Monday, September 26, 2005

An Evening with Salman Rushdie

Author Salman Rushdie is one of those people I'd love to have dinner with, in the expectation of having one of the greatest conversations of my life ... except that my half of the conversation would consist largely of dead silence or gibberish in the intimidating face of the master of wide-ranging intelligence and wit. So a better alternative for me was to see him give a reading and answer questions at a recent stop in Vancouver.

Rushdie read some comic and tragic passages from his new novel, Shalimar the Clown, before answering questions first from the moderator and then from the audience.

His comments gave a flavour of his writing process, which he likened to an uncovering rather than a creation, much like Michelangelo's theory of sculpture revealing the true form of the marble. “All writing is an act of discovery,” he said, before explaining that “the novel is about the construction of meaning” by shaping information into structure.

Rushdie lets his ideas solidify for years, sometimes decades, before turning them into the raw material for his stories, and often the final form differs significantly from his initial vision. With Shalimar the Clown, he had the central image of a murder, then had to “work out who these people were.”

He also drew on his Kashmiri background as inspiration, painting the now-wartorn area as a former utopia, ideologically and geographically. “It's one of those strange places in the world where people seem to have worked out how to get along,” he said, until it got “caught between the rock of India and the hard place of Pakistan.”

“I did often think of the metaphor of Paradise Lost,” he explained, except that the Kashmiris were not ejected from their paradise, but have rather lived to see it destroyed. “Paradise Trashed – not quite Miltonic, is it?” asked Rushdie, who favours independence for the area.

He spoke of his characters with affection, as though they were friends who guided him on the writing journey, and credited them with a life of their own. After reading an amusing bit about Olga Volga, a neighbour of one of the main characters, he stopped, bemused: “She's a secondary character and she's in danger of taking the book over. Stop, Olga, stop.”

Shalimar the Clown is dedicated to his Kashmiri grandparents, and while he feels his grandfather embodied traits of Kashmir in his diplomacy, “my grandmother was a ferocious, terrifying woman. That must be why there's so many ferocious, terrifying women in my books.”

As in his previous novels - such as Midnight's Children, my first and still favourite Rushdie novel - he uses elements of allegory and fantasy in his latest, though less than usual, he points out. When the moderator brought up the possibly-not-as-profound-as-he-thought point that Rushdie uses fate as a theme, and the author himself is in charge of his characters' fates, Rushdie's response drew one of the biggest laughs of the evening: “In the world of the novel, there is a god.”

Thanks to his essays on everything from politics to pornography, the audience questions ranged far beyond his writing. Asked to predict the political repercussions of Hurricane Katrina, Rushdie rejected the idea that he could foresee those repercussions any better than the questioner, or that he would want to try. “I've had some problems with prophets in my life,” he said wryly, alluding to the fatwa proclaimed by the Ayatollah Khomeini after the publication of The Satanic Verses, which was called blasphemous to the prophet Muhammad. Though he was in England promoting Shalimar the Clown when the hurricane hit, he recalled his horror at the images on the television screen. “This incredibly wealthy and powerful country couldn't look after its own people. ... It looked like Bangladesh.”

“What does it say about Homeland Security that four years after 9/11, they can't evacuate a city?”

With thought-provoking discussion like that on a range of topics, including the Arabian Nights and Air Canada, even a one-sided conversation with Rushdie was memorable.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

"A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return."
- Salman Rushdie