With its sculpted prose and mix of loftiness and bawdiness, Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence (Knopf Canada, $32), travels back centuries to Mughal India and Renaissance Italy for a parable about politics, violence, and love. The famously controversial author spoke with the Georgia Straight about this new work, and about the risks of telling stories, his deeply personal sense of pluralism, and the future of books.
Georgia Straight: The conjurer who ventures from the West to the East in The Enchantress of Florence, a character who calls himself the Mogor dell’Amore, is a kind of truthteller, yet he’s always suspected by those around him of being a chancer or a huckster.
Salman Rushdie: Well, he’s an artist, isn’t he?
GS: And his medium—language—is characterized literally as enchantment. This is not far off from witchcraft, another word you use in the book to describe the power of words. Do all storytellers face these kinds of suspicions?
SR: Yes, because even the word story contains the implication of untruth.”¦I think anybody who makes things up for a living, as I do, is very well aware of that problem. I’ve talked a lot in my time about the way in which story arrives at truth, which is a very different way than the way in which, let’s say, reportage arrives at truth. And that imagined truth is clearly something that I value. But in this period, remember, we’re looking at an age in which it’s very difficult to get independent verification of stories.”¦And so every stranger coming to town with a story to tell must have that kind of question mark against them. They have to be persuasive, which puts them, of course, in the normal position of the professional storyteller, who has to be persuasive or their audience doesn’t buy it.
GS: The audience might also kill the storyteller, as the Mogor well knows.
SR: Yes, as the emperor points out, if the audience is the king, he might throw you off the ramparts.
GS: Much of your work features historical figures that you’ve recast in some way. This latest novel has the Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolí² Machiavelli and the great 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar in the foreground. What does this fictionalizing bring to the historical account?
SR: I love history—I always have. I studied it, and so I have great respect and admiration for history. But I think the imaginative leap of the creative work just allows you to do what novels always allow you to do, which is to enter into a world that is not your world and feel that it is yours.
I was reading American literature long before I ever came to North America, and felt that I knew something about these countries through their authors, who gave me access to them. By reading Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood long before I’d ever come to Canada, I felt that I had some sense of the place. I remember reading Latin American literature when I’d never been to Latin America, and feeling that I knew what it was like, and then when I eventually did go to Latin America, feeling that my intuition had been confirmed—that it actually was like the way in which those books described it.”¦So it’s one of the things that literature does. It gives you imaginative access into worlds of which you know nothing, but by the end of your experience you feel that they are also now a part of your world. And I hope that’s no less true of the past than of somewhere geographically distant.
GS: At one point in The Enchantress of Florence, Akbar mulls over the way he always speaks in the royal “we”, how he views himself as the embodiment of all his subjects. He then wonders whether everyone sees themselves as these kinds of “bags of selves”, made up of their relationships. Do you think novelists have an especially keen sense of this multiplicity?
SR: I don’t know if novelists do—I mean, I do. It’s certainly always been a kind of bee in my bonnet, that we can’t any longer see ourselves as homogeneous selves. You don’t even get much of an argument when you say this, that we are clearly a bunch of different selves which obviously connect to each other but which are quite startlingly different sometimes—the way we are with an employer is not the way we are with our children, and so on.”¦These days, everybody talks a lot about multiculturalism and pluralism and so on, but in my view that’s actually the case in the interior of the self. It’s not just a matter of the self in society. It starts within.
And I suppose it would be fair to say that’s partly to do with the circumstances of my own life. I grew up in a city which was already a pluralistic place. It was a British city built on Indian soil, and I grew up in a very polymorphous kind of culture. And then my own self was obviously quite sharply altered by being sent to Europe at an early age. You know, the character in Midnight’s Children, as a child, has a lot in common with me—he goes to my school and lives in my house. But the great difference is that he never leaves the country. And so as we get older, his life becomes very different to mine. And sometimes it was possible, even when writing it, to think of it as a road not taken—what life might have been like had I not made that journey”¦like a sort of shadow self, a person standing just slightly to the right of you, who looks very like you.
GS: The two main settings of the novel, Sikri and Florence, are shown as deeply cosmopolitan cities, a quality you’ve always valued highly.
SR: They’re very cosmopolitan.”¦If people ask me to describe what kind of writer I am, the most truthful description I can give is that I feel that I’m essentially an urban writer, that I’m a writer of the big city. And so I’ve spent most of my life thinking about big cities and what they are and what they do and how they work. And it was quite pleasurable to project that process of thought 400 years back.
GS: You’ve lived in two of the great cities of the West, London and New York, and they’ve changed radically in the last 15 years or so.
SR: And so has the third city in my life—Bombay has been absolutely transformed in the same period.
GS: Are they becoming more cosmopolitan or less so, in your
SR: Both, simultaneously. There’s no question, if you look at New York now, that all kinds of new immigrant communities are rushing in. It’s not just the traditional Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish communities. Now you have Russians, Ukrainians, Afghanis—people from literally everywhere in the world. So on the one hand, it’s never been more cosmopolitan. And on the other hand, there is evidence of this sense of putting up shutters, this sense of American culture closing itself off to the rest of the world.”¦But I think that’s true of all these cities. Bombay has never been more cosmopolitan and also never more, if you like, defensive. And London? I think the great fortune that we had in London was that, after that first terrorist attack, the second one turned out to be unsuccessful. But I fear that we’re kind of one violent attack away from an enormous and frightening polarization.
GS: You’ve always expressed a strong interest in pop culture, and that realm has now exploded into countless different kinds of media—not just music and movies anymore, but also blogs and YouTube and Facebook and video games. Has the purpose or place of literature shifted as a result?
SR: I don’t think it has. What I do think is that there will be new forms of artistic expression that will arise from the new media, and I just feel that what’s happening at the moment is very early days. I can’t really see what would be the interesting literary applications of the Internet—I don’t mean as a research tool, I mean as a place to make work—or indeed the artistic implications. I think people are just beginning to work this stuff out. It’s certainly not going to be my generation. I think it’s going to be people half my age or less than that who begin to use this.
GS: Meanwhile, many people involved in literature see these developments as mounting competition, so that the success of something like Harry Potter is celebrated as a kind of rear-guard victory.
SR: Everything’s competition, but I just think that books are an astonishingly resilient medium. I’m a child of the pretelevision generation, really, and I can remember when movies were supposed to be the death of books, and after that television was supposed to be the death of books. And nothing has been the death of books. I just think they’re a very appealing and simple form.
And maybe certain kinds of book will disappear. I can well see this at both ends of the spectrum. The most ephemeral kinds of book, real pulp fiction which nobody really wants to keep around for very long—I can see that as a natural for such platforms as the [Amazon] Kindle and so on.”¦And at the other end, the books that you really want as major tools, like dictionaries and encyclopedias, I can see that they have a natural life on the Internet, for a start because the existence of search engines makes it so much easier to find your way around them.”¦But in the middle you’ve got this curious thing, which is both in fiction and nonfiction: the individual voice speaking as clearly as it can. And I’m not sure that people will want just to read that on a screen, or dispense with it. I think it’s a resilient thing. I hope. But there’s no escaping the slow dumbing-down of culture, and if that happens then we’re all in the wrong business.