Sam Leith

Salman Rushdie: ‘The implausible has become everyday’

The author on writing in the Age of Anything-Can-Happen

Salman Rushdie: ‘The implausible has become everyday’
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When I say goodbye to Sir Salman Rushdie in his offices at New York University in Lower Manhattan in early March, we bump elbows. Not that it’s much more than a gesture, by this stage: we shook hands unthinkingly on first meeting, and we’d just shaken hands again. It’s a novelty, still halfway to being a joke. As I descend in the lift to Cooper Square, it occurs to me that if I’ve given Rushdie coronavirus I will be halfway to achieving what the mullahs couldn’t. Halfway funny as a hypothetical; halfway not at this distance, writing the piece up three weeks later. As Alan Moore’s nihilistic Rorschach puts it: ‘Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.’

I don’t imagine Rushdie will take offence at this. The active threat to his life from radical Islam is two decades behind him; and his own fiction has a way of dealing in sour, sometimes apocalyptic ironies. His latest, the Booker-shortlisted Quichotte, is set in what it describes as ‘the Age of Anything-Can-Happen’. As we were only beginning to realise, talking above the bright bustle of a sunny spring day in Lower Manhattan, anything was busy happening all over the country in the bloodstreams of the populace.

‘Things that would have seemed utterly improbable now happen on a daily basis,’ he says. ‘The implausible has now become everyday.’ Isn’t this a problem for a writer whose books drink from the fantastical traditions of magic realism and science fiction — where crazy stuff happening is what sets them apart?

‘It is,’ he says. ‘The book before this, The Golden House, was for that reason almost entirely realistic. I thought: it’s strange enough, you don’t need to add to that. Then this one uses all the tricks in the book, I just took the whole bag out.’ Many of his books have leant on existing myths: Orpheus in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Dante and Sufi myth in his debut Grimus; Scheherazade in Midnight’s Children; and the Quranic apocrypha for The Satanic Verses. For Quichotte (pronounced ‘key-shot’), Rushdie busts out the Knight of La Mancha — and, for good measure, Pinocchio.

The result is a postmodern hall of mirrors and what Rushdie’s agent Andrew Wylie told him (I think rightly) was ‘the funniest thing you’ve ever written’. The book’s Don Quixote is an elderly commercial traveller whose mind has been irrevocably dinged by watching too much telly. He sets off on a quest to win the heart of a beautiful TV star he’s never met, accompanied by a somewhat sullen son, Sancho, who starts out as a figment of his imagination and then starts to develop an independent existence. Sancho calls out of his own imagination a Jiminy Cricket character. Meanwhile Quichotte has in his turn been imagined by a Manhattan-based author called Brother, who in turn is being imagined by the narrator, who in turn… turtles all the way down. Not to mention a substantial subplot about the opioid epidemic, and a New Jersey town in which the population is turning into mastodons. It’s a ride.

It also betrays a quite startling knowledge of trash culture. There are a couple of paragraphs of scholarship on the reality show The Bachelor that suggest it’s not just Quichotte who has spent a lot of time watching TV. ‘I did my due diligence,’ says Rushdie. ‘It was something I learnt early on from Charles Dickens; I thought the thing that I admired about reading Dickens is how much of the culture he could write about. He is the absolute opposite of an ivory tower writer. I’ve always thought there is an aspect of the novel at its best which is reportorial. The writer has to go and find things out. I always hope that by the time I’ve finished a book I know something I didn’t know when I started.’

Indeed, what became Quichotte was at first conceived as a piece of reportage. ‘I thought, I need to get out of town, I need to write something which has a broader panorama and isn’t just in the Manhattan bubble.’ Then he reread Don Quixote for the first time since university after being asked to write something for the Shakespeare/Cervantes 400th anniversary. ‘Because I’d been thinking about a road book anyway, it was obvious and so these two things just clicked together.’

Quichotte — which looks on the face of it to be about romantic love — is actually most deeply invested in the father-son relationship between Quichotte and Sancho. ‘I feel that these other kinds of love are relatively not written about in literature,’ he says. ‘There’s endless… there’s this much about romantic love but about parent-child love or sibling love or love inside families or damaged love which often happens inside families, and whether it is possible to repair that love and heal things.’ The tenderness of paternal love (Rushdie has two sons: Zafar, by his first marriage, and Milan, by his third) is a theme that pushes up through Rushdie’s later work.

His relationship with his own father, who terrified the young Salman when drunk, was a tricky but colossally important one. A recurring figure in Rushdie’s thinking and writing — indeed, in his very name — is the 12th-century Islamic polymath Ibn Rushd (called Averroes in the West). ‘My father made up the family name based on his fondness for Ibn Rushd. My grandfather wasn’t called Rushdie. Rushdie is not an ancient surname: my father made it up.’

And naming, in Rushdie, is important. An Elon Musk-style tech billionaire, in Quichotte, goes by the positively Pynchonian ‘Evel Cent’. ‘I think a lot about [the names of characters]. Dickens is the most wonderful namer. And in India when people choose names for children, they think very hard about the meaning of the name. It’s not just that’s a name in my family or a name I like the sound of but what does it mean? What does it tell us this child is going to be?’

Rushdie is a secular writer who is very, very interested in religion (in Quichotte the matryoshka doll of authorship hints at the idea of God as an uber-author). I ask him why that is. ‘I think it’s because the world I grew up in, religion was everywhere. My father wasn’t religious at all and my mother’s extent of religion was that she didn’t want us to eat pork. We didn’t observe anything and my father was absolutely secularist but he was very interested in the philosophy of Islam. The reason I know about people like Ibn Rushd and so on is my father introduced me to them.’ That interest in religion, notoriously, earned him a public death sentence — the ‘fatwa’ from the Iranian Ayatollah — in 1989. The fatwa is the monolith in his career. Does it still affect his life? ‘No,’ he says, showing only slight peevishness. ‘It only affects my life when I talk to journalists. It is 20 years since I required any form of protection. I go everywhere I want.’ Does it annoy him when people like me bring it up? ‘It is frustrating.’

When I spoke to Bret Easton Ellis for this magazine, he had a resigned acceptance: ‘[American Psycho] is going to be on my tombstone. I get it. I get it.’ Rushdie says: ‘For people who haven’t ever picked up a book of mine, I think it’s a deterrent, it makes them think of me as some arcane religious heretic and not interesting to them. I get all these letters saying: “Who knew that you were funny?” I say, well, people who read my books know. It feels like the albatross round the neck. The Satanic Verses was the fourth novel that I published. This is my 19th book and my 14th novel so most of my life as a writer has happened since then, and to be dragged back into the late 1980s is boring.’

Why, then, did he drag himself back by publishing his 2012 memoir of that episode, Joseph Anton? ‘I knew that at some point that story had to be told but I didn’t want somebody else to do it.’ The book is gripping: self-revelatory, but also in places pretty vengeful. He’s scathing about friends and former friends who let him down during the fatwa, has harsh words for the critic James Wood, and portrays his fourth wife Padma Lakshmi as a narcissistic gold digger.

‘I think of the principle of Rousseau: which is that if you are going to do it, tell as much truth as possible, otherwise don’t do it.’ It’s pretty open about your love life. ‘Yes, but I didn’t see it as score-settling. In fact, I showed everybody everything that I was going to say and if they asked me to remove things, I removed them. I wasn’t trying to get anybody. I was just trying to say if you want to know about the life that I led, this is the life that I led at that time.’

In fact the most piercing episode in that book is one in which he reproaches himself, rather than others. He describes being taken on Christmas Eve, 1990, to Paddington Green police station for a meeting with Muslim ‘community leaders’, arranged by Hesham el-Essawy, ‘an oleaginous Harley Street dentist who positioned himself as a moderate’, in the hopes of conciliation. It wasn’t a parley so much as a show-trial, and Rushdie — ‘Essawy’s zombie now’ —submitted to sign a document affirming the shahadah: ‘There is not God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.’

‘The worst day of my life,’ he says now. ‘The worst day of my life. I remember coming out of that meeting and calling my sister and saying, “I don’t know what I’ve done, I’ve done this,” and she said, “Have you lost your fucking mind?”’ Did it seem like a moral test that you had failed? ‘Yes. Yes, it did — and in retrospect, as I said in Joseph Anton, I think that is the moment I felt that I hit bottom. That’s quite useful because then you know where the bottom is. After that, I thought: I am never going to be untrue to myself in that way again, whatever happens.’

In that book Rushdie uses an image from Hitchcock to describe how the fatwa felt at the time: the first blackbird settling on the climbing frame. He was patient zero, in some sense, for the arguments over radical Islam and over free speech which have dominated public life in the three decades that came after The Satanic Verses.

How does he view the current place of free speech in the culture wars? ‘I am kind of a free speech absolutist; my view is I’d rather know what people think than have it suppressed and go under the carpet. My view is that unpleasant ideas don’t dematerialise if you ban them, they acquire sometimes the power of taboo and they actually increase in strength by being secret and covert.’

Rushdie says that in 15 years at NYU, where he teaches creative nonfiction in the journalism school, he has never personally experienced so-called cancel culture — ‘Nobody has ever said this book should have a trigger warning or such and such person should not be allowed to speak on the campus’— but ‘I know it’s around… What I think is sad is that the censorious language which used to come from the right and the old is now coming from the left and the young and it seems upside-down to me.’

He hesitates to blame the internet for this, but he’s troubled by it. As he acknowledges, free speech absolutism can look a bit more like an article of faith than a plan of action in the age of social media and fake news. The internet — with its boundary-crossing potential and its stew of registers and styles — ought to be a dream for a writer of Rushdie’s disposition. ‘I was of that opinion for a long time but I just think something’s gone wrong… I do think the way in which social media has been used to deform democratic practices really is a problem.’

He’s a very insidery outsider, Rushdie; or a very outsidery insider. As he describes in Joseph Anton, he found his voice by writing from the experience of migration. After the failure of his first novel, he wrote:

If he hadn’t become the writer he thought he had it in him to be, it was because he didn’t know who he was. And slowly, from his ignominious place at the bottom of the literary barrel, he began to understand who that person might be. He was a migrant. He was one of those who had ended up in a place that was not the place where he began. Migration tore up all the traditional roots of the self.

As a homesick boy boarding at Rugby school who ‘made all three mistakes… foreign, clever, non-sportif’, he more than once found an essay he had written torn to pieces and scattered in his room. The words ‘wogs go home’ were scrawled on his wall. His college room was anonymously redecorated with a slick of gravy and onions. Those experiences come out barely transmogrified in Rushdie’s fiction.

At the same time Rushdie is one of the most sociable and best connected and most successful of novelists. He’s a knight of the realm. He’s appeared on stage with U2. Midnight’s Children not only won the 1982 Booker Prize, but was voted the best winner in the prize’s history both in 1993 and 2008. (‘I think the thing about prizes,’ he says, ‘is they are very nice when you win and they don’t matter when you don’t.’) The first time I met him was at a glitzy party in New York in the early noughties. Tina Brown reintroduced us and — we having chatted a bit before — he said: ‘We’ve already schmoozed.’

But he’s still a writer of transitions and changes, fresh starts and reinventions. He has left styles, marriages and cities. When I ask him if America feels like home, he says: ‘I ask myself this question. New York feels like home, because I’ve lived here 20 years… But whether America feels like home is a question I can’t answer really. I think America is a battle right now.’ He thinks he isn’t ‘quite seen as an American writer’, perhaps not even by himself.

And he has negotiated, in nearly four decades of writing, that territory where — as he’s put it — the Muslim moral universe of ‘honour and shame’ clashes with the Christian one of ‘sin and redemption’. Are those two ways of looking at the world incompatible? ‘If I had to describe myself in one sentence, I would say a Muslim and a big city writer of at least three metropolises — Bombay, London and New York. What happens in these big cities is that all these things mostly are compatible. Mostly people live side by side pretty well. Every so often they don’t, but mostly people do.’

The paperback of Quichotte is published by Vintage on 23 July.