Sunday 22 October 2017

Salman Rushdie: 'Trump is all but despised in New York'

It's been 28 years since Salman Rushdie's writing put him at the centre of a global storm. He talks to our reporter about the current US administration's inversion of 'truth', his new novel and why he's delighted 'The Satanic Verses' is finally been talked about as a funny book

Critical eye: 'Irreverence is an excellent policy for a writer,' says Rushdie
Critical eye: 'Irreverence is an excellent policy for a writer,' says Rushdie

Hilary A White

'The subject of the truth has become so central to this moment. What is it? Is there such a thing as objective, verifiable truth any longer?"

Salman Rushdie sighs down the phone. He's just been telling me it's a beautiful morning in New York, sunny and mild, but now he is struggling.

"There's a deliberate attempt by this US administration to demolish the idea of objective truth," he continues, "so that people putting out 'untruth' on a daily basis accuse journalism of being fake. This is what Lewis Carroll once called 'Humpty-Dumpty language' - 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' That idea that you can randomly alter the meaning of words like 'elite' - I mean, how do journalists and professors and writers become the 'elite' when faced with a government which contains more billionaires than there have been in the history of America? Nonsense! It is an absolute inversion of truth, and these inversions we see all around us."

It is a testament to the state of the world when someone - whose work has regularly swirled the fantastical and the starkly real into one another with heady precision - is at his wits' end trying make sense of things. Such are the times we live in.

Mind you, speaking to Rushdie today, you'd be forgiven for thinking nothing has changed that much in the three decades that have passed since he found himself the most-discussed author on planet Earth. His 13th novel, The Golden House, a typically bold and all-encompassing saga, is being released into a world where a cold war smoulders, U2 are on tour, and the politics of offence and Islamist terror are aflame once again. Even Rushdie finds it all amusing, chuckling in agreement. He will sing the praises of a recent Joshua Tree tour date in Giants Stadium in New York that he attended and categorically rubbish rumours that he used Bono's gate lodge as a hideaway ("I've spent several weekends there but that's about it") during that whole period.

A more distant historical echo is sounding in the immediate present. It is the 70-year anniversary of India's partition, an event that formed the narrative spine of his superlative 1981 epic, the twice-crowned 'Booker of Bookers' Midnight's Children. That novel was a cornucopia of symbolism, magic and destinies in flux while a nation learned to walk unsteadily in the backdrop. The author wanted the sprawl and sheer density of his homeland's population to dance about the pages because each life is, he said at the time, a story in itself. A nation is also a story, he added. Where, then, is the story of India at these days?

"A difficult place," says the man born eight weeks to the day before partition. "The idea for the country was a secularist India which was put in place by the founding fathers of the country, but the current administration is trying very energetically to create a Hindu state and discount the authenticity of the experiences of other kinds of Indian minorities - even to the extent of rewriting text books."

As he elaborates about state-supported religious bigotry, lynchings and the compliant media support of the seemingly unshakeable Modi government, Rushdie's concern is palpable.

The civil war that followed partition split many families - including his own - down the middle (one of a few parallels he draws with Ireland, along with religious sectarianism, a famine history and an "extraordinary" postcolonial literary culture). India and characters hailing from the subcontinent have been fundamental threads on Rushdie's storytelling and loom over countless novels, short stories, essays and even children's books, such as his 1990 Haroun and the Sea of Stories. While he has spent most of his life living in the UK and, more recently, the US, it is still from his early years growing up in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, that the brightest shards of inspiration come.

While The Golden House is another of Rushdie's 'New York novels', after his 2015 Arabian Nights update Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, its central cast all hail from the Motherland. It tells of a father and three sons who arrive ready-formed to Manhattan's most opulent and influential tier but with a shady past that threatens to cash in its chips. The backdrop for this broken family is a broken country, where identity politics has replaced God and a ludicrously arch nihilist is rising to political power, a "propagandist accusing the whole world of propaganda, a bully whining about being ganged up on, the crook pointing a crooked finger at his rival and calling her crooked, a child's game becoming the national ugliness". Sound familiar?

Since Rushdie's America is obsessed with superhero films, this overheated Trump avatar is depicted as Batman's Joker, purple suit, green hair and all.

But this is the Christopher Nolan-esque mould of the character, one who might just want to watch the world burn. After 20 years, Rushdie considers himself a part-of-the-furniture New Yorker and, if he is likening the incumbent US President to Gotham's arch villain, he is only chiming with the vast majority of that city's inhabitants, he says.

"Trump is all but despised in New York. He's almost seen as a joke. But the trump and the joker are the two playing cards that don't behave like the others. The joker is a terrifying figure. One of the things I hope to suggest is that there is this real story about real people in a real place facing real-life problems, but if you look above them at the level of power, there are grotesque discussions, a real America being governed by something grotesque. It's the background of the novel but it's not the point of the novel."

Howard Jacobson, whose lacerating satire Pussy was more squarely aimed at Donald Trump, insisted that the novel was and always will be a platform for disobedience, scepticism and derision. Rushdie agrees. "Irreverence is an excellent policy for a writer. I don't think there's a great deal of excellent reverential fiction. It would be tedious in the extreme. That is why novelists sometimes find themselves at odds with the world they're describing. For example, there was a long period in which Joyce was not worshipped in Ireland."

He enjoyed last week's season finale of Game of Thrones, and like the 60-minute television drama series format, the novel also allows us "to enter a world that is emotionally complicated and intellectually less narrow than 140 characters" (he abandoned Twitter the day of last November's election, dismayed by the "aggressive, discourteous" tone of complete strangers).

We're slowly circling towards you know what, taking a scenic route through online mobs, trial by internet and the "worrying" espousal of censorship in educational institutions such as Berkeley in California. While the likes of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have helped bring the discussion of atheism into the mainstream, Rushdie still finds it shocking how little headway the movement has made in the US. "If I address an audience in the UK or Ireland and say I'm not religious," he says, "nobody gives a damn. People almost can't understand why I bothered to say it! Whereas in America, if you talk about not believing in god, there is a kind of sharp intake of breath. This is a country where everybody believes in something, even if it's only veganism."

Not that you, or indeed he, needs reminding, but in 1988, Rushdie's fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, placed him in the eye of a global storm when the novel was interpreted as being blasphemous to Islam. A fatwa was issued in 1989 by Iran's then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini that put a price on Rushdie's head while also condemning anyone involved in the book's publication. Rushdie did not appear in public for six years, living constantly on the move with armed security (he detailed the experiences in 2012 memoir Joseph Anton).

It was a defining event of the late 20th Century that seemed to sweep everyone up in its wake as diplomatic ties broke down, books and effigies were torched, and both sides of the fiercely waged philosophical debate eyed each other with venomous suspicion. Depressingly, the bounty was renewed by Iranian state media outlets just last year.

While he has spoken openly on that period, the last time Rushdie was interviewed in an Irish broadsheet, the subject was off-limits. No forewarning has been given today, so the elephant in the corner is approached and found to be very forthcoming.

"Well what's nice, actually, is that now I can talk about it as a book," Rushdie says, his voice slumping happily with relief. "One of the things that's happening now, which really pleases me, is that it's being studied a lot in universities - but not on religion courses, on literature courses."

Similarly, he is delighted to discuss the humour contained in this funniest of Salman Rushdie novels, something only now being talked about since its rise from the ashes of controversy.

"Because the storm that surrounded it was so unfunny, it seemed almost indecent to say that it's a funny book. There are people who can't stand it, and that's alright. That's what's meant to happen to a book when it comes out - for people to not like it, but not because they think it's offensive to them.

"One thing you learn after many years in this game is that the things people who like your books like about your books are exactly the same as the things people who don't like your books don't like about them. In other words, you can't please everyone. I've been fortunate in my life that I've managed to please enough people to make a living."

While annoying one or two at the same time.

"Oh yes, along the way, yes," he laughs. "That is true."

The Golden House is published by Jonathan Cape, priced €15

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