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Reviewed by:
W. J. Weatherby. Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death. New York: Carroll, 1990. 258 pp. $19.95.

Some of us who have been working for a while on Rushdie have learned to hate books like this. We know they sell well and are written by people who know how to pull a chain. And yet, in Weatherby's case, the signs of its superficiality are everywhere: from its predictable Orientalist invocation of E. M. Forster at the beginning (the author who "presented" India to "us") to its description of the Indian peasantry at one point as "grotesques."

He does not even get simple things right about Rushdie's most famous novel, saying at one point that Midnight's Children concludes with the optimistic suggestion that a "new, more pragmatic generation" would take over in India following the collapse of Saleem's. Wow! This could not be more wrong. In fact, one of the big jokes of the novel is that Saleem's generation has been sterilized, producing only a single deformed offspring (a bastard to boot). This happens only pages before Saleem himself is crushed into "voiceless dust" by the multitudes. Optimistic. On the matter of careful editing, my favorite example is the anti-Asian slur that Weatherby cites on page 52: "Wags [sic] go home," or his calling Bombay-born Farrukh Dhondy a writer from Bangladesh.

In these sorts of blunders, Weatherby does not even have the distinction of being alone. For something quick and neat on the Rushdie affair, Mause Ruthven too has answered the call, and has been joined by foreign policy windbag, Daniel Pipes, and journalist Christopher Hitchens. They have all in a series of op-ed pieces, book reviews, and "overnight" studies used their connections in the publishing world for posturing and occasionally useful gossip about an author who only weeks before the scandal was nothing more to them than a good read.

It is true that there are facts here from time to time that amount to real news. Weatherby has, in spite of the book, provided information in a few places that cannot be easily found elsewhere—particularly the passing comments on Rushdie's early manuscripts, Madame Rama and The Book of the Fir. But even these saving moments are interspersed with unattributed quotations from Rushdie's articles (a practice that at times borders on plagiarism, and at others, creates the false impression that Weatherby had assembled the material from personal correspondence). At any rate, very little here cannot be found in Rushdie's best two or three published interviews before 1986. As for Weatherby's authorities, more than a quarter of the book is simply a bombardment of quotations gathered quickly from the New York and London Who's Who of the writing world.

And this world is really what warps Weatherby's writing and makes nonsense of the book's literary and biographical claims. It is a New York and London freelance journalists' world of dropped names and career moves. Almost one half of this biography is taken up with insider scoops on the travails of Rushdie's agent, Rushdie's painful separation from his first editor, and the tough decisions of Viking-Penguin over the paperback editon of The Satanic Verses!

Finally, we should not ignore the assumption of this study—that writers are not condemned in Western "democracies." We never hear of the likes of Taher Shriteh, a New York Times journalist, tortured in Israeli jails for the crime of interviewing Palestinians, or Alan Berg, the talk-show host killed (with impunity) by right-wingers in Denver for being Jewish and a leftist. Rushdie, long a defender of the Nicaragua of Sandinismo, now shares with them a common persecution: [End Page 333] Nicaragua's new U.S.-style "democracy" today burns Sandinista books at rallies in the public squares of Leon (this really is happening). Weatherby has no eye for such things. No sense of Rushdian irony. Although this is not the book's only fault, it may be its worst.

Tim Brennan
SUNY, Stony Brook


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