In the last decade Americans have watched dumbfounded as the Cold War evolved into the War on Terror. How did this happen? Why did it happen? And who is to blame? Perhaps the most qualified novelist in the world to address these questions is 58-year-old Salman Rushdie. Indian by way of Pakistan and Anglo by way of boarding school in England, Rushdie is a quintessential east-west soul. Born into a secular Muslim household, he experienced the wrath of Islamic fundamentalism in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini put a bounty on his head for the perceived slights against Muslims in his comic novel, Satanic Verses.
It's been several years since this death sentence was lifted and Rushdie has managed to keep the focus in his work on the power of storytelling, not politics. The same goes for his latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, which wraps a story about one man's radicalization into a larger meditation on the dangers of shape-shifting in our present age. Ever the chameleon himself, Rushdie lives in New York and London these days. Here is what he had to say by phone about his new book.
One of my favorite details in this new novel is the feast called "36 courses minimum," prepared by chefs in Kashmir. Is there really such a thing?
I'm afraid there is. You eat it and then you recover for a year. There is also a banquet—and the real name of that is super-wazwan, which is even more food.
It's funny to read about this cuisine and then fast forward to Europe in the wake of World War II: It packs quite the cultural jet lag. Do you ever have to research details like this or does it come naturally?
One of my good fortunes as a writer is to have access to a lot of traditions—and not just inside Western culture, high culture or low culture—remember, I am a child of the '60s generation, I was 21 in 1968. I am also somebody who is passionately in love with the language of cinema, so all this stuff, music, movies, food, it's just readily available—not something I have to bone up on.
Do you have any guilty pleasure reading habits?
I love Elmore Leonard, but other than that I don't read a lot of genre fiction because it becomes by nature formulaic.
But you must admire the page-turning ability of today's popular writers: one of the striking things about your work is that you entertain, and entertain complexity, at the same time. Have these things always been mutually exclusive?
Well, one of the things that happened in the wake of modernism is that you wound up with popular fiction which told great page-turning stories, but had no other qualities. And you had the so-called literary novel, which had all those other virtues, but didn't tell a story.
As someone who has had a very personal relationship to extremism, did you think twice about empathizing—and entertaining—with a killer like Shalimar? Did you ever step back and think, "How can I possibly care for this guy? He's a monster."
When I am not writing a book, when it's just me sitting around, that is how I would think. But when you are in the act of writing the book, you are not in the book but inside your characters. Asking questions: How can I create a certain atmosphere? How can I render this scene? That kind of question—it occurs the second you stop.
Early press has billed this as a novel about extremism, which seems rather reductive given the way you marinate each character in their past.
I rather regret that kind of simplification. I mean, there is the title character who does become a man of violence, but what I thought I was writing about was the importance of various kinds of loving relationships, and the way in which when those relationships are strong, differences can be bridged, and when they break down, what the consequences of that may be.
Since you are in London now, I was wondering if you could tell me how it feels there in the wake of the July bombings.
It's very strange. I'm very concerned. If there was a third attack the backlash could be absolutely horrendous. Already, there is some anecdotal [evidence] that crimes against Muslims have increased exponentially.
Blair has proposed kicking certain clerics "who preach hate" out of the country. Do you agree with this?
I think it's important that there should be a response from within, in the mosques, I mean. And there is some evidence that will happen. But taking off my liberal hat for a second, one of the things England has made a mistake of was letting in all these extreme radical groups over the years. The theory being that it meant London wouldn't get attacked. And now it seems like the government [agrees]. That being the case, you just have to be cautious of whether the government is over-applying such a policy.
In New York you were on the stump for literary open-mindedness, hosting the festival for international literature as president of PEN. Why choose New York as the venue?
It's something I very much wanted to do: to stress the international aspect of literature. One of the shocking statistics is how few books are published in translation in America. In European countries it's around 15 or 16 percent; even in England it's close to 10 percent. In America it's just three percent. Unfortunately, this means Americans don't have an opportunity to find out about the best stuff in the rest of the world.