In the city of Arles in southern France, Salman Rushdie took a pedagogic approach to the time-honoured question and answer session. Promoting the French edition of his most recent novel The Golden House, Rushdie waded into political water, remarking early on that ‘the question of the truth is incredibly important because, if a society cannot agree on what the truth is, then it is very difficult for people to know how to move forward, or even to know which direction forward is.’ The audience warmed to his sharp wit and clapped enthusiastically at such portentous one- liners. During the hour Rushdie talked about the current political climate; his own novel attempts a Dickensian sweep of American society from the inauguration of Barack Obama to the election of Donald Trump.
I was lucky enough to steal an interview with Rushdie before this event. Sitting on the terrace of Actes Sud, Rushdie was wonderfully chatty but measured and reflective in his responses. He is now seventy-one years old, his varied career ranging from the award winning magical realism of Midnight’s Children, to the divisive publication of The Satanic Verses which lead to a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini and a decade spent in hiding. The Golden House is a comparatively tame realist effort. It received mixed reviews; the Guardian claimed that Rushdie ‘puts his finger on the nationwide identity crisis’, whereas the Independent gave the author’s fourteenth novel a moody verdict of ‘wide but shallow.’ Indeed, the book can feel overwhelming, for Rushdie has not shaken off the miscellany of characters and complex family sagas that characterised his ground-breaking early work, but now a twenty-first century update weaves gun crime and transgender politics through the plot. The sheer volume of detail is where the novel finds its strength, small building blocks that create a strong foundation for the story. We start with the arrival of the Golden family who have migrated from India to Greenwich Village, New York. Within the first few pages the question of immigration is confronted as Nero Golden, the overbearing patriarchal figure, commands his three sons to forget their past: ‘“What will we say,” he asked his father, “when they enquire, where did you come from?” The old man’s face entered a condition of scarlet vehemence… “Tell them, we are snakes who shed our skin… Say we are from nowhere or anywhere or somewhere, we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters, which is to say, Americans.”’
Rushdie elucidated for me his concept of America as the ‘land of the self-made self’: ‘This process of renaming and reinventing has always been part of the American story and of course one of the greatest American novels, The Great Gatsby, is exactly about this. Gatsby’s real name is not Gatsby in the same way that Nero Golden’s real name is not Nero Golden; for Gatsby it’s for love, for Nero it’s more to do with escaping the past.’ Measuring himself up with Fitzgerald, we know that even with age Rushdie’s boldness has not dissipated.
He admits he has a similar patchwork past to his characters. Born and raised in Mumbai (or as he insists on calling it, Bombay) until the age of 13, he came to England and boarded at Rugby before going up to Cambridge. In 2000 he left London to move to New York and has lived there ever since. I asked him whether he felt that he had this ‘chameleon identity’ like his characters: ‘I think I’m substantially the same person I always was, but I think I’m adaptable and New York is such an immigrant city that it’s easy to fit right in. New York is Bombay translated into English and I think that’s maybe why I find it so comfortable as a place to live.’ The comparison is apposite, his new novel being split across the two cities. We delve into Nero Golden’s dark past with the Mumbai mafia, while other subplots investigate the growing pains of modern day India. Nevertheless, Rushdie refuses to position himself now as a post-colonial writer: ‘Obviously Midnight’s Children is post-colonial because it deals with the end of the Empire. But what I was trying to say is that now, 70 years later, in India people aren’t thinking about the British Empire.’ He berates the English education system that fails to teach enough about British colonial past, outraged that neither of his sons received a single history lesson about the days of Empire. But ultimately he wishes to remain out of the debate: ‘I just don’t feel part of the intellectual rhetoric of post-colonialism, I don’t read a lot of academic literary criticism, and it’s not where I start from.’
Instead, for The Golden House, Rushdie’s central aim was to bottle up the present. His desire to write as close as possible to the present moment resulted in the late addition of the ‘Joker’, a peculiar crossbreed of Donald Trump and the Batman villain, following the news of his election: ‘Drought in California, Oscars for Birdman but no superheroes available in Gotham. The Joker was on TV announcing a run for president along with the rest of the Suicide Squad … Unable to watch the green-haired cackler make his improbable declaration I turned to the crime pages and read about killings.’
I asked whether over this past year there had been any stand out events he would have wanted to have included in this, his most presentist novel: ‘Nothing particularly… The point about trying to capture a moment is that you hope you’ve captured it in a way that doesn’t rely on topicality.’ But he did joke about how Trump has exceeded all expectations: ‘When I wrote the book I thought this character of the Joker was almost the only surreal element in what was otherwise quite a realistic book, and frankly it doesn’t feel surreal any more. He seems to be growing into the Joker, I wouldn’t be surprised if he dyed his hair green.’ He chuckles heartily, but the laughter wears off when he considers the pace of events, now so far distant from his recent attempt to capture our time: ‘My book doesn’t suggest that America is anywhere near a dictatorship but one can say that the first steps have been taken. The first step of any fascist effort is to demolish people’s belief in the truth. The second step is for the tyrant to say to the people you don’t have to believe any of that, believe me, I am the truth. We have reached the second step, whether we go further I hope not.’
He has a relatively optimistic solution: ‘The reason why people write novels is to approach the truth about human nature, about human society, about how we are with each other… I think actually that the novel may have a role to play, in that when you read a book that you like, you agree with the writer about the description of the book, you say yes, this is how it is… the novel has always been a good way for writers and readers between them to make an agreement about the nature of the truth, and maybe we need that right now.’
As comforting as this attitude may be, figures show that fiction sales have been declining over the past year while adult non-fiction is on a heady upward trajectory. I probed Rushdie about how he thinks we can increase the reception and perceived value of literary action:
I think you just have to do your work. If you’ve been around the book world for a while you see that there are fashions and for a while now the mood has been more towards non-fiction than fiction and even the fiction that people like is in a funny way kind of like non-fiction, like Knausgård and Elena Ferrante. But I think these things change: I remember when I was starting out in the late 70s, early 80s, readers’ enthusiasms were quite different, they actually wanted things that were more experimental and adventurous and so on and they didn’t want sort of straight-forward realism. So now it swings, it will swing again.
Rushdie is in a strong position to assess the varying fortunes of the novel. His career has spanned for 43 years and he has written a total of 18 books. But Rushdie shows no signs of fatigue. On the contrary, his narrator in The Golden House is an ebullient young man in his twenties named Renée. I asked Rushdie how he went about getting into the mindset of a character 50 years his junior. He jokingly admits it was perhaps a ‘foolish idea and one of the more ambitious imaginative acts of the book since you are such a mysterious generation.’ But nevertheless with a 21 year-old son and a wide circle of acquaintances, he assures me ‘you just have to listen.’ On so-called millienials, he remarks: ‘Well some of the bad press is not unmerited. But also right now in America you look at the younger generation and you see that it’s actually very idealistic, and seems to be for a change in America and very active, very activist even, they seem to be actually doing something. I think the problem historically in America is that young people don’t vote and if they did, it would make a considerable difference because they tend to be the most liberal demographic, so I’m hoping that’s going to change, and if it changes it could change a lot of things.’
Nevertheless, Rushdie remains frustrated with young people. He is of course known for his staunch defence of free expression, held up as a talisman of that cause following a life-threatening brush with censorship in 1989. So I ask whether he thinks the world has become too PC: ‘Yes, yes, you’ve become too politically correct, which is the opposite of the traditional position, young people are more conservative than older people. They get bent out of shape more easily about more things. I mean normally it’s the young who are radical and iconoclastic and say whatever the hell they want. But I’ve been teaching at [New York University] and the older students don’t care about this PC stuff, maybe it’s just a growing up thing, and by the time you’re 22 or 23 you’ve gotten over it.’ From a writer who has always hoped to appeal to the young, this seems a disappointing surrender to the politics of generational division. Perhaps Rushdie would find a stronger connection with Generation Z if he were to write another screenplay? Eyes twinkling, he replies with a helpful ‘maybe.’ If he follows the quote from French director Francois Truffaut which prefaces The Golden House, the septennial Rushdie will not be short of inspiration in his next pursuit: ‘La vie a beaucoup plus d’imagination que nous.’