Salman Rushdie on mystical revelation, hitting bottom and the temptation to betray oneself, and why literature shouldn’t be expected to make us better people.
It’s a Sunday morning in September and a large crowd of uncharacteristically early birds has gathered in the foyer of the Haus Der Berliner Festpiele in Wilmersdorf, many with books under their arms – worn-out copies of The Satanic Verses and Midnight Children, or crisp new ones ready to be autographed. It’s the Berlin Literature Festival and Salman Rushdie is about to read from the autobiographical novel Joseph Anton: A Memoir, in which he tells the story of a decade spent in hiding (under the eponymous alias) following his sentencing to death by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989.
Rushdie is welcomed on stage with a fervour usually reserved for huge stars. He is a star. The 90 minutes that follow don’t disappoint. Rushdie’s prose is limpid, the story gripping, his delivery engaging. In the talk that follows – conducted by his German translator Bernhard Robben – Rushdie reconfirms his reputation as a witty, generous and captivating speaker.
We decided to share excerpts from this moment of live literature with our readers, as an homage to both a great festival and great intellectual who in October celebrated the 25th anniversary of the publication of his once-deemed-blasphemous The Satanic Verses.
Why did you choose Joseph Anton as the alias you’d be hiding under for the nearly 10 years that the fatwa hung over you?
The British police told me to choose a name – and to try not to make it an Indian name, because that would be too obvious. The main reason was so that my protection team could train themselves not to use my real name by mistake. In the supermarket they could have accidentally said, “So and so sent me to get some cheese,” and thus blow the protection. Eventually I thought I could just make combinations of names of writers I liked. Some weren’t very successful – Marcel Beckett? Not very convincing. After fooling around with these things I wrote down Joseph and Anton and thought that could actually be somebody’s name – it sounded plausible.
My question is, to put it bluntly: if I were standing on the mountain next to Muhammad, would I see the angel?
Then I came to think that that odd combination of Conrad and Chekhov had something to said about the condition that I was in. Chekhov, especially in his plays, is such a great artist of loneliness and isolation, people wanting to be somewhere that they can’t be, the Three Sisters yearning for a Moscow that they can’t go to. I felt a bit in that position, yearning for a world that I couldn’t regain.
And Conrad wrote quite a bit about secret police and spies and so on, but I also remembered a phrase in the novel The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ which struck me a lot. It’s the story of a sea voyage, and the title character is aboard this ship, but he’s very sick, he’s suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis and everybody on the ship is worried that they’ll catch the disease, and there’s this moment where one of the other sailors crawls up to his cabin window and says, “Why did you get on the ship? You must have known you were sick.” And he had this fantastic answer: “I must live until I die.” I thought of it as a motto. We all have to do that, live until we die. I thought, “Do that, don’t stop being yourself!”
I remember a friend of mine, the great Conrad scholar Edward Said. Edward had cancer and fought it for many, many years. And during the years he was fighting the cancer he went on lecturing, writing books and travelling and teaching. I remember talking to him about that particular phrase of Conrad, and him saying that’s what we have to try to do.
When a state like Iran declares war on an English citizen, one would assume that you would live in safe houses provided by the state. That’s not the way it happened.
I was offered police protection, which meant that the special branch showed up, and that’s probably the reason that I’m sitting here talking to you. But it was made very clear to me in the beginning that they were not going to find me a place to live. I had a house, but they said I couldn’t go there because it was a row house and it was impossible to protect – it would endanger the street, and essentially cost them too much money to protect the neighbourhood. So (a) I wasn’t going to live in my own house, and (b) they weren’t going to help me find a place to live. So I had to find someplace… which is quite difficult when you’re also supposed to be invisible.
My friend and editor Bill Buford said “Your friends will form a ring of steel and you will be able to live inside that.” And that’s what happened. People helped me rent places or even moved out of their own homes so that I could live in them. It’s not a small thing to give up your home for somebody else, particularly in a situation of considerable risk. One of the nice things about writing this book is that it’s a way to thank people who did things.
I remember saying to one of the senior police officers, “What would you have done if The Satanic Verses was a poem and I had the kind of income usually associated with poetry? What would you have done if I didn’t have the money coming in to rent these places?” And he said, “Well we don’t have to answer that question.” In other words, they had no idea what they would have done.
Really we were making it up as we went along. I have read spy novels, too, and if there is such a thing as government safe houses, I never saw one.
I quote from Joseph Anton: “He wished he had written a more critical book, he felt he had not written a book that was especially critical about Islam.”
Do you know how many people have read The Satanic Verses and come up to me and asked, “Which was the bit that that problem was about?” because they can’t see it? And the problem is that the book that was described in order to inflame people was very different from the book that actually exists.
And I did feel that after the leader of Shia Islam felt like he had to personally authorise my death, that that was a religion that might do with a little criticism. But the book, I think, is quite seriously interested in the life of the prophet.
You’re actually a trained historian.
I have a university degree in history, including specialising in the life of the prophet and early Islam. And one of the great ironies is that I know a great deal more about this than most of the people who were attacking the book. For instance, the incident of the Satanic Verses is not something that I made up. It’s very, very well recorded. I can defend almost everything that’s in The Satanic Verses from the historical record.
So with The Satanic Verses you tried to write a historical recording of what happened to the prophet…
It’s a dream sequence, but it’s an attempt to understand the phenomenon of revelation. From Muhammad’s own description of when he goes up to the mountain and sees the angel, he describes it in terms which are very similar to other mystical experiences – if you read about Joan of Arc or Saint John the Divine, the phenomenon they describe is very like this.
Muhammad talks about how he didn’t always see something; sometimes he only heard something. He says that sometimes the things seemed to come from inside him, from the area of the navel, he felt like something was pushing its way out of him. He would say it was often very physically painful, often so painful that he fell down on the ground. This is a fairly uniform description of mystical experience. So it’s clear that there is such a phenomenon.
This thing happens to people, they’re not making it up. Some people have said it relates to epilepsy, we don’t know. My question is, to put it bluntly: if I, as someone who’s not a religious person, were standing on the mountain next to Muhammad, would I see the angel? Now, he describes the angel as extremely large. He said the angel stood on the horizon and filled the sky. That’s a big angel! So I thought, if I’m sitting next to him, I should see it too. But, of course, my sceptical self believes that, probably, I would not have seen it. And yet I also believe he is having a completely sincere experience. He’s not making it up.
So then the question is, what’s happened? What is it, this thing we call revelation? The book is an attempt to explore that in a narrative form. Those sections of the book, two chapters of 40 pages each, from a 600 page novel, that’s what we’re talking about. And remember, in the novel, it’s a dream sequence in the mind of somebody who is schizophrenic. The prophet is not called Muhammad, the city is not called Mecca and the religion is not called Islam. This is what we in the trade call “fiction”.
Two questions are asked which are asked elsewhere in the book as well. How does newness enter the world? How is a new idea born? And it suggests that any new idea has to face two tests: one is the test of weakness: how do you behave when you’re weak? If people are persecuted, do you compromise, do you bend? Or, do you not? And I suggest that if you don’t 999 times out of 1000, you will be destroyed. And the 1000th time you will change the world.
The second question is the question of strength. How do you behave when you are powerful, when your victims are at your mercy? Are you compassionate, are you forgiving, are you tolerant? Or are you ruthless? It seems to me that in the origin story of Islam, which is fictionalised in the book, the prophet comes out of it pretty well. When he is weak, he suffers a moment of temptation, which the Qur’an says all prophets suffer. And he comes through and corrects it. And when he does have his enemies at his mercy, when he’s successful and powerful, he’s pretty merciful, with almost no executions – with, I have to say, the exception of a couple of actors and writers. So unfortunately literature did get on his nerves, but he was very merciful towards most of his enemies, like the leaders of Mecca who killed his relatives and so on. So it’s not such a critical book.
Rereading the passages of The Satanic Verses about the moment of weakness, one is immediately reminded of the moment of weakness in Joseph Anton, where you say, “I reached the bottom of the barrel.”
The difference is that I am not a prophet. I’ve had enough trouble with prophets! I’m not applying for the job! It’s true that under enormous pressure, as I discovered, you can make the mistake of not being true to yourself in order to try and make things better. It was a bad moment, this moment of trying to make a compromise with the people who were attacking me. They were treacherous, but what was more important was that I felt I had betrayed myself. In retrospect, I have to say it was a very important moment for me because it showed me much more clearly how to behave. One of the things about hitting bottom is that after that you know where the bottom is and you know that you don’t ever want to go there every again.
That happened about two years after the fatwa…
You have to remember that the public attitude in England was that essentially it was my fault, that I had created this problem. I should have known better, I did it on purpose, I wanted to make money, I wanted to make a name for myself, I was opportunistic. I was a traitor to my own people. I got myself in trouble with my own people, then the British had to get me out of it. I have been a British citizen since I was 14, but apparently that doesn’t make them my own people, whereas Islamic fanatics somehow become my own people… The argument was, “you broke it, you fix it.” It had its effect, so I thought maybe I should do something to fix it… It was an indication of the insanely heightened climate of that time. We didn’t know what was coming at us. It was very hard to judge what was appropriate, how to act, because we had no idea of the scale of the attack.
I wanted to ask you about the name of your grandfather. He was not called Rushdie…
We all thought that literature was some kind of substitute for the foolishness of religion, but maybe it’s just as foolish as religion… or almost.
My grandfather was called Muhammad Din Khaliqi Dehlavi. In old-fashioned Muslim naming you take your father’s first name as your last name, so that my father was called Anis Ahmed Rushdie, so I should have called myself Salman Anis. But my father decided that, in the modern world, we should have a fixed family name. So he basically invented the name Rushdie, which came from his admiration for the great 12th-century Spanish-Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroës, a great scholar of Aristotle. And the career of Ibn Rushd in some way foreshadowed what happened to me, because in his time he was a very progressive voice, a voice which, on behalf of reason as a way of understanding faith, argued much of his life with more conventional Islamist philosophers. And for a long time he was very eminent – he ended up the court physician for the caliph in Spain and so on – but even then, in 12th-century Spain, there was a rising tide of Islamic radicalism, mostly amongst the Berber Arab population, and at a certain point he was fired from his job. His books were banned and burned and he was sent into exile. Only just before he died was he rehabilitated. Anyhow, I thought, here’s this voice of reason in the 12th century whom my father admired and named the family after, and that appears to be the flag I carried into battle. He gave me the right name. It’s an extraordinary message from beyond the grave from my father.
The Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, who was here a few days ago, told us the following story: during his time at the university in Sarajevo, he had an English teacher he really loved and admired, a man of literature, a fine Shakespeare expert. Then, years later, the war had begun, and he saw this man on TV – he was now a close advisor of Radovan Karadzic. “Suddenly I mistrusted everything I read so far, because if literature doesn’t protect us against this, what good is literature?” Would you agree with him?
Yes, unfortunately. That idea that literature has a beneficial moral effect, I would like it to be true. I am not sure that it is true. There is enough evidence of great writers who were really very bad people. Louis Ferdinand Celine – almost certainly a Nazi. Ezra Pound – a great sympathiser with fascism. But there’s no questioning that Ezra Pound is a great writer. We don’t ask any of the other arts to improve our moral sense. We go into art galleries and don’t come out as better people. When we go to the movies we don’t come out as better people. Why is it especially literature’s job to be this kind of priest? I do believe, as a writer myself, that it would be very difficult to write without a moral sense, but I don’t like literature that is morally didactic. To speak as a reader, I don’t want to be told what to think. Joyce was very clear that he wanted literature to never have a didactic function.
I think that it’s right. Great literature does not teach. It gives you a way of looking at the world. The reader can interact with that way in any way he chooses. We all thought that literature was some kind of substitute for the foolishness of religion, but maybe it’s just as foolish as religion… or almost.
Berlin, International Literature Festival, September 15, 2013