontline fighter"; "anti-colonial liberalism" vs. "nationalism," to name some) will resonate in critical debates on "Third" world texts and cultures. Among the terms he deploys, "cosmopolitan writer" is the most significant, a sort of "master" term organizing what much of this book is about. For Brennan, cosmopolitan writers are writers attached to specific locales in the "Third" world who mediate, interpret, translate this world for "First" world / metropolitan readers. Their success depends upon their being simultaneously "alien" and "familiar"—their being able, that is, to offer an "insider's" (hence, "authentic") view of "Third" world cultures while complying with their metropolitan readers' tastes which require, most importantly, an entrenched scepticism toward, even revulsion of, nationalism.
Rushdie—whose novels are read in the West as authoritative accounts of the Subcontinent, who is explicit about his attachments to the Subcontinent and England, who celebrates hybridity while fleeing from a fixed national identity, who critiques traditional cultures as oppressive and applauds what for Brennan are "Western" values, democracy and freedom—provides Brennan with an apt example of a cosmopolitan writer. To "prove" his case, Brennan points to Rushdie's searing critique, in Midnight's Children and Shame, of what the fledgling nations—India and Pakistan—have become, which critique is tied to what for Rushdie represents a failure of the nation-forming process, indeed of nationalism itself.
Most of Brennan's analysis is competent but, once you have grasped his premises, becomes predictable. Once in a while, however, he makes a brilliant, if somewhat ingenious move that compels attention: in his reading of Midnight's Children, for example, he associates Rushdie's account of the "chamcha" (the colonial in-betweener, domestic collaborator of the colonial regime who continues to prop up the colonial status quo after independence) with Saleem's role, and via him, Rushdie's, which is that of the cosmopolitan writer himself. In Brennan's analysis, Rushdie self-reflexively attends to a phenomenon in which he is himself implicated, thereby providing the tools for his own deconstruction.
Whereas the term "cosmopolitan" is examined from a variety of standpoints and in considerable detail, its opposite, "nationalism," is not. In fact, Brennan's use of the term "nationalism" to represent a sort of uncontaminated "Third" world value, whose rejection automatically puts cosmopolitans (and others) in the enemy's camp, is extremely problematic. Would not it have been more useful to discuss the good and bad uses to which nationalism can be put instead of reifying it as a value that counters cosmopolitanism? Discussing such uses would probably have nudged Brennan toward greater historical specificity. For instance, he could have asked if Rushdie's antipathy to nationalism is due to his cosmopolitanism or because, as a member of a minority community, he is influenced by the ugly, even murderous, role nationalism has played on the Subcontinent in excluding entire communities and minority groups, in arousing communal hatred and dissent. [End Page 655] Consideration of such issues would not necessarily change Brennan's claims on behalf on nationalism but would make them more rigorous, less romantic.