The first time we spoke to Salman Rushdie, he asked to make the call, which he placed from “a secure and undisclosed location”. At the time, the Mumbai-born author was under threat of death, thanks to a fatwa placed on his head by Shia cleric Ruhollah Khomeini.
Times have changed, as Rushdie is happy to admit when he picks up the phone. “I’m in an insecure and disclosed location,” he says, chuckling. “I’m at home in New York.”
Although the 1989 fatwa was never formally lifted, Rushdie has now outlived Khomeini, and Islamic fundamentalists appear to have turned their attention elsewhere. Arguably, though, the world is no happier now than it was back then, only now Rushdie feels he has more to fear from forces closer to home—the voices of hate that have been given prominence since the election of Donald Trump.
The rise of “a giant green-haired cartoon king” is part of the backdrop behind Rushdie’s 12th novel, The Golden House, which has just hit bookstores worldwide. Trump hadn’t even won the Republican primaries when Rushdie conceived of its plot, but the author says he had very little revision to do following the events of November 8, 2016.
“I’m sorry to say that I’d guessed right,” he admits. “I wish I’d guessed wrong, but I had a feeling that this was what was going to happen. And, to tell you the truth, even if he [Trump] hadn’t won, the forces that were unleashed during the election campaign were clearly not going to go back into the bottle.…As we see in this most recent Charlottesville episode, those forces felt legitimized by Trump in some way, and energized, and here’s the consequence.”
But Rushdie also stresses that The Golden House is not primarily a political novel. It’s character-driven, he opines, with the main figures being a mysterious, Mumbai-born billionaire—Nero Julius Golden—and his three sons, plus various wives and mistresses and the young would-be filmmaker René, who narrates.
Oh, and New York City, the most lovingly observed and clearly delineated character of all. Rushdie might raise some mild objections about The Golden House hailing from the same lineage as The Great Gatsby, The Godfather, and The Bonfire of the Vanities—he doesn’t think Tom Wolfe’s brick-sized opus is very good—but it’s a possibility he has himself considered.
“What I set out to do was a somewhat different kind of novel than I’ve done before—a big, social, panoramic novel,” he explains. “The novel before this one, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, was a sort of fairy tale of New York, so I thought I wanted to write a completely different New York novel: a novel that was rooted in real life. That was the starting point. And I did think about all those books.
“With Gatsby, actually, there’s a couple of references to it in the text, largely because of the theme of the reinvention of the self—which of course is a very big theme of The Great Gatsby, and a classic theme of American literature anyway. In this case, here’s this Indian family trying to reinvent itself, rather grandiloquently, in America, so there was that echo of Gatsby. Bonfire is not my favourite book, but what it does do is try to capture a moment in the life of the city, and I suppose I was trying to do something the same, but with a different moment. So, yeah, I think those echoes are there. The Gatsby echo is probably conscious, but the others not so much.”
New York is also present in The Golden House’s breakneck pace—whether viewed as a comedy of manners, crime fiction, or a bildungsroman centred on René’s moral maturation, it sprints almost from start to finish.
“It shocked me, in a way, by the vehemence and speed with which it showed up,” the 70-year-old Rushdie says. “More or less immediately after I finished the last novel, this book began to insist on being written at once.”
He adds that the book’s principal location—the Greenwich Village oasis known as the Gardens—is a real place, and as soon as he’d identified that as a site worth memorializing, the fictional Goldens arrived and set up residence. “At that point,” Rushdie continues, “the book began to unfold at, for me, quite a surprising rate. And I think that has something to do with the urgency of New York City.”
But for all the intertwining plot lines, the betrayals and machinations, the fortunes lost and won, The Golden House ends on a satisfyingly ruminative, even positive, note. It’s fair to say that while all that is Golden ends as dust, René survives with his better nature battered but intact.
Love, it would appear, conquers all.
“I do think it’s one of the things that reveals our best nature to ourselves,” Rushdie muses. “And I’m not just talking about romantic love. I’m talking about the love of family, the love of friends, even the love of country. And then there’s romantic love. All those things give one strength and hope.”
Rushdie’s paean to l’amour brings to mind a certain Beatles song, one whose sentiments were once deemed hopelessly sentimental.
That notion of love as the ultimate panacea “was stupidly proposed at the end of the ’60s,” Rushdie says, “but it actually is all there is.”
Salman Rushdie joins Vancouver Writers Fest artistic director Hal Wake in conversation at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday (September 19).