Salman Rushdie and a story of paradise lost

Salman Rushdie is arguably one of the world’s best-known novelists – and was also, for a time, one of the most hated.

Back in the late 1980s, his book The Satanic Verses offended Muslims around the world; Iran’s then leader Ayatollah Khomenei called for Mr Rushdie’s assassination, and the writer was forced into hiding for close to a decade.

Those dark days are now over, and Mr Rushdie once again leads a relatively normal life between New York and London.

His latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, brought him again into the spotlight, not least because critics appear divided as to what the book is essentially about.

It’s been described as one of the key books of our time, as a novel that delves deep into the roots of religious terrorism, and as an exploration of our post-9/11 world.

Its also been described as a lament, as a revenge story – as a story of love gone fatally wrong.

The novel is the story of Maximilian Ophuls, knifed to death in Los Angeles by a mysterious figure who calls himself Shalimar the Clown. It is also the tale of a Muslim boy from a village in Kashmir whose romantic downfall turns to fury, to destruction and ultimately to terrorism. It’s a book set in many continents and time frames, from the Second World War to modern-day America to violence-riddle Kashmir and a Jihadist training camp.

So is this book a sign of a troubled age or simply a story of love gone wrong?

This week’s programme is brought to you in conjunction with our partner Dutch broadcaster VPRO.

Key Quotes

On the inspiration for the book:

“First of all when I was in Kashmir, in late 1987 – roughly about one year before the insurgency began -, there was great tension and discontent and fear in the air. I was there to make a documentary about India at the 40th anniversary of independence… the sad thing was when we turned on the television camera people wouldn’t tell us the truth, because they were too scared of reprisals from one side or the other side, either by the Indian authorities or by the Pakistan-sponsored groups. And in the end we had to leave the sequence out of the documentary, but these character really stayed with me and their situation, and it’s taken me a long time to find a way to tell their story.”

“Another germ is that my family is from Kashmir originally… and I have felt very personally and emotionally what has happened in that beautiful place in this last half century and I wanted to find a way of exploring that.”

On whether the book is trying to understand the world after 9/11:

“I guess we all live in that world, including me and so it’s natural that books should be seen that way. But my views is that I’ve been worrying about this subject for much longer than the last four years or so. My work began to become very concerned with the way in which different parts of the worlds collided with each other in this much smaller world. […] We live in an age when there are incompatible realities around and they are competing if you like for the same space… so I think I’ve been concerned with this matter for most of my writing life. Now the difference is that now so is everyone else. ”

“But what I didn’t want to do was wrote a novel directly about 9/11 events or al-Qaeda, because my real motivation was to write a novel about Kashmir… What happens in Kashmir is not only about Kashmir: in some ways you can read it like a microcosm of what is happening everywhere else in the world. And by looking at that particular case I think readers can hear echoes and draw conclusions which have to do with things happening elsewhere.”

On the mirroring in the book of the situations in Strasbourg and the Alsace region of France and Kashmir:

“Here in the context of Europe, what happened here in the 1940s was this atrocity, this Nazi occupation of Strasbourg and it was resisted by an insurgency, and we call that insurgency the French resistance and we call it heroic, because it was fighting against something we considered evil. What you have in Kashmir is what many people thought of as an occupation, which was being resisted by an insurgency, which we by and large do not call heroic. We use other more critical terms and that’s because the context is different. And so what I want to say is, look at what happens when the context changes – very comparable events are judged completely differently.”

On what the role of the central character of the book says about today’s society:

“It is an irony, and a well-known irony, that the West in a way helped to give birth to the thing which it is at war against… there is that deliberate echo in the book”

“I wanted at the centre of the novel for there to be the figure of a public man of real consequence who has the view or a hope that the world he has made will last and will be a better world than the world in which he grew up. And in a way the tragedy of Max, which he just begins to perceive before he is killed, is that nothing will last. … The novel can say if ‘I was a person who has built all this and who believed that I had done if for virtuous reasons, not for reasons of power or hegemony or domination, or exploitation or imperialism, but to build it to make a better world.’

“And I think the people at the end of World War II who were constructing the institutions under which we all now live, whether it be the European Union or the World Bank or the United Nations – these were built for idealistic reasons – and I think it is the tragedy that those things which were built for those reasons appear not to be able to deliver what was hoped from them.”

On whether the book examines the threats against him after the publication of Satanic Verses:

“I can’t deny that that is a part if it, but that was happening long before I wrote this book. Ever since the threats began against the Satanic Verses I’ve been obliged to face the subject of who these people were. But I think what’s happened is that the subject, which was a private subject for me, has now become a general subject for all of us. So now it’s not just a question of me trying to work out what happened to me; it’s a question of all of us trying to find ways to understand what is happening to all our lives.”

That’s why the book is written now and not before or later; now I feel at the point where things I was obliged to make myself aware of, have become a part of our common currency – the subject of security, the subject of terrorist groups, the subject of religious extremism, the subject of how democracies react intolerantly in the face of intolerance.”

On what the character of the assassin in the book, Shalimar the Clown, says about terrorists today, such as the 7/7 London bombers:

“He starts off as a happy young man, and he has almost everything he wants from the world… but that life is then destroyed both from inside his life and outside his life… and his picture of his world is broken. And when our world breaks we become capable of things that we are otherwise not capable of. But not all of us do…. not everyone to whom bad things happen becomes a professional terrorist – so why this person and not that person? My view is that in some of us, there is a latent germ which if it’s fed and watered can grow up into that kind of monstrous creature.”

On the question of whether Islam or any religion is inherently violent:

“The phenomenon we call Islamic radicalism actually contains very little theology. If you look at what they say, very little has to do with the content of the Koran, it’s a much more political philosophy than a religion… it’s much more to do with the resentment of the rest of the world and anger about what has been done to them, etc, etc.”

“A very similar thing happens in India where Hindu radicalism is also entirely political and really very ignorant of theological questions. I think it is a question that every religion, including Christianity, needs to ask itself – are you a religion or a political movement? They are getting very badly blurred in our time. The movement of the Christian coalition in America have more to do with the power politics of the United States than the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

On whether he is comparing terrorists to clowns by making ‘Shalimar the Clown’ the title of the book and the name of the assassin:

“People must read what they like, it’s obviously a deliberate decision to use the phrase Shalimar the Clown to refer to somebody who becomes an assassin… And if you notice the way in which the book is written, almost all the time, he is called by the whole phrase… And so obviously I am creating for him this little epithet which is true when he’s young, it’s a stage name, but as his life story develops it become fretted with all kind of darkness and becomes a horrible irony – somebody whose self began in happiness becomes the cause of great unhappiness. That’s what I’m trying to do, you know, ‘Rushdie calls terrorists clowns’, that’s a tabloid headline, that’s not a novel. The irony of referring to him by the same name he took in happier days is a literary and artistic irony.”

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Salman Rushdie and a story of paradise lost
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