Salman Rushdie lives and writes on epic scale
Washington ? You know it’s foolish, but you can’t help flinching when the restaurant suddenly turns up the lights in the darkish corner you’ve settled into, shining what feels like a theater spot on the balding, blue-shirted international celebrity with whom you’re trying to have a quiet lunch.
Don’t do that, you mutter to yourself.
Salman Rushdie doesn’t so much as blink.
It’s been seven years since the murderous Iranian fatwa against him was effectively withdrawn – almost as long as the nine years it was in place. When you first meet him, he is standing alone by the Cafe Atlantico bar: no handlers, no security guys. Rushdie’s publisher has assured you that safety is not a concern for him anymore.
Still, the thing that springs immediately to mind when his name comes up is not that the author of “Midnight’s Children” and 13 other books is widely viewed as one of our best living writers. It’s not that his new novel, “Shalimar the Clown,” is out this month. No, it’s that in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on his head. In the literal-minded view of Iran’s radical theocracy, Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” had blasphemously disrespected Islam.
Old news. You’re almost embarrassed to bring the subject up.
So you move on to another topic that seems central to understanding Rushdie and his work: the continuing, essential place of storytelling in the modern world.
Rushdie has produced his share of nonfiction, but his stock in trade is inventing stories on a large scale. So what does he think when this literary form is trashed as archaic, irrelevant, incapable of engaging with the 21st century? Just last month, for instance, V.S. Naipaul – another celebrated English writer of Indian descent – loudly dismissed literary fiction as inferior to reportage.
This, Rushdie says, is really old news. People are forever writing off fiction, but they’re wrong.
“The art of the novel, I think, is to open worlds to you,” he says. “And it seems to me we live in a time when that’s of desperate importance. So why would that be the time when you declared the novel dead?”
At 58, Rushdie has spent a lifetime connecting different worlds, both geographical and cultural.
Mostly, these days, he talks about “Shalimar the Clown,” and how he’s used storytelling to evoke the increasingly borderless universe we now inhabit, in which “everything is leaking into everything else.”
His own border-crossing story began in India, where he was born in 1947 and lived before attending an English boarding school. But English writers had shaped his sensibility even before he’d left India. At an evening reading here, Rushdie will startle an audience of nearly 500 people by citing Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse as his earliest literary influences.
Really? The creators of Miss Marple and Jeeves?
“They’re fantastic storytellers,” he explains, “whatever else they may or may not be.” And “I thought it was very important to try and return narrative to the center of the literary novel.” Because if you “put a big narrative engine in the middle of the book, people will swallow almost anything else. I mean, you can do all kinds of weird stuff around it and people will go along with it, because if you’ve got them by the throat and you’re dragging them through the story, they want to find out what happened next.”
His 1980 novel “Midnight’s Children” is a rich mingling of the personal and political, the fabulous and the historic. It hinges on India’s bloody division into the perpetually feuding nations of India and Pakistan. It won England’s prestigious Booker Prize and in 1993 was awarded the “Booker of Bookers” as the best book to win the prize in its 25-year history.
“Shame” followed, and “The Satanic Verses,” when his books were overshadowed by Iran’s promise to make a millionaire of anyone who’d take his life. This remained true long after the death threat was repudiated in a 1998 agreement between the British and Iranian governments.
Expanding his canvas
“Shalimar the Clown” began with a single, grim image that came to him: a dead man on his daughter’s doorstep, the killer standing over him with a knife. But he “couldn’t get it right,” so he set it aside and wrote another book. “Fury” had the bad luck to come out on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Shalimar” had been conceived as a story narrowly focused on the dead man, the daughter and the killer. After 9-11, he says, he heard his characters speaking to him:
Don’t confine us that way, they said. Tell our full stories.
So he gave them a far bigger canvas, including on it the Nazi occupation of Alsace in World War II, the global projection of American power, the end of the Cold War, the rise of Islamic radicalism and, most centrally, the destruction of a peerlessly beautiful mountain land caught in a politico-religious cross fire.
“The world is now so interpenetrated,” Rushdie says, that “to explain a murder in California you have to understand the history of Kashmir.”