Salman Rushdie

When life becomes a bad novel

Published January 27, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

If Salman Rushdie seems, seven years after the fatwa, to be emerging from his underground exile, it is a cautious coming out. On his recent U.S. book tour to promote "The Moor's Last Sigh," his first novel since the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death in 1989 for allegedly defaming Islam in "The Satanic Verses," he has appeared on the "Phil Donahue Show" and on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." He has given semi-public readings and attended private parties in his honor all over the country. But he still travels with bodyguards and no one, even the journalists who are scheduled to interview him, knows where he will be in advance.

While he was in San Francisco, the U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass threw a literary party attended by nearly every famous writer in town, from Alice Adams and Czeslaw Milosz to Richard North Patterson and Bharati Mukherjee, as well as celebrities such as former California governor Jerry Brown, singer Linda Ronstadt and actor Robin Williams. But the guests were informed of the party's location only on the day of the event. Likewise, the SALON interviewer and photographer were told to meet Rushdie's Pantheon publicist at a cafe a couple of blocks from the bed-and-breakfast where he was staying, and were screened by a phalanx of serious-looking bodyguards before they were allowed to enter his room.

Though he is an affable interview subject and a famously brilliant conversationalist, the 48-year-old Rushdie is tired of talking about the fatwa. And he is impatient with suggestions that his new novel, a wonderfully playful family epic told by a descendant of the explorer Vasco da Gama who was born with a strange condition that makes him age twice as fast as everyone else, is a metaphor for his situation. "The Moor's Last Sigh" is his best novel yet, the wordplay brilliant, the ideas rich and provocative, the story a page-turner. Rushdie is relieved and delighted to be writing novels and to be socially active again, however circumscribed his participation must necessarily continue to be.

How did you become so interested in language, so facile with words?

I think it had to do with the fact that, when I was growing up, everyone around me was fond of fooling around with words. It was certainly common in my family, but I think it is typical of Bombay, and maybe of India, that there is a sense of play in the way people use language. Most people in India are multilingual, and if you listen to the urban speech patterns there you'll find it's quite characteristic that a sentence will begin in one language, go through a second language and end in a third. It's the very playful, very natural result of juggling languages. You are always reaching for the most appropriate phrase.

When I was writing "Midnight's Children," I was really trying to say that the way in which English is used in India has diverged significantly from standard English. That India has made its own English the way America and Ireland and the Caribbean and Australia made their own English. But even though this is the way everybody speaks in India, nobody had the confidence, when I started writing, to use it as a literary language. When they settled down to write, they would do it in a kind of classical Forsterian English that had nothing to do with the way they were speaking.

Are the ways you play with verbs in "The Moor's Last Sigh" -- "One day you will killofy my heart,'' "I'll just bide-o my time'' -- typical of this emerging Indian English?

Oh that's just made up. I seem to remember that one of my sisters would occasionally use that kind of construction. What I wanted was not to reproduce Indian speech absolutely, but to create a family and its verbal habit. Every family has its own words for things, its own phrases. I wanted to create a family verbal tic.

It's interesting to me how much of what it is to be a family is governed by language use. There is that verbal habit, or family vocabulary, but there is also the habit of storytelling; every family has stories about itself. You could argue, in fact, that the collection of stories a family has about itself is actually the definition of the family. When someone joins a family -- a child is born, somebody marries into it -- they are gradually told all the secret family stories. And when you finally know all the stories, you belong to the family.

I know you're sick of being asked about the fatwa, but I wonder how you tell yourself that story.

I think it's a bad Salman Rushdie novel. And, believe me, it's a very dreadful thing to be stuck in a bad novel. I keep a journal about it and I have my conversation about what's happening in that form with myself, sometimes just jotting things down, sometimes sifting things through on paper. And one of these days I will use that journal as the basis of a book, but one thing I have always been absolutely sure of is that it will not be a work of fiction.

Why not?

Because I think the important thing about this whole case is that it's true. It would not be interesting as fiction. The terribly frustrating thing is that I've had to keep a lot of secrets and I am not naturally a secretive person. It's very peculiar not to be able to answer obvious questions. You ask me where I am going to be tomorrow, and I can't tell you. So it will be a total release to be able to tell that story.

When do you think you might be able to tell it?

Through this whole thing I have operated entirely on instinct. There is no certainty. Nobody is telling me, "Now it's all right to do a public reading,'' "Now it's all right to have a book tour." There is no secret message from Iran saying, "Hey, it's okay to go to the New York Public Library, it's okay to go to San Francisco." These decisions are just based on educated guesses.

Do you think you are feeling safer because you simply can't sustain fear forever?

Maybe it's that, maybe it's just a bloody-minded determination to get on with things, you know, and the hell with it. And maybe some of it is a sense of a genuine shift in the wind, a change in the atmosphere. All of that adds up to what I'm referring to as instinct. In the end I just think it's all right to do this now. Usually I reach that point rather earlier than my security forces.

How did it affect your writing to be afraid?

It never felt like fear, it felt more like disorientation and bewilderment and confusion, and of course these are very bad emotions out of which to write. So it derailed my life for a while, and I had to climb back onto the rails, I suppose. As you know, there were a series of smaller projects, short stories, a children's book, essays, things I'm very happy about. I like the way people responded to them, but they are the equivalent of chamber music, they are not the full orchestra.

How do you feel about your new novel?

Well, this is the full orchestra. I guess I do feel it's my best so far, but that doesn't mean much. I think one always likes the most recent thing.

How long did it take you to write "The Moor's Last Sigh?"

It took me about five years, on and off -- an interrupted five years because I have had all of this political campaigning to do. Five years is not so unusual for me. "Midnight's Children" took five years. "The Satanic Verses" took five years.

Did you have a clear plan when you started it?

It is unusual, this book, in that it represents the first time I have managed to end a book exactly where I thought I would end it. This time I was absolutely certain of the final note, which was very freeing because it meant I could fool around as much as I wanted and compose this great arc of a novel as long as I never lost sight of the fact that I had to go there. And I had certain things I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about the spice trade. And I wanted to write out of Cochin (in India) because I went there in the early 1980s and was very affected by it.

Affected in what way?

That it was a very pretty place, but also that it was the point of first contact. In science fiction people talk about first contacts between the human race and other races, and Cochin was the site of the first contact between India and the West, a kind of science fiction moment if you like, a meeting of two species. So the meeting and mingling of these two cultures was, you could say, my subject. And I thought I should begin at the beginning, start with the first contact in Cochin, of the activities of Vasco da Gama and his death there and burial and subsequent Eva Peron-like, post-death migration to Portugal. And it was my thought that I would start with Vasco and give him this furious dynasty. And so, really, the book grew from that germ, this image I had.

I was really attracted to the idea that when Europe first came to India it didn't come for conquest, though subsequently there was, of course, conquest. It came looking for pepper. To think that this whole incredible history grows out of a grain of pepper, there is more than half a novel in that.

Your British compatriot Kazuo Ishiguro talks about universalism, about an international literature. Like the placeless city in his newest novel, "The Unconsoled." Which is of course so different from what you do.

Writers find their own ways to whatever they want to do, and if it's right for him, it's fine, but it's not right for me.

Do you ever worry that using so many culturally specific references will leave many readers unable to understand what you're trying to say?

No. I use them as flavoring. I mean, I can read books from America and I don't always get the slang. American writers always assume that the whole world speaks American, but actually the whole world does not speak American. And American Jewish writers put lots of Yiddish in their books and sometimes I don't know what they're saying. I've read books by writers like Philip Roth with people getting hit in the kishkes and I think, "What?!''

It's fun to read things when you don't know all the words. Even children love it. One of the things any great children's writer will tell you is that children like it if in books designed for their age group there is a vocabulary just slightly bigger than theirs. So they come up against weird words, and the weird words excite them. If you describe a small girl in a story as "loquacious," it works so much better than "talkative." And then some little girl will read the book and her sister will be shooting her mouth off and she will say to her sister, "Don't be so loquacious." It is a whole new weapon in her arsenal.

What are you reading now?

I've been reading a book by a friend of mine, the novelist Graham Swift ("Waterland"). He has a new novel coming out called "Lost Orders" -- it's just come out in England and will be out here in a couple of months. It's a beautiful little book, about a man who dies and his four best friends take his ashes to sprinkle into the ocean. It's just about this outing, these four drinking partners out for a day in this borrowed or rented car. That's all that happens, but it's very touching and funny and tells you a lot about what these people have been to each other, and it also tells you something about the ritual of death, this last rite of passage. The way in which these people are ordinary folk who in a strange way rise to the occasion, and it becomes a real ceremony and they become conscious of the importance of what they're doing.

Do you think we are improved by the consciousness of death?

Nothing really improves us. Whatever improves one person will disimprove another. Some people are paralyzed by the consciousness of death, other people live with it.

How has it affected you?

The fatwa certainly made me think about it a lot more than I ever had. I guess I know I'm going to die, but then, so are you. And one of the things that I thought a lot about at the time of the fatwa and ever since is that quite a few of the people I really care about died during this period, all about the same age as I am, and they were not under a death sentence. They just died, of lung cancer, AIDS, whatever. It occurred to me that you don't need a fatwa, it can happen anytime. And that's one of the reasons why I think there is such a sense of urgency in this novel. It's all about a guy whose life is speeded up, that we may not have as much time as we think.

It's such a cartoonish idea and it could have been irritating. But you somehow made it work.

It was a gamble, as it always is. The important thing when you use a trick like that is not to use it because it's a trick, but to use it to say something which has a human truth in it. And if you can use it for that and keep your concentration on that fact, it will usually work, I think.

A technique in your arsenal, but a means to an end.

Yes, yes. Quite often surrealism or whatever one would call it is used just as a piece of acrobatics, and then that's all it is. And you think, "Oh shut the fuck up and tell me a story." But the reason I do it is not fancy footwork. It's because it seems to me to be a way of saying something that I hope is truthful. I just thought that there is something in the air at the moment, that people think everything is speeding up, the pace of life, the rate of change, everything just seems to be going zooooom! And I thought that if there is this widespread sense of the acceleration of things, one way of crystallizing it was to make it happen to someone in a very literal way.

It's interesting that so many reviewers assume it's a metaphor for your personal situation.

Well, (the reaction) to books settles down. I've often thought that a book doesn't get published on publication day, that it usually takes about five years.

Do you think "The Satanic Verses" is better understood today than it was when it was published?

Yes. You have to wait for the hype to go away, whether it's positive or negative. It's a sort of dreadful paradox, because you need all that noise when you're publishing a book to bring people to it in the first place. Then the noise gets in the way.

Is it because people finally read it themselves?

Well, certainly people don't read a book when they buy it. I think that's a mistake writers often make; we think, "everybody's bought my book so everybody's read my book." And, instead, what you hear endlessly is, "Sure I bought your book but I'm saving it up for a holiday, I bought your book but I'm so busy right now I'm not reading anything." It takes a long time, people find their moment.

Fiction is not taken very seriously in our culture and yours has been taken so much more seriously than most. Having been sentenced to death for the content of a novel, how seriously do you think fiction should be taken?

Very. I think there is nothing wrong with the idea that fiction is a matter of life and death. Look at the history of literature. Look at what happened in the Soviet Union. Look at what's happening in China, in Africa, and across the Muslim World. It's not just me. Fiction has always been treated this way. It does matter and it's often very bad for writers that it does. But that just comes with the territory.

By Salon Staff

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