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Keeping Up with Salman Rushdie

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

by Salman Rushdie
Granta Books/Viking, 219 pp., $18.95

1.

On Christmas Eve last year, six Muslim scholars held a meeting with Salman Rushdie, at the end of which the novelist affirmed the oneness of God and the genuineness of the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad. At which point somewhere between six and sixty million newspaper readers around the world set down their coffee cups and said: Oh.

But every Oh that was uttered had its own special flavor, its own modifier, its own tinge of meaning. Oh he did, did he? Oh so they got him in the end! Oh how convenient! Oh what a defeat for secularism! Oh what a shame! Oh Allah be praised!

For myself, the Oh that escaped my lips began life as a vibrant little cerise cloud of wonderment. For a few seconds, as it hung in the air, I thought I detected in the cloud the broken features of Galileo. I looked again, and Galileo seemed to have turned into Patty Hearst. I thought of Oslo…no, not Oslo, the Stockholm syndrome. Then the cloud turned pale beige and I thought: drat it, if I hadn’t been so dilatory with my review of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I would not now be faced with the task of writing about this.

For it is hard enough, when reading and thinking about Haroun, to separate the book from its author’s plight. But who could be expected to concentrate on any text when, somewhere at the edge of vision, the author was undergoing such an exotic metamorphosis “Look, you just carry on reading my book. Don’t mind me. I’m just turning into a peacock…a vase of flowers…a comet…a constellation.”

At this point I can already hear Rushdie’s voice objecting that it’s not so exotic, if your grandfather was a devout Muslim, to embrace Islam yourself. As country folk in England say of an interest in beekeeping, “It often skips a generation.” And it is true that, in normal circumstances, one might be happy to accept any of the “natural” explanations on offer. Salman had, as he has said before, a God-shaped hole in him. If it was going to be any religion, it was always going to be Islam. He had always been interested in the spiritual aspect of human experience; but how could one talk of spirituality and the soul without positing a God? That had been the problem in the old days. These days, by accepting God, he has made things easier for himself….

These “natural” explanations, put forward in interview, with patience and much charm, will do little to change the minds of those who believe that they have witnessed—and this is what makes the case so exotic—an example of a forced conversion. It was this that caused the initial dismay. Then there was the question of Salman’s decision not to allow a paperback version of The Satanic Verses for the moment, and to prevent any further translations of the book. While the conversion was considered (by some, not all) a matter of private conscience, the climbdown over paperback publication was taken as a public issue. Some people thought Salman had sold out. The lawyer Francis Bennion was quoted, on his resignation from the Salman Rushdie Defence Committee, as saying:

There are several reasons why Rushdie is not worth defending…. He has decided not proceed with the paperback, so surrendering to would-be murderers. He has decided not to proceed with translated editions of the book, another form of surrender. Worst of all, he has now confounded his supporters by embracing the bigoted creed that holds its followers entitled to murder a novelist for what he has written in a novel.

The most creepy sentence in this outburst is the first. What, in the actual case in question, is Salman being defended against? Oh—a death sentence, was it? The revenge of the mob, perhaps? Free-lance hit squads in pursuit of bounty money? Mr. Bennion the Barrister, who presumably finds it “worth defending” obvious criminals against lesser penalties, has, in this taxing and protracted case, decided to take umbrage.

Umbrage is the word. There is a jilted tone to the remarks of the Dismayed Friends. The circumstances of Rushdie’s personal catastrophe are such as to arouse in others the most intense fantasies of friendship, and if a friendship is really a fantasy it is as prone to the disease jilt as a clematis is prone to wilt. Mr. Bennion was suffering from jilt. The dream Salman, the plucky little atheist Mr. Bennion was singlehandedly hauling out of the well, turned out to be a nasty muddy Muslim after all, and Mr. Bennion let go of the rope. Bumpety, bumpety, splosh. Back into the well fell the nasty dream Salman.

I tried to explain over the phone to the real Salman the way this process operated, how powerful our fantasies of friendship can be, and so forth. He heard me out, or he just about heard me out. Then he reminded me rather sharply that at his end of the phone there was more at stake than hurt feelings.

To return, then, to the Galileo comparison: as soon as I saw it in print, even though it had been my first thought, I disliked it intensely. For a start, Salman has not turned his back on The Satanic Verses, has not denied it or called for its suppression. He has agreed to delay paperback publication for the time being, to let things cool. This for him was a concession, although I hardly think that Penguin was keen on the paperback anyway. I believe, in common with many of Salman’s supporters, that this concession was wise. You can still buy the hardback—it’s a bit like the way it must have been purchasing condoms in the Fifties (and how dismaying to set out to write a novel, and to find that what you’ve written is a packet of one dozen Durex Nu-form lubricated with Sensitol—unless of course you are a magical realist, in which case you should take it in your stride)—but it’s possible. As to the question of any further translations, when has it ever been a writer’s duty to have his work translated into the maximum number of languages? One should not introduce new fanaticisms into an argument against fanaticisms.

As to the conversion itself, there is no doubt that it took place under circumstances of duress, but the Patty Hearst comparison does not enlighten. Salman has affirmed the religion of his ancestors. As far as we know, none of Patty’s ancestors was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. The Stockholm syndrome, the phenomenon known as projective identification, seems on reflection inapplicable in this sense: according to the theory, the captor (in, as it were, a hijack) projects all feelings of helplessness, weakness, and smallness onto the captive, who responds by projecting onto the captor all capacity for power, rational thought, decision, and action. The captive thus ends up identifying with the captor.

It makes a difference that Salman Rushdie is only metaphorically the captive of a certain branch of fundamentalist Islam, and that physically he is under the protection of the British Special Branch. It is also most striking that Salman has not projected onto the ayatollahs all capacity for rational thought. If he had done, one would expect him to be running around shouting, “Off with my head.”

For the fatwa did not call for the conversion of Salman Rushdie. It called for his death (and, do not forget, the death of all those involved in the publication of The Satanic Verses who were aware of its content). Conversion wasn’t mentioned or implied as a way out, and in this sense, whether we see the conversion as sincere or as a ruse, it has a quality that frustrates the intentions of the late Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini.

And it is consistent with what I know of the preconversion Salman Rushdie, in the sense that it points in the direction of a nonfundamentalist, tolerant, disputatious Islam, and indeed calls that tendency to its aid. I don’t believe that Salman ever thought of Khomeini as representing Islam itself, that he confused the fatwa with the creed in the manner of Bennion’s outburst. On the contrary, he was extremely alert to nuances within the religion and the political implications of that religion. His life, after all, depends on such considerations.

My (purely speculative) point is that I doubt it felt to Rushdie, when he embraced Islam, that he was yielding to Khomeini, any more than it would seem to me that I was yielding to Rome if I began attending Protestant services in Belfast. The hand of friendship had been proffered. The six Wise Men from the East agreed that The Satanic Verses had been wildly misread. It was pointed out that, in becoming a Muslim, you do not have to imply that you are a perfect Muslim—doubts can be retained about this and that. And anyway, as Salman has said since, Islam is a very private religion. You don’t even have to set foot in a mosque. The whole thing is a matter between you and your God.

The conversion did not succeed in lifting the fatwa, but maybe it was never expected that it would. One thing it did achieve, besides making some of us jump out of our skins, was a clearing of the air as far as some of Salman’s most hostile critics were concerned. I take the example of Shabbir Akhtar, from the Bradford Council of Mosques, who had written in The Independent:

If Rushdie decides to cancel the paperback and engage in a dialogue with people whom he has thus far contemptuously dismissed as ignorant and anti-intellectual, there is scope for reconciliation. All Muslims look forward to the end of the Liberal Inquisition. Islam is a religion of militant wrath as well as conspicuous mercy. The magnanimity which has been denied to both parties may yet seek an occasion.1

On January 4 this year, after Rushdie had overfulfilled these conditions somewhat dramatically, Shabbir Akhtar had another letter in The Independent:

Sir: Salman Rushdie, the prodigal son of Islam, wishes to return home. And there should be much rejoicing in paradise over such a sinner.

But there is a distant land from which no one returns. It is not that the Muslim father won’t forgive. Rather, Rushdie can’t find his way home. For there are sins that permanently rust the heart, corrode the mind and blur the vision.

Home is certainly the one place where they have to believe you when you insist on it. The tricky part is finding the way there. The way back to the household of Islam is paved with bad intentions; and the safest bet is never to leave it in the first place.

Why does the prodigal want to return anyway? Because, as they say in that Yorkshire colloquialism, he’s skint. He’s run out of supplies. And the best provision is the love of God.

The far country of double standards and false absolutes still pulls Rushdie back. There he formed friendships and ties he could never break in good faith. What, then, of the kindness of the security men, the goodness of [Rushdie’s defenders] Pinter, [Arnold] Wesker and St. Fay [a reference to Fay Weldon]? Do these count for nothing? Surely these have a place in Rushdie’s heart. There are choices that can seal one’s fate—even before death intervenes to end both the dilemma and the choice. Many battlefields lie outside the heart. And God has every affair in his care.

Yes, this clears the air. Salman Rushdie has committed the sin for which there is no forgiveness—the sin of having Arnold Wesker as a friend.

Wesker in fact is one of the Dismayed Friends. He described Rushdie’s conversion as a victory for religious terrorists. To which Rushdie retorted that it was “none of Arnold’s business.” With me, when I suggested we might record a little talk together, Salman was gentler but still firm: what was none of Arnold’s business was none of mine either. But there were other things we might talk about than God and Islam, and I thought the reader might be interested to get just a flavor of Rushdie’s current thinking on this and that—his table talk, if you like.

2.

I first got to know Salman Rushdie—or to feel that I was beginning to do so—in Toronto just over two years ago at the Harborfront literary festivals. At the time, the row over The Satanic Verses was a cloud no bigger than Rajiv Gandhi’s hand. The book had been banned in India after riots protesting its publication, but the worst of the rioting was still to come, and the row seemed as much political as religious. Salman read from the book. He’s a born performer, a first-rate mimic, and he had the audience immediately on his side and laughing. In the discussions, he defended his corner in the way he has always been able to do, with a fine arrogance. Not quite the arrogance that he used against Rajiv himself in print—

Mr. Prime Minister, The Satanic Verses may just, in the eyes of the world, be the unmaking of you. Worse still is the judgment of the eye of eternity…and, Mr. Gandhi, has it struck you that I may be your posterity? Perhaps you feel that by banning my fourth novel you are taking a long overdue revenge for the treatment of your mother in my second; but can you be sure that Indira Gandhi’s reputation will endure better and longer than Midnight’s Children? Are you certain that the cultural history of India will deal kindly with the enemies of The Satanic Verses? You own the present; but the centuries belong to art—2

but with the same relish for a fight.

I had been away from England for more than two years, and was feeling in need of contact and news. Salman and I went for a walk by the lake, and I remember particularly the sad way he spoke of Bruce Chatwin, who was then in the last stages of AIDS. Salman in private was less ebullient than I expected, and for reasons not much to do with his novel. He was fed up with England, where he found a horrible mixture of hypocrisy and xenophobia, mediocrity and envy of success. He was anyway somewhat vulnerable to any printed slight, but I knew from the example of another friend of mine (not an immigrant but a Jew) that when England begins to affect you in this way you may be absolutely sure that you will find evidence to reinforce your feelings. England becomes a prison.

So we walked along the shore, with Salman going on about how insincere the English were, and me (being nothing if not English) trying hard to be more sincere, to make up for everybody else’s insincerity. So I asked him if it had occurred to him to go back to India, and immediately I worried if that would sound xenophobic and hostile, but it appeared to go down okay, and he said that you can’t, once you’ve made that break, go back. He was thinking, perhaps (his wife was American) of moving to New York….

Well, he went back to England, Bruce Chatwin his friend died, and Salman’s last public appearance for many months was at his memorial service. The doors closed. The nightmare began. In Manila, where I was living, the postman spoke to me for the first time ever, to inquire about the case of Salman Rushdie, and I thought: Friend, you have achieved a fame beyond Byron’s.

Meeting him again in London recently, two years after the Saint Valentine’s Day Fatwa, I was concerned to set straight one small matter, on which I felt I could speak with some authority, and that was the question of the kipper. In much that is written about Salman Rushdie, and in The Satanic Verses, you come across the sad story of the thirteen-year-old Indian at Rugby School, faced with this strange fish that he has never seen before, a bony thing he doesn’t know how to eat. Nobody at the table gives him any advice. He decides he must face this one out, and heroically struggles away until the kipper is eventually consumed.

Now this story is designed to make any fellow victim of the British public school system feel guilty: Where was I when Salman faced his first kipper? But what I wanted to say was that none of the rest of us really knew how to eat kippers, or if we did we all kept quiet about it. They were unpredictable fish in those days—sometimes you found an edible one with a comprehensible bone structure, but the rest were a lottery.

The second point is: when I think of Salman and the kipper—and he all of thirteen years old—I also think of myself at the age of seven, on the first night at prep school, faced with the fact that someone had stolen the entire contents of my sponge bag. If I must ask myself, Where was I when Salman faced his first kipper? am I not also entitled to wonder, Where was Salman when I faced my empty sponge bag? Was there a kindly nine-year-old Indian boy who helped me face down the bullies? These things cut both ways after all.

Salman: “I don’t think you should apologize for the kipper.”

Self: “It’s not just me apologizing. It is England. England apologizes to you.”

Salman: “Let me tell you, this is very touching, because you’re the second person in my life to have made an apology to me on behalf of a nation. The first time was actually the first time I went to the United States. I was much younger and I was, working in advertising and I had been sent to America because I was supposed to write ads about going on holiday in America for the United States Travel Service. I had never been there before. In those days I was going to say that I had longer hair but I should probably say I had hair. In those days I had lots of hair.”

Self: “We both had hair.”

Salman: “Yes, we had hair. I’m talking about the early 1970s now. I had lots of hair, long hair, and a mustache, and it was the early Seventies and I remember I flew directly to the West Coast, it must have been San Francisco, and in the customs hall there was a sign saying, ‘A few minutes extra in customs is a small price to pay to save your children from the menace of drugs.’ And in front of me in the queue were these two classic American rednecks with very wide necks, and one of them turned to me and said: ‘Buddy, I sure feel sorry for you, because even if you haven’t got anything they’ll find something.’ And they tried. I was taken apart, the body search, the rectal examination, everything, and after what felt like about a week of this, I was finally—“

Self (audibly shocked): “You mean a week up the rectum?”

Salman: “Yes. I was finally released into America, a kind of gibbering wreck. I was standing in the queue waiting for the bus, clearly in major trauma, and there in front of me was a tiny white-haired lady about half my size who saw that I was in pain, and she said, Was I all right? And, just because this was a moment of human generosity, it all poured out. I unleashed at her this whole tirade about the awful humiliation to which I’d been submitted. At the end of which, I’ll never forget, she did the most extraordinary thing. She heard me out, and when the storm blew out, she drew herself up to a tiny height, clasped her hands together, and delivered to me a formal apology on behalf of the United States of America. It was extraordinary. She said: We, the people of the United States of America, wish to apologize to you for this terrible intrusion into your privacy. We are not all as you feel that we might be, and to many of us this is as offensive as it is to you, and we too are violated by this intrusion into your privacy, etcetera. The thing that was amazing about it was that by the time she had finished I felt better. I thought, Okay, fine, that’s good. And then I was able to go into America and have a great time. And she made it all right. So maybe you just finally made the kipper all right, James.”

Having laid the ghost of the kipper, I proceeded to inquire whether he still felt as badly about England as he had at the time of our discussion in Toronto. He did not.

Salman: “It’s true at that time I was in a state of considerable disillusion with England, which after all I wasn’t alone in, in that we were talking about the depths of the Thatcher catastrophe, and, whatever one might think about the Thatcher catastrophe, one of the things that was always true about it is that half the country hated it. I was a part of that half of the country, and was much more fortunate than most of that half, in that I was able to do something about it, in that, if I chose to do so, I could go somewhere else. I thought maybe that would be a good idea. Anyway I’m a boy from a big country, and there’s a part of me that’s always hankered for a big country round me again, not a small island. One of the things that I promised myself after The Satanic Verses came out was that I was going to buy myself a small pied-a-terre, a kind of joint in Bombay, so that I could have a place of my own back in my hometown, so that if I wanted to go for a month or two every year I didn’t have to bum off my friends or stay in hotels. So I’d made all kinds of plans about restoring large skies to myself. All that has become impossible.”

Impossible to slope off back in the direction of Bombay, now and then. Impossible to go anywhere without the British government informing the government of that country, and securing their acquiescence, in case anything should crop up.

Salman: “No doubt they wouldn’t wish to inherit the problem. There is that problem. I hoped it would eventually diminish, but when people have said in the last two years that I should dye my hair, grow breasts, and go and live in some other place, it hasn’t actually, for more than one reason, been very realistic as an option.

The question you asked, whether my relationship to England had changed—yes, it has. A country that saves your life is a country about which you begin to feel better. Whatever else may or may not have happened, England and my being a citizen of Britain saved my life, and that affects my judgment. I feel very grateful for that. It’s the only life I’ve got. Also—any country is many countries. There are Englands that one loves and Englands that one hates. I suppose that at the time we were talking in Toronto I felt a desperate need for a break from the kind of England I didn’t particularly admire, and which seemed to be in charge. But this is a country in which people tend to feel that people shouldn’t be killed for their ideas. That’s point of view with which I have some sympathy.”

I asked whether he thought that he had complete freedom over the literary choices he would make in the future. Was his freedom still intact?

Salman: “I don’t think any writer has complete freedom in the matter of what she or he writes. I mean—you don’t either. There are things that are given and things that are not given to you as areas in which you can operate—things which give you energy. None of us is completely free in that respect. But if I didn’t think that I was as free now as I had ever been, I would stop writing. I would not write again.

It’s something I have thought about a great deal in these last two years. The art of literature matters to me. It’s very hard, because most of us are never required to speak in these terms. We can be jokey and ridiculous and hysterical and satirical about what we do. But the art of literature matters to me more than just about anything else. Not just as a writer or a practitioner, but also as a reader of it, so to speak as a user of it. It tells me things and shows me things, and always has done, in a way nothing else in the world has done. So I don’t wish to be a traitor to it. It matters to me, if I’m to be a virgin at that shrine, that I should not have somehow compromised myself. If I thought, to put it in simple language, that I was obliged to perform a certain kind of self-censorship, I would sooner not write.”

I put it to Salman that the choice he was giving himself was a little overdramatic. Certain writers have worked brilliantly under certain forms of censorship. We think of Shakespeare as a very free writer, but he was not free when it came to writing about contemporary issues or figures, and he was not free in the matter of religion. He could not have put a biblical figure on stage (had he wanted to) or used his theater to promote religious controversy. Indeed, so completely is religious discussion suppressed in the plays, it is apparently hard to tell from Shakespeare’s language whether he was a Protestant or a Catholic. Milton, by complete contrast, makes it his life’s work to speak his mind about religion, but he has to apologize learnedly before offering to the public such a thing as a tragedy. My implication was that Salman could construct his own version of the Shakespeare or the Milton option, but he clearly didn’t much like the direction I was trying to lead him in.

Salman (giggling): “It’s unfair of you to compare me to Shakespeare because Shakespeare was very good. It’s probably more to do with Shakespeare being Shakespeare that he could surmount those restrictions of which you speak and yet seem to be free. It’s his genius rather than the restrictions that made him Shakespeare.

I agree, in the case of Milton—Milton took it on and had the trouble as a result. It’s a truism to say about Paradise Lost that he’s much better at the devils than the angels. Hence Blake’s remark about him being of the devil’s party—although Milton would probably have disputed that. It is more attractive to the creative mind to write about being bad than to write about being good. Because, I think, we as human beings do not think of ourselves as being good, even though all our philosophies have to do with goodness, and how we can be good, and in what it consists to be good. We actually see ourselves as naughty. We actually see ourselves as ungood, and so we are attracted to descriptions of naughtiness and ungoodness and find ourselves being able to give them more energy than the descriptions of goodness, which are almost impossible in literature. Where in literature is there a good person?”

Self (ruefully): “It’s true that we flag with Dante.”

Salman: “It’s true, and Pierre in War and Peace is not the most interesting character in the book. It’s very, very, very hard to write interestingly about goodness.”

Self: “The Satanic Verses, as I understand it, right early on—the very strong implication is… [coming to the point]…the narrator is Satan. I would have thought that it isn’t an option for you in the future to write from that point of view.”

Salman: “But I wouldn’t wish to do it, having done it.”

Self: “Yes, I know. But you see the point of the question.”

Salman: “Yes, but the sense in which Satan is the narrator of The Satanic Verses is also, as some of its critics have pointed out, “problematic,” in the sense that the idea makes only occasional appearances in the text. There’s no sense in which you could say that the devil was consistently the narrator of The Satanic Verses. One of the things I thought about that novel—and how far I achieved it is open to question—it was a novel about metamorphosis, which should itself constantly metamorphose, so that, as the book proceeds, it is sometimes naturalistic, sometimes fabulistic, sometimes hallucinatory. Different voices seem to be the point of view or narrative voice at different points of the novel. All that may not have been perfectly achieved, but it was part of the intention of the book. So that I myself don’t think anybody narrates The Satanic Verses. The different narrative positions occupy, so to speak, the chair, at different moments, as it happens to suit me.”

Self: “That kind of rolling aesthetic, that changes as it goes along—do you still feel the same way about it, after having had the experience of trying to explain a novel to a million, zillion, people?”

Salman: “What I feel most of all, and really this is not bullshit, is a sense of absolutely overwhelming failure. I feel as if everything I have tried to do, in my life, with my work…in fact… [pause]…because what I tried to do was to bring two worlds which happened to be present inside me—more than two worlds, actually—India, Islam, the West—these three worlds, all of which are present inside me in a very vivid way—I tried to bring them together. I tried to describe each in terms of the other. Well, it didn’t work. Whatever one may feel about The Satanic Verses as a novel, if you look at the event of The Satanic Verses it pushed those worlds further apart.”

Self: “Forgetting all the politics of it, is there a plain aesthetic lesson?”

Salman: “Yes there is. There are two aesthetic lessons. Unfortunately they contradict each other. One is that one must place clarity above all other virtues in a work of art. If the work is capable of being misread or misunderstood, it is the artist’s fault.

The other lesson is: it is impossible to learn from what other people think of your work. All you can do is write the books that are in you to write. And sometimes you’ll be right, sometimes you’ll be wrong. I’ve written some books that I never expected people to like, which they fell upon with loud cries of praise, and other books which I never expected people to hate, which people fell upon and burned in the public square. I’m the same person. The author of Midnight’s Children and the author of The Satanic Verses are the same person. I never expected the great éclat that would attend Midnight’s Children and I never expected the great opprobrium that would attend The Satanic Verses. So what that teached me is, it’s useless to try and predict what will happen to a book. All you can do is write the books which come to you.

So here are two propositions which seem to contradict each other. One is: make clarity your highest virtue. The other is: do whatever comes to you. What I have tried to do in the last two years is, on the one hand, try to learn as much as possible from what is happening to me, and on the other hand, try and continue to think as a writer in the way that I would have thought if this hadn’t happened to me. What was the road on which my writing was set anyway, and where does that lead me?

Although there is an apparent contradiction, there isn’t a real one, because the last chapter of The Satanic Verses is perhaps the most naturalistic piece of writing I’ve ever done. Certainly the biggest emotional risk I’ve ever taken as a writer, which is, to put it at its simplest, to include at the end of that novel an extremely intimate description of my father’s death. It showed me something as a writer. I think of it now as the best thing I’ve ever written. It feels to me as if I’ve learned something, as if I’d managed to open the door when I wrote that. The journey of The Satanic Verses as a novel couldn’t begin in a more fabulated way—two people falling 30,000 feet, surviving, becoming angels and devils, etcetera. It ends with this very intimate emotional moment. That journey from this very pyrotechnic, high fabulation of its beginning, to this very quiet, intimate moment of its ending—it was also a journey that I went through. By the end of the novel, I thought I would do more of this. This place where it ends is where I want to begin.”

I tried to explain to Salman a thing I found displeasing in the extremely freewheeling, liberal aesthetic associated with a certain kind of fiction. The example I gave was from García Márquez. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a city is founded in the tropical swamps, its history is traced and through several years up to a point where there still hasn’t been a single death in the community. To me, this idea of the city built in the swamps, with no experience of death, is offensive to my imagination. I think: Why am I reading this? I know what swamps are like. People die. Why should I listen to someone telling me they don’t?

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.

  1. 1

    Quoted in W.J. Weatherby, Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death (Carroll and Graf, 1990), p. 211.

  2. 2

    Illustrated Weekly of India, October 7, 1989, cited in Malise Ruthven, A Satanic Affair (Hogarth Press, 1991).

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