Emerging from would-be exile, celebrated by critics and readers alike, author Salman Rushdie speaks to Seán Mulvey about his inspiration, his student days and Bridget Jones’ Diary.
“Well, it’s not a very good joke,” retorts Booker Prize winning novelist Salman Rushdie, knocking down one student’s attempt at humour. The joke? What’s the title of Rushdie’s new book? ‘Buddha is a Big Fat Bastard’.
It’s not that Rushdie is worried about poking fun at the infamous fatwa, instead he offers his own suggestion of a better joke about his years in hiding; ‘“What’s blonde, has big tits and lives in Australia?” Salman Rushdie.’ “You see, that’s a better joke.”
Proof that times have changed for Rushdie is evidenced by the fact he may now address a packed Theatre Q in the Arts Block, and receive the L&H’s James Joyce Award without fear of assassination, or even the need for heavy security.
In 1989, the Indian-British novelist published The Satanic Verses, a novel which caused instant outrage in the Islamic world due to its depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Soon the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeni, proclaimed a fatwa, ordering Muslims to execute Rushdie for his blasphemous portrayal of the prophet. The British Government severed diplomatic ties with Tehran over the heated conflict.
With a death sentence hanging over him, Rushdie was forced into hiding with police protection for the next nine years. The Japanese translator of the novel was stabbed to death in 1991, whilst a Norwegian publisher of the book barely survived an assassination attempt. As bookstores were bombed in the UK, Rushdie withdrew from public life, and was forced to move every three days with his 24-hour police guard in tow.
Still, Rushdie wrote unabated, publishing six books before, in 1998, the writer could return to public life after the Iranian government, though refusing to revoke the fatwa, declared it would no longer “support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie”.
So, where once Rushdie would promote a book flanked by bodyguards and by agreeing to meet interviewers in secret locations, he can now stand before a full lecture theatre and read extracts from his latest work, The Enchantress of Florence, with less security than a Green Party TD would need for a visit to Belfield.
The Enchantress of Florence has been described as his most researched book, and as Rushdie reads extracts from the novel to students, it is clear the preparatory work for the novel was something of a labour of love.
“All the most bizarre material of the book is absolutely true, and all the banal stuff is the stuff I made up,” he quips before explaining the true story of an Ottoman emperor who beheaded an adversary before somewhat rudely having the skull set in a rather fine goblet.
When I was a student at university, I read [Joyce’s] books for the first time, and I still think The Dead is the best short story of all time
The novel is a fascinatingly exotic tale, which Rushdie describes as “a kind of 16th century road novel, with two journeys, one from the east to the west, and one from the west to the east.” Bringing together Florence with the hedonistic Mughal capital, Rushdie creates a world populated with intriguing historical personalities, such as the great Mughal Emperor Akbar and Machiavelli, the great Italian philosopher.
At the heart of the novel is a character completely of Rushdie’s own creation, the beguiling enchantress of the title, whom everyone, from a Uzbeg warlord to a Florentine soldier, falls in love with. It is, by some way, Rushdie’s most sexually explicit novel, and he seems to revel in describing the fevered sex of the sub-continent’s brothels.
However, it is the blending of history and fiction which makes the work most enjoyable. During the reading, Rushdie gets visibly exited when recounting the incredible true story of the gardeners of a royal court who doubled as executioners for the estate (though an aristocrat could win his freedom if he outran the head-gardener in a foot race… seriously).
Rushdie later tells Otwo of the meticulous research he carried out in order to find out such weird and wonderful tales. “I loved it, history was my subject when I was a student. And all the stuff that is true is so juicy, how could it not be fun to find out about all that! Research sounds dull or tedious, but actually it was delightful. You stumble upon all this stuff, and you think, my god, I couldn’t make this up!”
Since being released from the cloistered world of his exile, Rushdie is free to enjoy life more and embark on some amusing side projects. Those unwilling to slog through the mammoth, allegorical, magic-realism epic that is The Satanic Verses may still recognise Rushdie from somewhere else; performing alongside Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary.
His scholarly look and the calming upper-class British accent are momentarily forgotten as he confides; “and I won’t pretend I didn’t inhale
The rom-com may seem an unlikely acting debut for such a writer, but Rushdie still laughs about the situation. “It was just a series of accidents, Helen Fielding (author of Bridget Jones’ Diary) is a friend of mine and her exact words were “How would you like to make a fool of yourself?”
Other famous friends who have opened new doors for Rushdie include our very own Bono, who recorded a song based on Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
“It was great fun to write a song with him, but again it was just an accident. I had just sent him the book for him to read, and in it is this lyric of an imaginary song, ‘The Ground Beneath her Feet’, and he loved the lyric and asked to write a song about it. Being U2, they forget to tell you they’re actually recording a song, and one day I got a call from Bono’s assistant, asking me if I could fax him the lyrics as they were recording the song and he’d lost the words. That’s the only way I found out they were recording it!”
In summer of last year Rushdie was knighted for his services to literature, thus becoming Sir Salman Rushdie, an award which resulted in Al-Qaeda releasing a video denouncing Rushdie, with Ayman al-Zawahiri threatening “a very precise response” to Queen Elizabeth II.
Whilst the James Joyce Award may not be about to provoke the ire of Islamic terrorists, Rushdie seemed proud of his award.
“Joyce was a huge influence”, he confides, genuinely pleased to have an award with the Joyce name to it. “When I was a student at university, I read those books for the first time, and I still think The Dead is the best short story of all time. When I was your age, there was no writer who was more of an influence to me.”
And a rather successful influence Joyce turned out to be. This summer Rushdie received the incredible
honour of winning the ‘Best of the Booker’, a prize for the greatest novel of all those to win the prestigious award in its forty year history. The public voted in tandem with judges to laud Rushdie’s 1981 classic, Midnight’s Children, winning the prize which gives it the honour of being arguably the greatest novel written in the last four decades.
Though his modern classic has been compared in scope to Ulysses, Rushdie insists the work had more humble origins. “When I finished it I must say, I thought it was quite a good book. But my track record up to that was not distinguished, so I just hoped it would get published. It was by no means certain to be published”.
With just one novel before Midnight’s Children, the critically derided Grimus, Rushdie is sincere when saying “the idea that it would go on to have such an extraordinary afterlife was unimaginable.”
Being a student of the 1960s, surely that climate of rebellion and student activism played a large part in feeding the politically controversial side to Rushdie’s personality? “Oh yes, I was in college at a very good time to be in college; 1965 to 1968. That was the historical centre of sex, drugs and rock’n roll”. His scholarly look and the calming upper-class British accent are momentarily forgotten as he confides;
“and I won’t pretend I didn’t inhale”.
Rushdie was a student in the swinging sixties, when the student population could be powerful and influential. Today, it seems student activism is less relevant, no longer are student organisations powerful enough to influence politics or society in the way they once did. Yet Rushdie sees hope for the student movement.
“I was very interested to see what was happening in America right now. I’ve never seen a student population so energised as they are by this election. The students registering in millions, you could see people flocking to get their names down as they are so enthused by the candidacy of Barack Obama. It’s created a really different mood amongst students. They seem to be politically alive in a way they weren’t for a while.”
A writer at heart, it is clear Rushdie sees stories everywhere, from the incredible assassins-cum-gardeners of the 16th century, to the political story unfolding in the States, and Rushdie is one man who couldn’t be accused of not always being politically alive, even when that life was in danger.
Salman Rushdie was presented with the James Joyce Award by the Literary & Historical Society (L&H) on Thursday, 9th October 2008.