Magical thinking – Salman Rushdie interview
THE friendly receptionist in the London headquarters of Random House is delighted that I’ve come to interview Salman Rushdie. “Oh, how lovely for you to get to meet someone so nice!” she says. “Such a nice man. He has signed his novels for me. I haven’t read them, though. Not quite my thing. I like Chris Ryan, you know, who writes those SAS books?”
Eight floors above, in the Random House boardroom, Rushdie is sipping takeaway coffee, and looking both professorial and profoundly amused. These days he is, as the receptionist implies, a novelist more talked about than read, a situation he is keen to reverse.
It wasn’t always thus. Back in 1981 when he won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children, an instant classic, he was the hot young writer of the day. That all changed in 1989 when, following publication of The Satanic Verses, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for its author’s death.
Overnight, Rushdie stopped being “just” a novelist and became a weird hybrid – a man in hiding who was also a public figure, a visible symbol of freedom of speech who was, himself, invisible.
The fatwa was lifted in 1997, and in more recent years Rushdie’s public image has altered to that of literary playboy. The reductionist view is that he spends his time attending parties with Bono, squiring beautiful young women (his marriage to the actress, model and TV presenter Padma Lakshmi ended last year) and hanging out with Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, the novelists with whom he supposedly forms a neocon triumvirate.
Once reclusive, now apparently a global gadabout with homes in London, New York and his native India, he has transformed in the popular imagination from JD Salinger to Jay Gatsby. It’s also worth mentioning that the receptionist is the only person I’ve heard describe him as nice. He gets called lots of things – arrogant, smug, overindulged – but nice is not among them. And yet, could it be true? In the final analysis, could Sir Salman be nothing more than a good bloke to whom some bad things have happened?
Apart from a few tetchy outbursts, he certainly seems affable during the hour I spend in his company. Meeting him is odd at first because his face is so iconic. Martin Amis’s description of Rushdie as a falcon staring through a venetian blind is unsurpassable, and I would add only that today the falcon is wearing a baggy blue suit and thickly striped shirt. He is sitting with his back to a display of Random House books. Peter Kay grins over his right shoulder; the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya stares solemnly over his left.
We start by talking about his new novel, The Enchantress Of Florence, which is set during the 16th century and in which Rushdie forges a connection between the sexual decadence of Medici-era Florence and the sensual world of India’s Mughal Empire. He has been working on the book for three years, and seems to feel that it proves, after almost a decade of bad reviews, that he remains a world-class novelist. “Sometimes when you finish a book you don’t know quite what you’ve got,” he says. “This time I actually felt happy when I finished it. As far as I can tell, this is not bad. The last time I really felt that way was Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, and before that Midnight’s Children.”
The Enchantress Of Florence is also an important book for Rushdie because writing it helped him recover from his split from Lakshmi, his fourth wife. It was announced last July that they were to divorce, at her instigation, after three years of marriage. For around two months, he was unable to work, but eventually found comfort in flitting imaginatively through the whorehouses and harems of Florence and the Mughal court. In his novels there is a recurring motif of artists literally disappearing into their own work, and he seems to have done something similar here, sinking into his own pages, sighing with pleasure and relief.
“My personal life was going through a terrible time when I was writing the final version of the book,” he recalls, “and it was great to be able to re-immerse myself in this world that I had so painstakingly tried to recreate, and to spend my day there rather than in 2007, which wasn’t much fun. It was nourishing at a time when I was quite unhappy.”
He says that writing The Enchantress Of Florence saved his life, by which he means that it gave him a sense of purpose and worth. “Books have done that to me more than once, actually,” he says. “Haroun And The Sea Of Stories saved my life in a more literal way. I was writing that in the first year after the fatwa, and doing so because I had promised my son I would write a book for him. It pulled me out of a terrible slump and downward spiral. It reminded me why I wanted to be a writer, and what I loved about it, and it got my head straight at a point in my life when it really hadn’t been for a while. I think it’s kind of strange that the two books I’ve written that have a quality of joy – Haroun and this new one – were both written at relatively bleak moments.”
The two novels also share a fairytale quality. Rushdie is a great admirer of fairy stories and fables. “My first memory of Ali Baba, Aladdin, Sinbad and all that was hearing versions that my father told me and my sisters at bedtime when we were kids.” This was enormously important to his later development as a magical realist writer, but what it did at the time was bond him to his father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, a small businessman in Bombay.
“He was a very good storyteller. That’s one of the things I remember about him. My father had a problem with drink and that made him difficult, but he was a very good father of small children – entertaining and amusing and entrancing. He had more difficulties with all of us when we acquired minds of our own. But my memory of being a small child was being completely enchanted by him.”
How did the relationship change? “Well, it got much worse and then it got better again. There was a long time in my thirties when we were on bad terms and not close. When he died I was 40. After his cancer was diagnosed I went back to see him. There wasn’t very long between his diagnosis and his dying, but I remember that final period as being immensely important because we put away a lot of the problems.”
In his 1992 essay on The Wizard Of Oz, Rushdie recalls his father as a Wizardish figure, “prone to explosions, thunderous rages, bolts of emotional lightning, puffs of dragon-smoke”. His anger was whisky-fuelled and he would shout abuse at his wife, Negin. When Anis took his son to England in 1961, to attend the public boarding school Rugby, they first spent a fortnight in London; Rushdie recalls that his father would shake him awake at night and scream abuse at him. In 1968, when Rushdie graduated from Cambridge, he told his father that he would not be returning to Bombay to take over the textile factory, but intended to become a novelist. This was seen as a terrible rejection and soured their relationship further.
“Then on my 40th birthday, which was in June 1987 – and he died in November that year – he wrote me a very long letter,” says Rushdie. “He had obviously thought about it for a long time, and it was a serious response to my work. He had never really spoken to me about my work before, he found it hard to do so, and then I got this long letter, which I still have. It was extraordinary and deeply affecting. So, at the end of his life we became close again.”
Anis Rushdie had been annoyed by Midnight’s Children because he thought the character of Ahmed, an alcoholic, was modelled on him. He certainly helped shape The Satanic Verses, which Rushdie was working on at the time of his death. Much of the controversial material pertaining to the origins of Islam came from conversations he had with his father, a non-believer but keen scholar of that religion. Did he appreciate the influence he had had on his son’s books? “I hope so. I certainly told him. I mean I was his only son, and first born child, and so it was a relationship of great intensity.”
Rushdie was born in Bombay in 1947. His sisters arrived one, five and 14 years later. “I have had many more close women friends than men,” he says, “and I’ve always assumed that comes from the fact that in my family there was such a disproportionate female element.
“I grew up entirely beset by confident, assertive women. One of my aunts married a general in the Pakistan army and became a high society figure. The other was one of the great intellectuals of her generation and through her I met some of the great writers and poets. So my knowledge of women was that they were anything but the cliché of mild, self-effacing Indian women. They were extremely confident, forthright and took no shit.
“I’ve always felt that the women in my books come out of that, and in my life I’ve made easy friendships with lots of women. Maybe that’s also because women have understood that I’m only trying to be their friend, that I’m not always after something. Many men start being friendly with women because they are trying to seduce them. I’m not trying to seduce them. I just like hanging out with them.”
That said, let’s not forget that Rushdie has been married four times. Seduction cannot be a completely foreign art for him. “I have done my share, it’s true,” he laughs. “It’s embarrassing. What can I tell you?”
Four marriages suggest that he is an optimistic and romantic person. “Oh, that is what all my friends say. Romantic idiot is what they might say. I think I do – or have – found it possible to believe in romantic love. I’m a little disenchanted right now, but maybe that will change.”
He switches from the present to the past tense pretty quickly there. “Yeah, well, I’m coming out of the aftermath of a long relationship which I was sorry to lose and which has left me somewhat disillusioned. Also, I’m not a kid any more. I don’t think it’s going to be easy for me to take that risk again. The risk of the heart, I mean.”
The media were, from start to finish, fairly sniffy about the May-to-December nature of his relationship with Lakshmi, who is over 20 years his junior. In the days before this interview it has been reported widely that Rushdie is now seeing Aimee Mullins, the young American athlete and model.
“The papers!” he spits when I ask about this. “It’s just tabloid shit. Only a couple of months ago I was in love with Carrie Fisher apparently. Before that I was having an affair with a Bollywood actress. Aimee is a dear friend of mine, and so is her boyfriend. The Daily Mail sent journalists to doorstep her boyfriend’s mother and offered her money to talk about the fact that Aimee and I were, apparently, going to get married. I constantly find myself having to apologise to women and telling them that this is the downside of being my friend.”
Rushdie resents the way he has become public property, the way everyone feels entitled to say what they like about him. Earlier this year, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke about Rushdie in his lecture on religious hatred and offence, seeming to defend the militant Muslim groups in Britain who protested violently against The Satanic Verses and burned copies of the book.
“I don’t give a damn about his comments,” says Rushdie. “I think he was wrong. People who attempt to placate religion will lead us back into the dark ages. The Western enlightenment was fought against the church. It was a battle against inquisitions, against the ability of bishops to place limiting points on thought. That’s what Voltaire and Rousseau were doing. Western intellectual freedom was gained by a successful battle against the church, so let’s not go back to priests. I have a very low opinion of the archbishop’s views, and indeed many of his views of late. I think what he said about Sharia law was inanity.”
In February, Williams argued that the UK legal system should incorporate elements of Islamic Sharia law. Rushdie says that the effect on women’s rights would be appalling. He gives an example of a woman from a village in India who was raped by her father-in-law; the Sharia courts ruled that she was unclean and that her husband should divorce her.
“That’s the consequence of allowing Sharia law into families, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, if he were just to do five minutes of research, might find that out. But if you spend your life living in a theological bubble it becomes difficult for you to know what’s happening in the real world. There’s information on this subject which, had he just lifted his eyes up from holy text, he might have noticed.”
Rushdie may say that he doesn’t care what the Archbishop says about him, but he seems genuinely angry. In a forthcoming edition of the More4’s Shrink Rap, he tells Dr Pamela Connolly that he is easily wounded by criticism and that this may be the result of feeling “underloved” as a child.
It does seem to me that even now, aged 60 and with two children of his
own, he craves acceptance. This desire to belong, would explain, for instance, why being awarded a knighthood made him so happy, why it meant so much to him that Indian readers took Midnight’s Children to their hearts, and why it hurts so much that The Satanic Verses was banned in that country.
Given this backdrop of insecurity, it’s clear why Rushdie’s self-image as a good writer is so important to him, and why it was such a relief that he was able to complete The Enchantress Of Florence to his satisfaction. It reminded him who he is and what he is worth. So when he says: “It’s the most magical book I’ve written for a very long time,” one senses that he is referring both to its content and to the healing spell it cast over his own bruised and tender psyche. And you know what? It’s nice to hear. v