Matthew Dancona

‘We have been wimpish about defending our ideas’

Salman Rushdie tells Matthew d’Ancona that the idea at the heart of his new novel set in 16th-century Florence and India is that universal values exist and require robust champions

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Salman Rushdie tells Matthew d’Ancona that the idea at the heart of his new novel set in 16th-century Florence and India is that universal values exist and require robust champions

The last time I interviewed Salman Rushdie was, as he remarks, a lifetime ago. That was in February 1993, in a safe house in north London guarded by Special Branch officers, only four years after Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death for the alleged blasphemy of The Satanic Verses. On that occasion, quite understandably, the novelist seemed shrunken: not only spiritually subdued, but physically compressed by the ordeal of the fatwa.

Fifteen years on, we meet in very different circumstances to discuss his new novel: The Enchantress of Florence, a lushly magnificent exploration of East and West in the 16th century. No longer creeping in the shadow of theocratic murder, Rushdie — or, more properly these days, Sir Salman — is animated and puckish. In a magic realist touch, it is as though the 60-year-old novelist is actually younger than he was in 1993. At any rate, his countenance and the spark in his eye today prove that you can come back from the dead.

Not that this particular novel, his tenth, was straightforward to accomplish. The idea has been brewing since 1999. And its delicacy of touch and playfulness (how can one not like a book that includes ‘the rarely used Breat Uzbeg Anti-Shiite Potato and Sturgeon Curse’?) conceal the terrible spectre of writer’s block.

‘It was a pretty horrible year for me in many ways, last year, with my marriage [his fourth, to Padma Lakshmi] breaking up,’ he says. ‘There was certainly a moment, early last year, when there was just so much noise in my head that I really feared that I was losing the book and just losing grip of it. I became, for the first time that I can remember, really scared that I would not be able to write it. By some extra gear of concentration and will, I managed to find it. I worked in a more concentrated, more focused way, as a way of shutting out this destructive stuff that was around me.’

Rushdie says he feels as he did after Midnight’s Children, which was published in 1981 and went on to win the Booker of Bookers. ‘I did feel there was an awful lot riding on that book, and fortunately people thought it was OK. I felt the same thing with this. When I finished it I thought: by any standard that I know, this is a good book, and if people don’t agree with me, I will be really devastated. Because it would show that there is either something wrong with the world, or something wrong with me.’

Not surprisingly, many have seen a thinly veiled simulacrum of Rushdie’s ex-wife in the novel’s hypnotic central figure, Qara Köz, a great beauty who transfixes men wherever she travels, and who is both revered as an enchantress and reviled as a witch. But the book does not really have the texture of a roman à clef. Its delight lies in a mixture of fairy tale, deep historical research, and an engagement with timeless philosophical questions.

The story hinges on the arrival at the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great (1542–1605), of a mysterious Westerner calling himself Mogor dell’Amore (‘the Mughal of Love’) and claiming to be the Emperor’s uncle. He also has a tale to tell, about three Florentine friends: Niccolo Machiavelli, Agostino Vespucci (the man who identified Lisa Gherardini as the model for the ‘Mona Lisa’, and cousin of the famed explorer Amerigo) and Antonino Argalia, who goes on to command the armies of the Ottoman Sultan. All manner of vivid characters stalk these pages, including Savonarola, a prototypical version of the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan, and even Dracula.

‘The interesting thing about history sometimes,’ says the author, ‘is that you know these people existed, and you knew what jobs they did but you don’t know much about them as people so you actually have to make them up. So the character of Ago Vespucci in the novel — I just made him up. But he was a pal and drinking buddy of Machiavelli’s and there is one rather sweet letter which exists, which he wrote to Machiavelli when Machiavelli was away on Florentine business, where he says ‘please come back soon because when you’re not here there is nobody to arrange the fun!’ He seems to have been the life and soul — the guy who decided which drinking hall, which whorehouse, which gambling den. So the idea of Machiavelli as a bon vivant is rather wonderful, and apparently true.’

Among other things, the novel is an implicit dialogue over the decades and across thousands of miles between Machiavelli, brooding over the nature of power and morality, and the troubled Akbar, pondering the same mysteries from his majestic palace. The action shifts across time and space, from Florence to Fatehpur Sikri, and back again. There is also much traffic across what Rushdie calls ‘the frontier of the real’, the Checkpoint Charlie of the imagination. Akbar has the power to dream into reality, notably his favourite wife, Jodha. Travelling the other way, the artist Dashwanth becomes so entranced by Qara Köz, ‘Lady Black Eyes’, that he chooses to disappear into his own paintings of her. ‘A dreamer could become his dream,’ observes the Mughal Emperor.

Rushdie agrees with Akbar: ‘Of course, the novel enormously heightens and increases that porosity — but actually the border between the world of dreams and the waking world is porous. We all dream things into being, you imagine yourself having a child and then you have a child. An inventor will think of something in his mind and then make it actual. So things are often passing from the imagined realm into the real world. It is much harder to do it the other way round!’

The staple Rushdie theme of multiple identities is here, too. The Emperor reflects that we are ‘bags of selves, bursting with plurality’. Yet the deeper preoccupation in the book is the emergence of humanism and of the self as distinct from the group, not only in Renaissance Florence, but in Akbar’s musings. ‘Were there such naked, solitary “I’s” buried beneath the overcrowded “we’s” of the earth?’ the Emperor asks himself.

‘The reason it’s there,’ explains Rushdie, ‘is because we know about the Renaissance as the moment of the birth of Western Humanism — but it was interesting to me, reading about Akbar, to see in his reflections the beginnings also of a kind of humanistic self-awareness. Not that he ever thought quite like this, but I wanted to show that these ideas — the sovereign individual self, the plurality of the self — are not exclusively Western ideas. How interesting it is that two apparently separate cultures should, within half a century of each other, have been coming up with the same notions without conferring.’

Though he shies away from ‘author’s messages’, he agrees that this humanistic thread in the novel is full of contemporary resonance in an age of murderous fundamentalism on the one hand and fearful relativism on the other.

‘The part of this book that deals with ideas — I suppose there is an unsaid subtext here, which is that there are such things as universals. There are ideas which grew up in the West, and in a slightly different form they grew up as well in the East — the idea of freedom, of open discourse, of tolerance, of sexual freedom even to the level of hedonism, these are things which human beings have come up with as important ideas everywhere that there have been human beings. So to say that that we must now consider them to be culturally specific... is a denial of human nature. If there is an author’s message in this book, it was actually the discovery that I made that the worlds of the b ook were more like each other, than unlike.’

The corollary of this recognition, he thinks, should be a much more robust defence of the core values that offer the only chance of global co-existence — notably freedom of expression.

‘We have to get thicker-skinned. If we end up going on being this thin-skinned, we’re going to kill each other. So we need to have the ability to hear unpalatable stuff. What would a “respectful” cartoon look like? The form itself requires disrespect — so you either have the form, or you don’t… I think we’re being extremely wimpish at the level of ideas. People must be protected from prejudice against their person. But people cannot be protected from prejudice against their ideas — because otherwise we’re all done.’

And who, exactly, is being ‘wimpish’? Well, for one, ‘the idiotic Archbishop [of Canterbury] who says there can’t be one law for everyone. That slide into cultural relativism is very, very dangerous. This is supposed to be a really intelligent man. Yet that was a schoolboy mistake. How could anybody who knew the history of this country seriously offer the thought that there should not be one law for everyone, that people would not be equal before the law? It seems to me that the basic principles on which any free society is based are freedom of expression and rule of law — that’s it. If you have those, then you have the foundations of a free society and if you don’t have those, you don’t. So to say “we will voluntarily give up one of those pillars” and not to see that it brings the whole house tumbling down is stupid.’

When I interviewed him in 1993, Rushdie warned presciently of the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. A fortnight after the article appeared, the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time. The novelist’s own situation has, of course, radically improved. But the skies in 2008 are darker.

‘I’m less optimistic, actually. Firstly I think the level of hostility and distrust in the world is much greater than it used to be, mutually. Whether it is Arab newspapers saying that Americans knocked down the Trade Center themselves in order to make possible an attack on the Arabs, or whether it is the reflex bigotry that can happen in the West, I think we are further from each other than we have been for a long time — and we are badly led, we have been very badly led for a very long time. I was talking to my older son last year, and he said he didn’t see this age of violent terrorism ending in his lifetime. I thought, “What a sad idea that is.” I hope he’s wrong — because if not we’ve really screwed up the world for our children.’

The Rushdie Affair was the terrible warning that most of the world ignored: some, outrageously, blamed the author himself for his predicament, not grasping the scale, depth and ferocity of what he was up against. He was the canary down the mine into which the whole world tumbled on September 11.

His geopolitical pessimism is perfectly understandable. But his own story, if it has a moral, points in a different direction: towards recovery, hope and indomitable creativity. His books, no less than his personal resilience, are his triumph over despair and intolerance, and this is one of his very best.

‘We tell ourselves into being, don’t we?’ he says. ‘I think that is one of the great reasons for stories. I mean, we are the storytelling animal, there is no other creature on earth that tells itself stories in order to understand who it is. This is what we do, we’ve always done it, whether they are religious stories or personal stories, or tall stories, or lies, or useful stories, we live by telling each other and telling ourselves the stories of ourselves.’ Which is why, in spite of all that he has been through, and all that he fears is to come, there is a smile on his face.