Story of His Life
Monday, September 26, 2005
You know it's foolish, but you can't help flinching when the restaurant suddenly turns up the lights in the darkish corner you've settled into, shining what feels like a theater spot on the balding, blue-shirted international celebrity with whom you're trying to have a quiet lunch.
Don't do that, you mutter to yourself.
Salman Rushdie doesn't so much as blink.
It's been seven years since the murderous Iranian fatwa against him was effectively withdrawn -- almost as long as the nine years it was in place. When you first meet him, he is standing alone by the Cafe Atlantico bar: no handlers, no stone-faced security guys. Rushdie's publisher has assured you that safety is not a concern for him anymore.
Still, the thing that springs immediately to mind when his name comes up is not that the author of "Midnight's Children" and 13 other books is widely viewed as one of our best living writers. It's not that he has a new novel -- "Shalimar the Clown" -- out this month. No, it's that in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on his head. In the literal-minded view of Iran's radical theocracy, Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" had blasphemously disrespected Islam.
Old news. You're almost embarrassed to bring the subject up.
So you move on to another that seems central to understanding Rushdie and his work: the continuing, essential place of storytelling in the modern world.
Rushdie has produced his share of nonfiction, from a long essay on frontiers to a passionate appreciation of "The Wizard of Oz." But his stock in trade is inventing stories on a large scale. So what does he think when the literary form to which he's devoted his life is trashed as archaic, irrelevant, incapable of engaging with the 21st century? Just last month, for instance, V.S. Naipaul -- another celebrated English writer of Indian descent -- loudly dismissed literary fiction as inferior to reportage.
This, Rushdie says, is really old news. People are forever writing fiction off, but they're wrong.
"The art of the novel, I think, is to open worlds to you," he says. "And it seems to me we live in a time when that's of desperate importance. So why would that be the time when you declared the novel dead?"
Miss Marple and Jeeves
At 58, Rushdie has spent a lifetime connecting different worlds, both geographical and cultural. Over gazpacho, guacamole and a glass of red wine -- "I'll fall asleep later, but what the hell" -- he discusses, with equal facility, the works of Rudyard Kipling, Mikhail Bulgakov and J.K. Rowling. He confesses his love for the war sections of "War and Peace" and for the comic strip art of Garry Trudeau. And he tackles the age-old question of "what ifs" in history, as applied to the catastrophic partition of India six decades ago, at the end of Britain's colonial rule.
Mostly, however, he talks about "Shalimar the Clown," and the way he's used his storytelling skills to evoke the increasingly borderless universe we now inhabit, in which "everything is leaking into everything else."