For nearly a decade, Salman Rushdie lived in fear of assassins, fanatics and bounty hunters pursuing him at the behest of a foreign potentate enraged by a book he had written. The Satanic Verses was a serious novel, and the Iranian ayatollah’s fatwa was serious, too: the book’s Japanese translator was murdered, its Italian translator stabbed and its Norwegian publisher shot.
In histories of free speech as yet unwritten, Rushdie will be a hero, an almost-martyr who, despite one wobble in which he fearfully pretended a conversion to Islam, refused either to apologise for what he had written or withdraw it. So I begin our meeting with a simple thank you. Rushdie looks as startled as if I had expressed a desire to bear his children.
“Well, it fell to me, but it could have been someone else,” he says, with what his detractors would declare uncharacteristic modesty. These days a New York dweller, but in London to promote the film of his second novel, Midnight’s Children, Rushdie is often characterised as a party animal in love with celebrity. In the admittedly grand London hotel where we speak, however, the 65-year-old Mumbai-born Old Rugbeian, dressed unassumingly in a tweedy jacket, presents a donnish rather than starry figure.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Joseph Anton was the pseudonym Rushdie adopted when in hiding) is, certainly, an unforgiving read. Its 700 pages are unforgiving on the reader, unforgiving of those who failed to support him in his decade of need (they all get their names checked, from archbishops to literary critics), but unforgiving, also, I would argue, towards his own moments of cowardice, despair and infidelity. It is his side of the story all right, but as a work of self-propaganda, you do not have to be Zoë Heller to believe it fails.
On Boxing Day, however, he launches a separate initiative to woo us. His Christmas gift is a movie of the Rushdie book which, along with Haroun and the Sea of Stories, he believes people actually love. Director Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children returns us to 1980 and his Booker-prize winning tale of a boy, Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of India’s independence: midnight, August 15, 1947.
I write of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, but its screenplay is by Rushdie and the distinctive baritone of the voiceover is also his. Rushdie’s frequent appearance in the credits has already been used by critics to explain the film’s shortcomings, although he tells me he had to be bullied into writing the script and that the narrator was to have been Satya Bhabha, who plays the older Saleem, until he and the director realised a “third Saleem” speaking from the present day was actually required.
What is more interesting about the film’s authorial voice, however, is that it differs from the book’s. The novel’s last words speak of midnight’s children being “sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes… unable to live or die in peace”. The film concludes contrarily and against fireworks: “Our lives have been, in spite of everything, acts of love.”
“The book is much darker,” Rushdie agrees. “I said to Deepa, ‘You do realise we have almost made a feel-good ending here.’ But I remember when Midnight’s Children [the novel] came out. Obviously lots of people did like it, but one of the things people criticised it for was the pessimism of the ending. I would say actually what’s happened in India since then has been much worse than anything that could have been forecast. The ending actually looks ludicrously optimistic.”
So why the feel-good movie coda? I suggest it may be a reflection less of the Indian state than his own. Perhaps he is simply a happier man. “I actually think that is what it is. I felt comfortable with this ending now, whereas clearly that younger self didn’t.”
When he is not discussing the historical Prophet and Milton’s philosophical defence of free speech, our scholar dishes like a movie brat on his ex-wives, of which there are four. I know he cites Rousseau’s confessions as a model, but why had he been quite so honest? “Actually, you have no idea how honest I haven’t been,” he says. “I told myself I was writing something novelistic, and if you’re doing that then you must make all the characters three-dimensional and rich. You need to know as much about them as a novelist would want his readers to know.
I ask the Mike Wallace question, named after the late American interrogator who secured an exclusive interview for 60 Minutes with the most hunted man in the West and used it to ask, “What do you do for sex?” “I have some,” he answers me. “What do you do?” And here in this reply, somewhere between the nervy secrecy necessitated by his years in hiding and the compulsive truth-telling of Joseph Anton, lies something unextraordinary and sensible: everyday reticence.
“With the film of Midnight’s Children, there is this fictionalising of my childhood and family,” he says. “But there’s also this non-fictional account of my adult life, but written like a novel. They are related to each other in some way, and the fact that they come out at the same time oddly feels very appropriate.”
The comparison between his memoir and his magic realist novel-turned-film is not so absurd, I say. His life became fantastical.
“I know. It’s just two kinds of magic realism: one is more magic, and the other is more realism. But I’m hoping that my life will cease to be magic realist, that it will become tedious and humdrum, like most novelists’ lives.” And so our reluctant hero performs one last disappearing act, into the mundanity of a writer’s life.
The Times Magazine / The Interview People