Salman Rushdie’s parents used to tell him that, as a child, he always wanted to be a writer, although he has no memory of that. He thought of it the other night when his son, Milan, sat down and said seriously, “Dad, shall we talk about our work?” The eight-year-old had been writing stories.
He asked his father how he came up with the idea for The Satanic Verses.
“And so I told him a bit,” says Rushdie. “And afterwards I said, ‘What do you think of that as an idea for a book?’ And he said, ‘I think that’s very funny, daddy.’ I said, ‘That’s the right answer.’ And he said, ‘If there’s anything you would like to ask me about my writing, I would be happy to reply.’ I think the little bastard might well be a writer!”
If one of the criteria is sheer attitude, then the child has a good role model. Despite Rushdie’s reputation as someone who, when he isn’t out partying, makes statements about partying, his is not a brash presence. He moves around in a bumbling, patting-his-pockets kind of way, which seems both awkward and benevolent. He’s an odd combination of cuddly and spiky, the only angles in his face those shooting eyebrows that come across as supercilious in photographs but, up close, just seem cheeky. Some of his mannerisms are usually associated with women with one hand he tucks his hair behind his ear. He can look as demure as Princess Di, but he can be caustic, too.
Rushdie’s new novel, Shalimar the Clown, took four years to write and was longlisted for the Booker. It is a busy book, taking place across many continents and time frames, from World War II to modern-day America to a Jihadist training camp, following the butterfly effect of each action to its bloody denouement.
It is, like so much of his writing, lush and energetic, in parts gripping. His novel stretches across a symbolic and theoretical framework that occasionally pokes a little painfully through the skin of the story. It seems very of the moment, but Rushdie says he doesn’t think of it as a book about terrorism; the love story came first, as love stories should. The most striking thing about it is its effort to paint an empathetic portrait of the sort of young men once called upon to kill him.
“There’s an argument,” he says, “that to humanise them is a kind of exoneration. And, obviously, I don’t think that. It’s wrong to say that by understanding people you somehow let them off the hook. It kind of makes it worse, when you can see that these are not cartoon villains, but real people making hideous decisions. In a way, it does the opposite of exonerating them.”
He wanted to deny his readers the luxury of a simple reaction to hate figures, something that felt like an actively useful thing to do. “At times such as the ones we’re all living through, it’s a thing the novel can offer, which very few other kinds of writing can: to take you inside people’s hearts and minds and make you see how it is. Or at least a version of how it might be. I think it’s valuable.’’
It annoys him considerably when the stories he writes are scoured for insights into his personal situation. “It’s disappointing that people know so much about my life, because it means they’re always trying to look at my books in terms of my life. I can see why they do it, but I wish people wouldn’t.
“It’s not a book about me, it’s a book about them. And certainly, writing it, I wasn’t thinking about forgiving terrorists. I don’t feel particularly forgiving.” He chuckles like Santa.
It has been seven years since the Iranian government lifted the fatwa on Rushdie, which he lived under for nine. He recovered quickly, he says, the only hangover in the days after his special branch protection was removed being small, technical things such as going out without his front door keys because “somebody always went in the house first, to check it out.”
I tell him that I imagine his hate gland was so stimulated by the experience that it might have been hard to stop hating when it was all over. He responds by saying, “It was the other way around, actually. I had a kind of education in hate, because I was the object of it. But I also had an education in the opposite, because what happened in those years was that an enormous number of people really grouped around me to help me get through it. It was extraordinary to be the recipient of that very courageous affection. And what I took away from those years was the affection more than the hostility. I understood that the hostility was capable of damaging me a lot. I didn’t want to become some embittered old hack getting his revenge for the rest of my life. And I didn’t want to become some scared creature cowering in a corner. I remember telling myself not to carry the hatred around, although I know where it is. I have it in a trunk in storage.”
It’s beginning to feel like a long time ago, he says, but there are occasional flare-ups, when the lid of the trunk flies open. “For example, when I see the absurd face of Iqbal Sacranie [secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain] on television, that’s the moment when it becomes a little difficult to keep it down.”
What does he think of British Home Office plans to deport extremists? He chuckles. “I have to tell you, I don’t mind. I think that England made a very big, historical mistake when it allowed itself to become the kind of terrorist capital of the world. The idea that, by allowing all these groups to hang out here, it would somehow protect England from attack was a deliberate philosophy. I think it’s extraordinary to see people screaming hate while living off the state. No, I don’t mind.”
Rushdie is deft on the subject of fame, particularly American fame, which he describes in Shalimar the Clown as “the average perfected, the ordinary made super-ordinary, the boy next door raised to the Platonic ideal of boy-next-doorness.”
His fourth wife, Padma, is an actor some 25 years his junior and extremely beautiful. How did he pull it off? “Just lucky, I guess.” Does he look at her sometimes in amazement? “Yeah. It never stops. She is ridiculously beautiful, comically beautiful. I say to her, ‘I look at you and my reaction is to laugh.’‘’
I tell him I once met a poet who said writing made him feel beautiful. Does Rushdie feel that way? “I understand what he means,” he says. “When you write, you write out of your best self. Everything else drops away.’’—Â