||Better Times: Salman Rushdie Interviewed by George Fetherling
by George Fetherling
The last time I interviewed Salman Rushdie was by telephone on the eve of a Vancouver engagement. At six the next morning I went to a coffee bar to see how the piece looked in print. But I couldn't concentrate on the newspaper because of all the hubbub in the restaurant. It was September 11, 2001. As soon as people told me what had happened in the U.S., I knew that Rushdie, who had just finished an appearance in Texas, wouldn't be crossing the border that day. What a pleasure therefore to see him now looking relaxed on the top floor of the Hotel Vancouver. Clean-shaven, balder than before, soft-soled shoes, commodious jeans, an expensive space-age-looking digital watch, a metallic blue shirt.
In that earlier conversation he told me he was at work on a new novel "which will take the whole of next year but if it takes the next two years, that would be fine by me also." In actual fact, Shalimar the Clown took four years. "The strange history of this book," he says, "is that I had the idea about 1998 and actually started writing it before I wrote Fury" (the novel he would have been reading from in Vancouver if the attacks on New York and Washington had not intervened). "I'd spent more than six months on it, but I didn't like what I was writing: it felt inert." So he moved on to other work. "It's the way of these things that you often think that a book you've set aside is one you're never going to go back to. But oddly, when I did return to it, it showed itself to me in a completely different way. I actually jettisoned quite a lot of the original idea of how to do it, and reconceived it on a much larger scale with a much bigger compass. And it just came to life."
Few seem willing to disagree. The novel is nothing if not vibrant in its language, which nonetheless never stands apart from the slowly revealed lives of the three principal characters. Shalimar, who is married to Boonyi, once performed tightrope tricks in his native Kashmir, but becomes chauffeur to Max Ophuls, the flamboyant former U.S. ambassador to India, whom he murders, gruesomely. The killing is partly in revenge for Ophuls's affair with Boonyi, who is also the mother of the ambassador's grown daughter.
Kashmir, the home state of three of Rushdie's grandparents, though he himself was born in Mumbai, is depicted as a once paradisiacal place that is being dismembered by Indian troops on the one hand and Islamist militants on the other. Trained by the latter, Shalimar becomes a kind of terrorist-out of pride and shame, like most terrorists perhaps, but also out of love. The diction of the story sometimes approaches that of a fable: "It was the first day of something. It was the last day of something else." Or this: "Everywhere was a mirror of everywhere else. Executions, police brutality, explosions, riots . . ."
To one degree or another, all of Rushdie's novels (this is the eighth) are given extra oomph by injections of the fabulous that lets them transcend mere realism. How does he keep this element from going over the top? He laughs. "By being very worried about that problem," he says. "Because the thing that I don't like at all is whimsicality-when surreal, non-naturalistic elements are introduced for what just seems like any odd reason. Then I find that they're lacking in wit, not to mention tedious and very irritating. What I thought from the beginning, ever since Midnight's Children [his least realistic novel], is that if you're going to use such images and such techniques, you have to make sure they're really grounded in the truth of the situation. You know, something to do with the truth about the characters, something to do with the truth about the world. They have to grow out of that, and then they can become an encapsulating image of that truth, or an intensification of it."
Rushdie cites the example of Shalimar's father telling his son that to walk a tightrope you must imagine that the air is just an extension of the rope and follow through accordingly. "So he has this idea, this childish or at least adolescent idea, and one day he says to his future wife that eventually he'll be able to walk through the air with no rope at all. Although she knows he's talking rubbish she's attracted by the daring of it. And then, much later in the book, when he's on death row, he has to call back that youthful memory in order to try to escape from jail. So there is a kind of magic-realist move there, but the reason it worked, I think, is that it had been so thoroughly prefigured in his psychology and his background." Still, Rushdie points out, Shalimar the Clown is less inclined in this direction than many or most of his other books. "There's more straightforward realism in this one," he says.
Everyone remembers how in 1988 the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, enraged by what he considered anti-Muslim heresies in the novel The Satanic Verses, put out a million-dollar contract on Rushdie's life. Until the cleric's death nine years later, Rushdie's existence was subsumed in a network of security precautions so scary that they became almost unearthly. One of the most gifted novelists of his generation became, so to speak, a character in a really bad thriller.
During the crisis, Rushdie was adopted as a pet by the literary left as a symbol of the fight against censorship and general oppression. But since 9/11 and the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he has been taken up the by the political right on the grounds of your-enemy-is-our enemy. How does a writer, someone whose whole life resides in simply tying to write well, negotiate a path between these two forces? "My answer," Rushdie replies, "is that I've always been a very bad joiner. I mean, I've always voted one particular way, but I've never joined a political party.
"I remember that when I started out as a writer, there were various kinds of Friday lunch groups with this or that bunch of writers. I didn't want to go because my instinct was not to be part of a gang. That's always been my way. I don't feel that I belong in any camp. I've long believed passionately that the real value of the work of a writer or any kind of intellectual (to use the dirty word) is that nobody owns you. The moment people believe somebody owns you, your work can be dismissed. People think, 'Oh he's just pushing such and such a line' and immediately forget what you're saying. You must make sure that doesn't happen, and force people to look at the work in its own terms." A small but significant fact: Rushdie was a founding member of the Groucho Club, London's preeminent literary luncheon spot, but he never goes there. (The real Groucho would have approved.)
It's freakishly odd, he says, that "the American right has given me a kind of get-out-of-jail card, because you know, I 'fought Islamic terrorism.'" Odd because "they're quite smart people, many of them, and must be aware that most of my social and political attitudes are not close to theirs." He describes himself as skeptical of both the left and right but in different ways and to different degrees. Yet he can't deny playing the get-out-of-jail card strategically: "People now are fond of saying that the fatwa was a kind of precursor to the greater event that followed. Because of that they let me off lightly. As a result, I am sometimes allowed into rooms with people who really don't think the way I think, and I can speak quite openly to them and they'll give me a hearing. It's quite strange." He avoids both sides while adamantly refusing to get caught in the middle. "That's how I navigate these treacherous waters."
Shalimar the Clown certainly bears this out. "The book quite deliberately doesn't take sides. That's to say, it doesn't tell you who the good guys are or who the bad guys are."A book that did so, he says, would be "beyond tedious to write, and I suspect pretty tedious to read, for it tells you nothing really. It just panders to whatever previously existing ideas you might have had. Much more interesting, I thought, to write out of fondness for these characters, all of whom are flawed, many of whom do terrible things. This allows you to be inside, not just their lives, but inside their points of view. As far as making judgments is concerned, that's for the reader to do. I don't want the writer to wag his finger and to say this is what you should think of these people. Therefore, I went to some trouble to construct the manner of the book in such a way that the readers should have to constantly re-examine their attitudes towards the characters."
I ask Rushdie what he believes the writer's place in the equation is. "Many actors say that when they play a role they feel like the advocate of the character, presenting the character as though one were a lawyer. That's in a way how I felt writing about whichever of these people I was dealing with at any given time."
When he was 13, Rushdie's secular Muslim family sent him to Rugby, one of England's most famous public schools, from where he proceeded to Cambridge. He was quite a well-known English writer long before he became a famous international one, and only in recent years has he been spending most of his time in the U.S. ("All of my books are in New York now. There was a moment when I shipped 6,000 books across the Atlantic. When you do that, you know where you'll be living.") Yet he still has many ties to Britain-children from some of his four marriages not the least of them-and I wonder whether he's not moving slowly, inevitably, towards writing a decidedly English novel, possibly even one with minor characters named Nigel and Philippa. "Well, I certainly want to write about London-again. The one time I did do it was in The Satanic Verses, and as you know the discourse about that book got usurped by a different conversation." This is a splendid example of the euphemistic way he talks about-or avoids talking about-his brush with assassination.
Each decade our sick celebrity culture seems to come up with new ways of becoming famous. Paris Hilton having her sex tape on the internet is an example. Rushdie being condemned to death by one of the world's major religions is another. The difference is that in Rushdie's case the publicity was involuntary. Apart from the fear, how did he react to the fact that his great burst of fame was so utterly out of his control? "Quite simply, I hated it," he says. "Every writer wants his or her books to be well known, every writer wants to be successful. And it was such a dark kind of thing. It wasn't about being me, the person called me at the centre of it. It seemed to have so little to do with me as to be really quite disturbing. I was very unhappy about being so loudly described in certain ways, and still am, because I think that the legacy was that people who didn't know my writing were put off. In some weird way, the characteristics of the attack against me were transposed onto me. Because the fatwa was unfunny, therefore I must be unfunny. Because it was weird, arcane, incomprehensible and theological, so too must I be. And because it felt alien, I also must be hard to understand. So, oddly, I think it put people off having a go and trying my books, because they thought they would be like the novels of the Ayatollah Khomeini. It's taken a lot of fighting back from that, and I don't know that I'll ever be finished."
He pauses a moment, looking round the hotel room from under his cobra-lidded eyes. "The fight picked me, I didn't pick it. But at least it was the right fight, in the sense that on one side are all the things I care about and on the other side all the things I hate. It's very difficult to say that nine years of my life were not worth it. Maybe it's just human nature to make it seem like it was a worthwhile experience. But it kind of was. I mean, here we are now, in this happier period, sitting in this hotel without armed men outside the door. The experience taught me a lot not just about fanaticism, not just about power, but also about friendship: the friendship of those who rallied around me. There was a sense in which it was enriching. I'm glad it's over. Enough enrichment. But you ask me if it was worth it. Yes, it was worth it."