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Keeping Up with Salman Rushdie

Salman: “I agree with you entirely. I also think the instance you quote is rather rare in García Márquez. Most of the time, the thing I think successful about García Márquez is that he does create a magical world in which the level of verisimilitude is quite high. You do believe that that village, those people might think like that, might experience the world like that.

One of the reasons why I’ve always resisted comparisons to García Márquez is that it seems to me that the essence of his vision of the world is that of a village boy. That is to say that given the choice between the village description of the world and the urban description of the world, García Márquez privileges the village view. So that in One Hundred Years of Solitude when a girl who is too good for this world ascends into heaven, everybody thinks of that as being acceptable. When the railway train comes to town, that’s the real terrifying monster. So part of the comic beauty of his books is that inversion of what we as urban people would consider to be the true status of reality. Its quality, its flavor is created by that kind of inversion.

I’m a city boy myself. My interest in the world is entirely urban and metropolitan. One of the things I found most challenging and difficult to do in The Satanic Verses was the chapters which take place in the village. I set it myself as a task. Okay, you’re an urban writer, and now you’re going to write about the village. You’ve got to write about things you don’t know about.”

Self: “But you can’t be a spokesman for the whole third world. You can’t be a spokesman for India.”

Salman: “I don’t think of myself as any of those things. I think of myself as a—metropolitan writer, and I think of myself as someone who has spent almost his entire life in gigantic cities—Bombay and London. The smallest places I’ve spent extended periods of my life are Rugby and Cambridge, which are not exactly villages.

Self: “I’ve apologized for Rugby.”

Salman: “You don’t have to apologize for Cambridge. But the fact is that I am a boy who spent his life in gigantic rotting cities. They define me. I know very well that London and Bombay have much more in common with each other than either have with the hinterlands behind them. If I came from Bombay to London I would recognize the city. A Londoner who goes to Bombay would recognize the city. If you are a city creature, you understand cities. You understand their artificiality and their transience, their internal contradictoriness. It’s out of that that I’ve tried to build my writing, out of that experience of space and time that we have in the modern city.”

The reason I had made the slightly odd remark about not representing the third world is that it is sometimes argued that magic realism itself is an anti-imperialist aesthetic. In Malise Ruthven’s A Satanic Affair, there is a description of a conference held in Bradford in 1989, at the height of the Rushdie dispute. Ian Wright, a lecturer in English, tried to explain to the audience the aesthetic from which The Satanic Verses is supposed to derive:

He explained how the form of “magic realism” developed by Jorge Luís Borges and Gabriel García Márquez in South America had deliberately subverted the dominant mode of narrative realism—the forms of Jane Austen and George Eliot, Balzac and Flaubert, Turgenev and Tolstoy—by introducing surrealistic events, like people being covered with magic butterflies or characters suddenly enabled to fly. This subversion of narrative form, he argued, had a political dimension: it involved a deliberate, self-concious attempt to break with the “cultural imperialism” of European form.

But the Asians in the audience didn’t want to hear this. They staged a noisy walkout. They were not mollified, in other words, to hear that the narrative realism of Turgenev had been subverted on behalf of the third world, with the implication that they are the beneficiaries.

I mentioned this story, and asked Salman whether the sense of defeat had not something to do with this: that the audience of the novel had been far larger than originally intended.

Salman: “Yes, of course, the audience—well, it’s not the audience, because most of the people are not reading the book—but the people knowing about and responding to The Satanic Verses are obviously infinitely vaster than anyone could have anticipated.”

Self: “Apart perhaps from Byron…”

Salman: “Apart perhaps from Byron and Agatha Christie But I find it almost impossible to answer what you asked, because when I wrote—I suspect that when most people write—you have on the one hand a sort of secret hope that the book will reach for a large number of people and be liked by them—“

Self: “This is the shabby hope.”

Salman: “And at the same time you have no sense of audience at all. So that when I’m actually doing it, when I’m actually in the act of writing, I do not really envisage an audience. I really have the sense of being entirely by myself, doing something by myself. To the extent that I have any sense of a reader I know perfectly well that the reader of whom I have a sense is in some way a projection of myself. I’m trying to ask myself: Would I like this if I hadn’t written it? If this is what I was shown that I had not written, would I think: Oh, I wish I’d written that?

It seems to me, that’s the true sense of the reader that most writers, or some writers, have in the moment of creation. Subsequent to the moment of creation of course you fantasize all sorts of readers. You make up all sorts of ideas about who’s going to read your book and how rich and famous you’re going to be. But in the moment of doing it, I feel—I always have done—I feel alone. You make this thing by yourself and you send it out. You don’t know what will happen to it. You hope good things will happen to it but you feel, once you release it into the world, that this is its business, what happens to it. You’ve done what you can and you’ve set it afloat. Now it’s up to it to sink or swim. That’s a normal attitude to a completed piece of work.

Now I find myself in this extraordinary position where here is a piece of work that I completed three years ago. I began it eight years ago. I’m certainly no longer exactly the person who began the book. Even if none of what has happened to me as a result of the book had happened to me, even if I had led a perfectly ordinary and conventional life for the last three years, I would not quite be the author of The Satanic Verses.”

Self: “In a way it would make it easier for you to abandon the book. I mean, if no one had attacked it, you could abandon it without being criticized. Many authors abandon their books.”

Salman: “All writers to a certain extent will murder the previous book in order to make possible the next one. Certainly it’s a thing I’ve done myself. I say, Okay, I’ve done that, that wasn’t very good, now what? What can I do now that is better than that? I think in a way you do make your new books out of your rejections of your old books. But that’s usually a private act. You’re not required to stand in the market square and reject your previous work. If I’m asked to do that, it’s entirely another order of event.

But I’ve always felt that I dislike the idea of repeating. There was a point after Midnight’s Children when I suppose I could have produced versions of Midnight’s Children at eighteen-month intervals within the succeeding ten years and made a reasonably good living out of it, but it would have been very uninteresting to do and they would have been very bad books.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was a special challenge. To attempt a work of fiction after what had happened to me wasn’t easy. There were many times in the months after this began that I said to myself that I no longer wished to be a writer. I felt that everything I had put into the act of being a writer had failed, had simply been invalidated by what had happened. You write out of what you think of as your best self, the best there is in you. If the upshot of that is that the whole planet thinks of you as a complete bastard, you wonder what it’s about, what it was for, and why do it. I spent an awful lot of time thinking I would never write again, not because I couldn’t but because I didn’t want to. It had not given me what I wanted. The things I’d hoped being a writer would mean had been—“

The tape is turned over.

Self: “The things that you had hoped being a writer would bring—which were what? I don’t think we’re very candid about this normally.”

Salman: “Um, no.”

Self: “This is fame.”

Salman: “No, it’s something else. Nobody could say that I wasn’t famous.”

Self: “I mean, one writes for fame.”

Salman: “No, there is something much more ignoble than fame—it was respect. A much worse ambition than fame.”

Self: “Fame seems to be a sort of outdated idea, but—I mean—Keats would have thought he wrote for fame.”

Salman: “Keats wouldn’t have wanted to be this famous. This is the living proof of how to be too famous and for the wrong thing. If I had become famous because people liked my work I would be very proud. But that’s not what happened. Anyway, I did seriously think a lot—not in a manic depressive, melancholic way, but in a matter-of-fact way I thought: I don’t want to be a writer anymore. I would like to be not a writer. And that idea ebbed and flowed quite a long time, and then in the end I thought: the hell with that. As Popeye would say: I yam what I yam and that’s what I yam. And then there was this promise to my son, and I thought that was something I needed to keep: to write a book for him.”

Self: “The promise had come how?”

Salman: “Oh well, it was long before I had finished The Satanic Verses. He had said it was wrong that I didn’t write books that children could read. And we made a deal that I would be allowed to finish the book I was writing on condition that the next book I wrote would be one he might enjoy reading. That was the deal, and—then all this happened, and I was unable to do just about anything for him. And there was this (at the time) nine-year-old boy suddenly deprived of his father, and I thought there’s only one promise to him that I can keep, and in this situation I have to keep it. There was no way in which I could not keep it.

And in many ways it was very useful to me because it was the thing that brought me back to writing. I thought: I have a promise to my son, and it’s simply an imperative. It’s not something I have a choice about. It’s brought me back to the typewriter and made me work.”

Self: “You were a lucky man to have that son.”

Salman: “I was a very lucky man to have that son. And I’m a lucky man to have that promise. Because I needed something bigger than what was happening to me to bring me back to the typewriter. The only thing that could be bigger was a promise to a child.”

Self: “You involve the boy in the book. You involve him morally in the adventure, because you make him feel that it’s partly his fault—that the storyteller father has lost his gift.”

Salman: “Well one thing I know about children is that whenever anything bad happens to a child’s parents, the child blames himself or herself. It’s one of the things that divorcing parents have to be very sensitive to, to make sure that the child does not feel responsible for the divorce. Children blame themselves for the misfortunes that befall the adults in their lives. It’s a place to write from. A terrible thing happens to a father, the child blames himself and wishes to rescue the father. And in the novel not just the father, but the whole world, while he’s doing it, and why not?”

Self: “By the way, there’s a place where the tears roll at the end. The mother comes back.”

Salman: “A happy ending.”

Self: “This is quite a happy ending.”

Salman: “Yes, well I wanted to write a happy ending. I’ve never written a happy ending. I thought: Go for the whole thing, the whole happy ending, the whole catastrophe. Actually it’s very hard to write a happy ending that feels right. I thought of several more smartarse happy endings, cleverer endings, and then in the end I thought: it’s just all nonsense. If the engine of the book is that the world goes wrong when the mother leaves, the only happy ending that means anything at all is that the thing that was unmade is remade. The thing that was broken is mended. Healing—you know—healing is the only happy ending. So I thought she’s just got to come back. They’ve got to fall into each other’s arms, and everything is okay. And it was…actually, it was lovely to write.”

Self: “And this was an example of you exerting your freedom as an author.”

Salman: “Yeah, I was exerting my freedom to make things okay for that little boy and his dad and mum. And I thought—you know—sometimes in life, things do turn out okay, and it’s wrong of writers to deny this fact.

Sometimes, people are happy.”

3.

Z emble, Zenda, Xanadu:
A ll our dream-worlds may come true.
F airy lands are fearsome too.
A s I wander far from view
R ead, and bring me home to you.

A dedication, an acrostic, an appeal: the father in real life is unable to go anywhere near his son, so he writes a book for him instead; he has a promise to keep, and the keeping of the promise will get him over a period of terrible despair.

In the story he tells, there is a father, a professional storyteller, hired by politicians to entertain crowds during the election campaigns. He is at the top of his profession. But a neighbor, presented as an enemy of fiction, pours doubt into the ear of the storyteller’s wife: What’s the use, he says, of stories that aren’t even true? The son hears this question, and it strikes him as terrible. One day the wife runs off with the neighbor, leaving a note which says:

You are only interested in pleasure, but a proper man would know that life is a serious business. Your brain is full of makebelieve, so there is no room in it for facts. Mr Sengupta [the neighbor] has no imagination at all. This is okay by me.

The father pleads with the son. What is he to do? Storytelling is the only profession he knows, The son loses his temper and repeats Mr. Sengupta’s question: What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true? The father weeps. The son regrets what he has said, but it is too late. The father loses his gift, the stories die on his lips, and for the rest of the adventure the son is concerned to rescue his father’s gift.

Haroun is hampered by the fact that he has not been able, since the disappearance of his mother, to concentrate on any subject for more than eleven minutes, so he is something of a wounded hero. The world through which he moves bears an initial resemblance to Kashmir, but it is also a magic land, the quality it possesses being something between a Persian miniature and an animated cartoon.

The fantasy is charmingly conceived and related in a conversational style which, one feels, derives partly from the way the author talks to his son, and partly from the popular culture of which they are both fond. The prose is full of puns and jingles, three words (typically for Rushdie) are gleefully pressed into service where one would have done, and any vernacular is liable to be ransacked. I was reminded of the way its author once demonstrated, over lunch, how the accents of India vary with the geographical regions. I feel sure that there is much here that is intended to be heard, and that not all the intended mimcry comes across on the page. One would expect the book, in normal circumstances, to lead on to a film.

One also expects, from the way the initial problem is set out, that the reader will be provided with the answer to the question: What is the use of fiction? But Haroun is not a tract. Ideas are played with, but not forced into too tidy an order. Gradually it is revealed that the fictions spun by Haroun’s father happen (by a P2C2E the Process Too Complicated to Explain), to represent a deep truth. When the boy saves his father’s gift, it also involves saving the world from the enemies of fiction.

The Seas of Stories of the title is the source of this fiction, and inspiration comes in the form of water. But the stories that derive from this sea have begun to go wrong: it is apparent that someone is trying to poison fiction at its source. He is the prince of darkness and silence and his name is Kattam-Shud (which means completely finished). He has discovered that for every story there is an anti-story. If he pours enough anti-story into the sea of stories, all will be over. The world, for Kattam-Shud, is there to be controlled, but, as he puts it, “inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot rule at all.”

The struggle against Khattam-Shud and his plans form the drama of the book against whose philosophy the enemies of fiction in our world might be expected to take offense. This arrogating of all importance to the fictive power—does it not overstep the mark? Where is the place for revealed religion?

Always, while I have been reading Rushdie’s work recently and thinking about what he is up to, at the back of my mind has been a passage of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the advice the Prophet Ezekiel gave to Blake over dinner. Blake begins:

The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them: and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing, and I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”

Then I asked: “does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?”

He replied: “All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains, but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing.”

Ezekiel then chips in, on the subject of Eastern philosophy, to say that “we of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests & Philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours & to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius….”

This whole passage (which is alluded to in The Satanic Verses on page 305) is pregnant with meaning for the author of Haroun, who went on to affirm the oneness of God and the genuineness of the Prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad. The one God of Blake’s Ezekiel was what we “now” call the Poetic Genius; the gods of surrounding nations are defeated; the nature of the “round assertions” is explained.

The storyteller in Haroun knows no other profession than that of telling stories. In this he differs (as in many other respects) from Salman Rushdie, who is also a polemicist, a critic, and an advertising copywriter. He knows other professions—he is now a professing Muslim. Yet I sometimes wonder if he is not something of a Blakean sort of Muslim, taking a hint from Ezekiel, the one God being (“as you now call it”) the poetic genius. I don’t know, and the guess may well be impertinent. For this is None of Arnold’s Business. This is the Process Too Complicated to Explain.

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