Almost done with my catch-up posts.
I went to see Salman Rushdie speak at what I call Dallas Brooks Hall but which I think now has another name. I can’t move with the times which is why it’s always ‘Spencer Street Station’, ‘Telstra Dome’ and ‘Kardinia Park’.
I had a good seat and as I was settling, ran into an old colleague from uni, who I helped with some research work, a few years ago. It was really good to see him and we had a quick catch-up before he went and found his seat. Then I sat and waited and saw a trolley suitcase in the aisle, next to an empty seat, which was next to a woman who, the longer I looked at her, seemed very intense and calm. My brain started, and then I thought about how there’d been no security going into the venue, and indeed tickets hadn’t even been checked as we’d walked into the auditorium. I actually went in and out twice as I’d left my phone in the car. The longer I sat there, the more nervous I got. I swear, I was considering leaving. Something to do with having been around bombs in Istanbul in the early to mid nineties, it’s crazy I know but you know how when you start thinking something it’s hard to get it out of your head? Yeah, that.
I’m thinking: fatwa. The fatwa didn’t get lifted with death of Khomeini. When did he die? Is Rushdie still in hiding? But no, here’s here, with publicity. And there’s that suitcase. Why is it there? Are the organisers so bomb-unaware that they haven’t even noticed it? Anyone who travelled in the nineties and two thousands knows about rubbish bins, bags at airports, unattended bags anywhere. The places you don’t go or don’t linger: public toilets, phone boxes, bus stations, government offices.
So I asked. I called over an officious older woman in black, who looked like she might have travelled in the early nineties at least, and as soon as I pointed out the case she knew exactly where my head was at. Don’t worry, she said. It might not look like it but there’s so much security here. And the suitcase? It was the photographer’s, she said.
The theme of the evening was ‘Freedom to Write’ and I have to tell you, I didn’t expect to like Salman quite so much. I’m not sure why, but I had thought he was a bit of a pompous man. There was something I remember reading about his memoir of the ‘hiding years’ Joseph Anton (a book I have but have not opened), something about how the use of the third person was deemed pretentious. Also I’d formed (unconsciously even) an opinion about him based purely on the fact that he’s had a very gorgeous wife. Unfair I know but still, these viewpoints get formed. I’ve never read anything of his. Tried Midnight’s Children like so many other people, and failed to get into it.
Straight up, Rushdie was self-deprecating. Let’s lose the sir, he said. It’s really only good for getting seats in restaurants, he said. He told a story about a friend’s daughter in New York who’d been very excited about his knight-ship, how she was disappointed ‘there wasn’t any armour.’ But even as he was charming us with these stories, I thought: he’s still mentioning it. He’s focusing on something that he’s said he wants to not focus on. These big authors, they have their shtick. I suppose we all do, even the little people, in our own small worlds, we are all operating.
Rushdie was jetlagged. He’d arrived that afternoon and he was a sniffer and a nose-toucher. One of my people. To my ear, at first, his accent sounded South Efrican. Is that possible? I made a note in my books, it had a definite inflection, that seemed to soften as he went on, and he became more British. He talked about coming to Australia 30 years ago, being at the Adelaide Festival, about sitting around with Angela Carter and Bruce Chatwin, watching Chatwin fail to pick up a beautiful woman who was sitting nearby. Again: charming and personable.
Twain and Dickens went on the road a lot. If Dickens didn’t invent the book tour he did a lot to popularise it. Back then it was more of a performance, as Dickens would read and do all the voices. Literature is important, Rushdie told us. ‘This strange thing literature.’ Humans are the only creatures on earth that tell stories… to try to understand what sort of creatures we are. We have grand narratives, of history and of religion, and as a people we live within these narratives. When we want to understand something, it’s a story we look to because that’s where the truth is exposed, the answers kept.
There might be attacks on literature, and they might be censorship but it seems more profound even than censorship because attacks are on our need to listen to and tell stories. A deep human need. It’s always been the case that the literate and the powerful have been at odds with each other, he said. Voltaire said it was always a good idea for a writer to live near an international frontier, and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said what a writer needs is ‘silence, exile, cunning.’
Rushdie told that when the fatwa was issued, an uncle of his (a ‘real bad guy’ who was involved with Al-Qaeda later etc etc) took out a full-page ad in the Pakistan press saying ‘we didn’t like him anyway.’ (Rushdie linked back to this later, saying that he has often had people offside with his writing, and that he has never written to please the mullahs.)
Writers and politicians to some degree fight for the same territory – they try to tell you how things are and want you to buy them. Rushdie quoted Milan Kundera from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting said: the struggle on man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. That we live in an age where there can be violent disagreements about reality. Apparently Indira Gandhi sued Rushdie a couple of years after Midnight’s Children because he had said something unflattering about her and her ex-husband’s relationship. But then she was assassinated, so ‘nothing happened with that.’ Then with his next book Shame one of the Pakistani generals didn’t like it, ‘but he died in a plane crash.’ ‘And,’ continued Rushdie, ‘on my small matter of conflict with the Ayatollah Khomeini, all I’ll say about that is that one of us is here and the other isn’t.’ Big audience laughter. ‘As a dictator dispatcher, it’s a small service I can perform.’
On success and failure
Pushing the boundaries as an artist, it’s difficult work and you can succeed or fail. And the people who don’t want you to do it seem to be increasing [in numbers]. But Ovid’s poetry has outlasted the Roman Empire; poet Osip Mandestam wrote about Stalin’s moustache and was sent to a labour camp and died. But his poetry lasted. Rushdie quoted widely: Saul Bellow, Joyce, Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered but whose work persists.
Literature continues to speak when its opponents are silenced.
Art doesn’t need defending, Rushdie said, because it lasts, but writers can be damaged, hurt; they need help and defending. The job of the writer is to speak truth to power.
Chat with Louise Adler
Adler opened with a question on whether writers need to be politicised. Rushdie said when writers speak outside their work, they’re essentially speaking as citizens. He doesn’t want to be polemic in his work, it dates the work and while writers have felt obliged to do this, he doesn’t. The problem is that you are always trying to write a book that lasts. If you write a politically relevant book, it won’t be read in twenty, thirty years.
If you’re my kind of writer, you want your books to last. My friend Martin Amis says you want to leave behind books on a shelf.
The Mullahs never liked anything I said, Rushdie said. They never liked anything Edward Said said either. ‘I wasn’t writing for those gentlemen.’
On the day of learning about the fatwa, he said he wished he’d been more critical. The book itself isn’t a criticism of Islam but a religion that reacts to a book it doesn’t like in this way needs to be criticised, he said. Midnight’s Children is a London novel, set in the ’80s, what we’ve come to think of as a time of ‘high Thatcherism’. The west as we know it is an incredibly fractured place, and in the Islamic world the real battles are between the differences within Islam, he said. ‘The old battle between Sunni and Shi’ite has a new edge.’ There’s no such thing now as Islam, and no such thing as the west. More young British muslims are going off to fight with jihadist groups than joined the armed forces.
And on news?
People get the news they deserve.
Rushdie is an historian, he never studied literature or did creative writing. History is the science of trying to understand the world, he said. The problem with golden ages in history is that people always think they will last forever. Golden ages only last a short time and then there’s a fall. His novel Fury was written the summer of 2000. What he didn’t know was that the publication date of Fury was September 11, 2001. Instantly, on the day it was published, this very very contemporary novel became historical. (It had been written ‘right up against’ his experiences of living in New York. When people started to read again it was nostalgia they yearned for.
Response to audience questions
Given the choice of love and not love, Rushdie would choose love. And pay the price later.
It’s rare for books to effect social change, but books can have a deep impact on a person who loves it; it changes the way you see the world. We are what we read.
I went and bought The Satanic Verses and lined up to get it signed. When I got to the top of the very long queue, I’d decided not to say anything, just hold the book out for him. He looked up at me and said ‘hi’ and his voice was very tired. I said ‘hi’ back, he signed the book and away I went.