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In Conversation with Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

interview by Chris Bigsby

CB: I have always thought of you as a comic writer. Am I wrong to think that?

SR: I have always thought so. It is one of the things that I think people forget to say about these books, because there is a very strong comic strain, sometimes black comedy. I think one of the things that people didn’t say very much about The Satanic Verses is that quite a lot of it was comic in its manner. It made me feel that comedy is what gets up people’s noses further than anything else. Maybe if the book hadn’t been so funny I would have been all right. I think the battle was between people who had a sense of humour and people who didn’t. It is not only comic. There is a point in this book where it becomes very tragic, but I think until that point it is quite funny.

CB: The other thing that strikes me, especially when I hear you read your work, is its rhythmic quality. Do you read aloud when you are writing? You were once an actor. Does that inform your work?

SR: It is very kind of you to say that I was once an actor. I was once a person who did some acting. I think the questions of rhythm and pace are very important. I don’t know if I read it aloud that much but I imagine it being read. I sit there going through it in my head for the rhythm because sometimes whether a particular bit of the story is told quickly or slowly can affect the way it is experienced by the reader.

I have often been fond of fooling around with the pace at which a story is told, which is something I learned from a short story by the great German novelist Heinrich von Kleist, who wrote a short story called The Earthquake in Chile. The story is four or five pages long. It has the most extraordinary amount of plot, a quite ludicrous amount of plot, and as a result the story hurtles along as if it was a speeded-up film. Every single thing that happened in the story was absolutely horrible. There is an earthquake and there is mayhem and calamity, and then there is more mayhem and more calamity. It is told at such an amazing break-neck pace that it becomes funny and you find yourself giggling at this hideous, atrocious sequence of events. Yet somehow it also fails to lose that note of atrocity underneath. I thought this really interesting. All he is doing is telling the story too fast. If he told exactly the same story in a hundred pages instead of five it would not have that comic note in it. There would only be the atrocity. So at that point I began to think that this was something to play with, the pace of the story. Sometimes accelerate it, sometimes slow it down, sometimes tell it in what seems to be the naturalistically correct pace, other times fool with the tempo. So I have always been interested in that.

CB: Your new book, Shalimar the Clown, also packs a great deal in, though not in four or five pages.

SR: Shalimar the Clown starts off as a murder story which reveals itself to be a love story which turns into a story of the betrayal of love which turns into a story of revenge which turns into a story of hatred which turns into a murder story. At the end I think it is in some danger of turning back into a love story. At the heart of it is the story of a place. It is the story of Kashmir, a place of great physical beauty but also a place where the closest thing to a harmonious culture that one can imagine was created and then, in recent times, destroyed. What happened in Kashmir was that the people were caught between the rock of India and the hard place of Pakistan, two countries which have fought over it with relatively little concern for what the people of Kashmir wanted. What they have said rather consistently, for almost sixty years now, is would you both please fuck off, but that is the option that nobody considers.

The love story takes place against that background. It is a story about two young people who are both members of a village troupe of travelling players. There is an old tradition of folk theatre in Kashmir going back hundreds of years. The Kashmiri word for these players literally translates as clown, hence Shalimar the Clown, although in fact they are by no means only clowns. They are not just actors. They are also gymnasts and tightrope walkers and magicians and singers and dancers. It is clearly a dying, or nearly dead, form these days. Shalimar the Clown is a clown on the tightrope, on the high wire, and he falls in love with the village troupe dancing girl who is called Boonyi. That goes well for a while, even though he is from a Muslim family and she is from a Hindu. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, the families think it is fine, but she begins to have second thoughts about it. So the problem doesn’t derive from the Montagues and Capulets but, so to speak, from Juliet who eventually makes the bad or rash move of running off with the American Ambassador. That unleashes the revenge tragedy which is the heart of the book.

CB: As you first describe it, Kashmir is a kind of paradise, and that was the Kashmir you knew, or you heard of, when you were growing up. In a sense, then, you are returning not only to Kashmir but to your own youth?

SR : Yes, it is true. My family originally came from Kashmir but had left before I was born. My grandparents moved south into India and settled, but it was made very clear to us, as we were growing up, that that was where we were from. If you ask Indians where they are from they will tell you about the region before they tell you about the country. They will say they are Bengalis before they say that they are Indian. They will say that they are Kashmiris before they say they are anything else. The region, and regionality, are very, very important. We were certainly brought up to think that that is who we were. We were Kashmiri people who were living, in my case, in Bombay and we would go to Kashmir as children every summer because Kashmir was India’s playground. It is where Indians went on holiday in the hot season to see such magic realist things as snow and to experience such magic realist things as cold. So, for me, it was this enchanted childhood space. But when I went on going there as a grown up I slowly watched its ruin. Now it is in very bad shape.

CB: There are, as you say, all kinds of pressures that are tearing Kashmir apart, most especially the tension between India and Pakistan both of which lay claim to it?

SR: Yes. When the partition took place between India and Pakistan it was based around the Punjab, in the west, and Bengal, in the east. States which had frontiers in common with those areas were allowed to choose which way they wanted to go. The problem of Kashmir was that it had a largely Muslim population with a Hindu ruler and there were only five million people, not a lot. It looks quite big on the map but almost all of it is mountains and impassable. The Hindu ruler completely panicked at the independence of India and would not make up his mind. He dithered in the most spectacular way. In the end the Pakistanis tried to force his hand by sending over the border irregular forces, not in uniform, tribal warriors probably containing large numbers of Pakistani army soldiers in plain clothes. This irregular army came across the border to invade Kashmir and the Maharajah reacted, as Maharajahs will, by running away. He left behind this difficult situation.

The Kashmiri political leaders of the time turned to the Indian army and asked it to come in to defend them against these marauding tribe. That took place in l947, the first battle for Kashmir. As a result Pakistan got hold of essentially the northern one third of the province and India held on to the southern two thirds of the province, including the main valley of Kashmir. Thus was created this thing which was in those days called the Ceasefire Line and is now called the Line of Control. So you have this partition valley. Ever since then you have these huge armies staring at each other across this Ceasefire Line.

There have been two further wars fought over it. Now both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. The last Kashmir dispute came very close to a nuclear exchange and yet the rest of the world doesn’t give a damn. Then it was further complicated, in the last fifteen years, by the arrival, in the Pakistan section, of Jihadist terror groups tolerated by, and in some cases set up and trained by, the Pakistanis in Al-Qaeda training camps. The Pakistani General responsible for this was President Musharraf. So that complicates it. Now you have terrorists coming across the border for whom Kashmiris are not Muslim enough and who get beaten up a lot so that they can be more Muslim than they are in the habit of being. So there you are: terrorists from Pakistan and the oppression of the Indian army, which came to protect but has stayed to harass and occupy and terrify people. It is a mess.

CB: Despite the centrality of Kashmir it seems a story of paradise lost, of lost innocence, on a much broader scale.

SR: Yes. Kashmir is Kashmir but it also plays a metaphorical role in the story. I do think we live in an age beyond innocence. It is hard to have a wide-eyed view of the world as beautiful. Those things that we thought were beautiful in the world have in many senses been despoiled, and I am not just talking about places but also ideas. It is very difficult, therefore, not to write about this moment in the history of the world as a tragedy. It feels like a tragedy. But my inclination being what it is, I try and disguise the tragedy as a comedy and that works for most of the book, but then there is a moment when the tragedy bursts out of the comedy because it is as if the story is saying to you, ‘Okay, it is not funny any more,’ because you get to a point which is beyond comedy and I hope that what that does is to increase the shock of that moment. If you have been living in a world which might be full of horrible things but they are described to you as black comedy, then that is palatable in a certain way, but if at a certain point the smile is wiped off your face it becomes slightly stark. I hope that that increases the shock at what happened.

CB: Yes, as it does for Shalimar the Clown who begins as an innocent, as a performer, and ends up as a murderer, or, indeed, your American ambassador who starts fighting against fascism and turns into something quite different.

SR: I am always interested in characters who change a lot. I have always been attracted to write about characters who don’t stay the same all their lives but who shift. I think it is partly because what we know about human personality these days, as opposed to what Jane Austen knew or what Dickens knew, is that human personality is not homogeneous. It is actually very mutable. Even without anything awful happening to us we are very different in very different circumstances. We can be very different when we are young to how we are when we are old. We can be different with our loved ones to the way we are with our fellow workers. We can be different with people of our own race than we are with people of another race. We are a shifting bunch of responses and selves, some of which contradict each other. So it has always interested me to explore that. How much can a personality shift?

In the case of Shalimar the Clown, who starts out as this rather sweet boy about whom people say that he wouldn’t hurt a fly, that change is obviously very great and it became a challenge to show that that was possible, that in a single human life it is truthful to say that such a change can take place. I remembered, when I was writing the book, that years ago I had met the film maker Bernardo Bertolucci the day before he was flying to China to make what became The Last Emperor. I asked him what the movie was about and he said it is about this boy who is told he is God. He is not told that he is like God or God’s representative, he is told he is God and he is brought up believing himself to be God. But at the other end of his life he works as a gardener in the palace in which he was formerly God and he says that he is happy and content with the change. And what Bertolucci said was that he was interested in whether a human being could change that much. Was that brainwashing or was it a genuine shift in consciousness? And I remember thinking that that was a really interesting subject. In some ways that is not the film he made, because it got taken over by more epic dimensions, but I thought that that psychological subject was fascinating.

CB: In the case of Shalimar it is not ideology that changes him, it is a sexual betrayal.

SR: It is a sexual betrayal, but it is also to do with honour. Yes, I think the thing that triggers it is, as I said, the fact that his wife breaks his heart by running away with this man of great power and charisma. Everybody, except she, can tell that it is going to end in tears, and so it does, but before it does it doesn’t just break his heart. It damages him in, if you like, his manhood. There is a scene in the novel which I think of as one of the key scenes. After she has gone off he meets his mother on a village pathway and bursts into this tirade about how she is lucky she is not a man because a man has to suffer this, and has to put up with that, has to respond to this or his honour is destroyed. A man must do this and cannot do that. It is as if he is trying to put back together his sense of himself, his un-emasculated sense of himself as a man, and I think it is something to do with that, not just with the fact that she runs off. It is something to do with that honour issue that makes him pick up the gun. But it is not ideology, you are right.

Writers in Conversation Volume 4

CB: And there is a connection between the personal and the public. In fact they are not quite opposite. They bleed into one another.

SR: Yes. Those of us who are old enough to remember the sixties have always known this, that there is no frontier line between the personal and the political. I think nowadays less than ever. Jane Austen could write about the private lives of her people without needing to refer to the public stage. Now I think that gap is so small, and the public world impinges on our private life so often and so directly and in so many ways, that for a novelist it is hard to leave it out. It is not because one wants to write political novels, but because it is a part of the explanation of what happens to people in their lives and it seems to me a wrong decision to ignore that. It doesn’t even have to be violence or terrorism. If, let’s say, you live in a country with a weak economy and some currency speculator attacks the currency and the currency collapses, you may very well, as a consequence of that, lose your job because your firm collapses and you are fired. The thing that has made that happen is an action by a person whose name you don’t know performing that action in a room whose existence you are unaware off, and yet it changes your life. This has great implications for the idea of character being destiny, and probably at the root of the novel is the idea that character is destiny.

At the very foundation of the novel as a form is the idea that people determine the things that happen to them and the life they lead. And now it seems to me there are many ways, very dramatic ways, in which that is not true. To an extent it was always not true. There were always wars and accidents, and so on, but sometimes character can be shaped by destiny rather than the other way around. But that question – the question of the relationship between the individual and history, the question of the individual and the society in which he lives, which is after all an old novelistic question – seems to me has an extra edge right now because of the world we live in.

CB: That came home to me very powerfully in the book. You used the word frontier before. This novel moves from France to Kashmir to Los Angeles. It moves in time, and as it does all those frontiers dissolve in some way. You can’t stand outside this system and be disconnected from it and, as you say, that in turn raises the question of whether we are the victims of history or whether we are the motor force of history.

SR: Saleem, in Midnight’s Children, asks himself this question about whether we are masters or victims of our time and I guess I have been worrying away at it ever since. I now think that this question of interconnectedness is again a new thing. Human history hasn’t in the past been quite as interconnected as for various reasons it now is. The subject of the shrinking planet is not one that I invented. It is partly because of economic globalisation, partly because of mass migration, partly because of new information technologies, partly because of things like globalised terrorism. We suddenly live in a world in which one bit of it smashes into another all the time. In our cities we see the stories of many other parts of the world jostling with each other. The realistic novel is the novel which tries to take into account this interconnectedness and to understand what it means to live in such a world. Alsace is in the novel partly because Max, the American ambassador, comes from there, but also because in a strange way it balances Kashmir. Alsace, in a way, is Europe’s Kashmir, another place where people have fought over a frontier and where France and Germany have battled backwards and forwards, most recently and tragically in the Nazi period.

CB: And why did you give Max the name he has?

SR: My view is that very few people remembered the name of Max Ophüls, the film maker, until I used him as the name of the character. I think I have done him an enormous favour, but actually I am slightly irritated with myself that I did it because now I am having to explain it a lot. The truthful reason is that I wasn’t planning to call him that but I wanted a Franco-German-Jewish name because of his background and I remember writing down in my notebook something like Max Ophüls. Then every time I tried to change the name the character would not accept it, didn’t like it, and insisted on being Max Ophuls. So, in the end, I thought okay, people are called all kinds of things and there is going to have to be another Max Ophuls. Then I went through a whole process of self-justification and I had many, many, justifications. For example, Max Ophüls, the film director, wasn’t called Max Ophüls. It wasn’t his name. That was a name he took. He was really called Max Oppenheimer, and I thought if he had used that as a stage name I could pinch it back. Then I thought, this is a novel about the betrayal of love and one of the film-makers greatest films is Lola Montez, which is a film about the betrayal of love. So that is another reason. Then I thought this is a novel in which everybody is miserable about their name. All the characters hate their names for various reasons. It is a kind of running gag in the book. Everybody wants to change their name except Max who is perfectly happy with his though it is not his name. Then Max, in the Resistance, is a forger, forging identities to help people escape the Nazis. The fact that he himself has stolen a name from somebody else seemed not inappropriate, so it just went on and on like this.

Actually, the clincher for me was remembering that in my young days in advertising I had once met a man who was a PR man for a mattress company whose name was William Shakespeare, and he was very proud of it and fierce about it. He would answer the phone, through gritted teeth I suspect, and say, ‘Hello, William Shakespeare here.’ He didn’t call himself Bill Shakespeare or Billy Shakespeare, he called himself William Shakespeare, and I thought if there can be two William Shakespeares, that’s it. None of those are the reason. The reason is that the name got stuck and I couldn’t change it.

CB: How do you respond to those critics who have called Shalimar the Clown a return to form?

SR: You can imagine how I feel about that. It is very odd to me this business of giving retrospective bad reviews to previous books, books that were perfectly well reviewed at the time. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, for instance, was a book which got, I would say, ninety per cent terrific reviews and now in many of the newspapers where it was highly praised people say that it was a terrible novel. Excuse me for not agreeing. In the case of Fury, people really seemed to not go for it, in the critical fraternity at least, but that is not my experience amongst ordinary readers as I travel around lecturing and reading. I very often get people coming up to me, particularly younger readers, saying that they think it is one of the absolute favourite books of mine that they have read. I also find that it is enormously well liked amongst other writers, even writers I don’t particularly know, like Joyce Carol Oates. It seems to be very well liked in the academy. People studying my work seem to have a good regard for it. So it seems to me that of the various categories that there are of people who read books, ordinary readers, academics, other writers and book critics, it seems to be just one out of four that don’t like it. That is aright.

I never thought that I lost form particularly. On the other hand it felt very unusual writing this book, to tell you the truth. When I wrote it I did things I had never done. I showed people the book while I was writing it, which I have never done before. The reason I had never done it before is that I have always been very insecure to show unfinished work because I have felt that work in progress is very, very, fragile, that if people just say slightly the wrong thing it can really knock you for six and it can be difficult to regain your sense of what you are doing. So I have always hugged it to myself until I felt that it was more or less done. This time I felt able to show the book, a hundred pages at a time, to four or five friends and publishers. I don’t know why I did it. I just did it because this time I didn’t mind doing it and I think it might have been because I felt okay about it. I felt that there was something that was quite solid there and I wasn’t scared that I was going to be deflected from my work by people not liking it. In fact people did like it, so I do think there was something unusual in the writing of this book. I can’t really pin it down better than that.

I don’t myself give my books marks out of ten so I don’t have a view about which of my books is better. I know that the writing process of this one felt unusually safe. It felt as if there were these four characters at the heart of the book that were strong and solid and that if I just paid attention to them properly the book would write itself. So I don’t know what that means, whether that means it is a return to form or a better book or what, but I did feel unusually on safe ground writing it.

But there is no accounting for people’s responses. It reminds me of one of the very first encounters with audiences I ever had, which was in New Delhi, at the university, just after Midnight’s Children came out. There was a young woman reader, extremely beautiful I may say, who put up her hand, and so I immediately chose her. She said, ‘You see, Mr. Rushdie, your novel, Midnight’s Children, is very long. Does it have a point?’ I said, ‘Does it have to have just one point?’ And she said, ‘Well, fundamentally, yes.’ I opened my mouth to answer and she said, ‘I know what you are going to say. You are going to say the whole novel from the first page to the last page, that’s your point.’ I said, ‘Actually, yes, something like that.’ She said, ‘Well it won’t do.’

So what can I say? What was fundamentally my point? One of the points is the question of the relationship between history and memory. When I started writing the book I probably had a more Proustian idea of what I was doing, which I later abandoned, because I had this desire to go beyond memory in search of lost time, to try and bring the past back as if it had not gone away, which is the project of Proust. At a certain point, though, I came to think that that really wasn’t what I was interested in and that actually the distorting power of memory and its relationship to the facts was much more interesting because the truth is that when we remember our lives we all remember them incorrectly. That difference between memory and event fades away, particularly in private life when other people are not there. The way we remember our parents, after they are dead, is just something that lives in our minds. We may be wrong about the way we remember them but that is what we have. And so I began to think a lot about that.

The novel is not an objective history. Midnight’s Children is about somebody remembering his life and the events that happen in his life. In some cases there are some quite deliberate errors of memory which he clings to. I remember, for instance, when I was planning the book I was thinking about the period in the sixties when India went to war with China briefly, and I remember thinking how frightened everybody had been when the Chinese army defeated the Indian army on the high Himalayan slopes. I remembered people talking about the probability of China invading north India and capturing Delhi and how we would all be in the new Chinese empire. I remember people saying that they had better go and get Teach Yourself Chinese books because you would need them soon. I remembered all this stuff. Then, when I was talking to my parents about it, my mother said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about because you weren’t here.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I wasn’t here?’ And she said, ‘No, you were at boarding school in England when this happened.’ We looked at all the dates and she was quite right. It was school term and I was in Warwickshire, not in Bombay, and yet in spite of the fact that it was proved to me beyond any doubt that I had not been in India at the time my memory refused to give up the truth of what it had remembered.

I thought this was an interesting thing, that when we are faced with the choice between memory and fact we always prefer memory and I thought therefore that would become the policy of the book, that Saleem would tell his story as he remembered it and where his memory differed from the objective facts of the time, he would say, ‘To hell with that’ and prefer his memory. So it became a novel about the battle between memory and fact. In some places in the book that took on a political dimension because, of course, one of the things that has happened in India, as elsewhere, is that people of power tried to falsify the record and memory can then sometimes become a witness. To give just one example, in the struggle for Bangladesh the Pakistan army committed terrible atrocities. There was genocide, there was mass killing of intellectuals, for example, trades union offices set on fire with people inside etc. There was a whole list of atrocities. I am not merely making them up. They were a matter of record at the time. There is photographic evidence of this, reportage, eye witnesses, etc. and yet ever since then, l971, the official Pakistan line has been to deny that any of this ever happened and that it is an Indian conspiracy to say that it did. Then you find yourself in a position where you confront this with what you remember as having happened. What you are doing is setting your memory up against a version of history, against official history. That is one of the things I was trying to do. It was one of my “points.”


Extract from Writers in Conversation Volume 4Published in 2011 by Unthank Books.

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