Monday, November 21, 2016

Stephanie Johnson on Salman Rushdie

The 101st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the February 1996 issue. The intro read:
Salman Rushdie talks to Stephanie Johnson about Michelle Pfeiffer, the invisible buildings of Bombay, the colour of his bedroom — and his new novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh.
QU: Do you have a favourite among the books you’ve written?
SR: No. Or to put it another way, it changes all the time. If I look at Midnight ’s Children now I still feel very proud of it, but it’s somebody else’s book, it’s a much younger chap’s book. When I started writing Midnight ’s Children I was about 29. Now I’m 48. The Moor ’s Last Sigh feels a lot closer to how I’m sounding now. I’m very proud of Harourz and the Sea Of Stories, I have to say. I think that was a difficult trick to pull off, to try and write a book that would have some interest for both grown-ups and children. It looks like it might be the first of my books to be made into a movie, an animated feature.
QU: Do you go to the movies a lot? There are a lot of references to movies in The Moor ’s Last Sigh.
SR: I’m very keen on movies. If you grow up in Bombay you’ve got movies being made on every street corner. You grow up with the movies in your blood.
QU: You were an actor yourself, weren’t you? .
SR: I never acted in a movie. When I was a student I certainly did more acting than writing. After I left university I was so anxious to be a writer, [yet] so desperately anxious that I might not be able to be a writer, that in a funny way it was easier not to start, so I acted for a couple of years after leaving university.
QU: Did you write plays?
SR: I have written one or two dramatic things, which mercifully are lost in the mists of time, they were so dreadful. But I discovered that I was not going to be a good actor, so I had no excuse not to write.
QU: Do you watch television?
SR: I watch television news and sports sometimes, but I don’t watch much television as television because it’s usually very boring. I watch the All Blacks, but who wouldn’t? Recently in England they did a serialisation of Pride and Prejudice. They’re always doing Jane Austen every six weeks. I watched this thing and it was quite well done, quite polished and so on, but I thought the loss of Jane Austen’s incredibly sharp, acid voice turned it all into a series of parties. That’s what her books are if you don’t have the voice.
QU: They’ve made a series of Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha Of Suburbia. Do you know him?
SR: Yes he’s a very old friend of mine. We go way back.
QU: Is there a kind of solidarity among writers from the subcontinent who live in England? Do you know Vikram Seth?
SR: I do, but he’s mostly in India. I’m not a close friend of his. Hanif I’ve known for many, many years. He’s much younger than me, he’s kind of my kid brother. He’s different to me in that first of all he’s half-English, which I’m not. Secondly he was born in England, in Bromley — he went to school with David Bowie and Billy Idol. Bromley Comprehensive is responsible for a lot of terrible people.
Hanif’s background is as a South London kid. Nine or ten years ago he decided to go to Pakistan. It was very difficult for him, because he doesn’t really speak Punjabi or Urdu or any of the other languages. He speaks South London. His mother tongue is English.
QU: How many languages do you speak?
SR: Well, I speak English and French, and I speak Indian languages, Urdu and Hindi. And I can understand large chunks of Punjabi and a couple of others.
QU: Do they all overlap, those languages?
SR: To an extent they do, but not that much. They overlap at the most colloquial level. The more complex they get, their vocabs diverge. Urdu and Hindi overlap more than the others. In fact there’s a kind of composite language called Hindustani, which officially doesn’t exist, but it’s what everyone speaks. So if you go to the movies, the language of the movies is this strange amalgam, which is a mixture of Hindi and Urdu, but spoken with a Hindi accent. It’s in fact the lingua franca of North India, although you can’t find a newspaper in it. It’s a rather extraordinary fact that North India has this huge language that actually doesn’t exist.
QU: The language in The Moor ’s Last Sigh is something that’s fascinated me, especially the way that Aurora talks. The way she says “proceedofy” and “killofy”. Do people really talk like that?
SR: People don’t, no. I made it up because I’ve heard particular people in India speak like that. People in India play with language.
QU: You don’t think you might stand accused by a politically correct person of lampooning the Indian way of speaking English?
SR: Maybe. But that’s too bad. The fact is that the people in India use it a lot. This book has been in India since the beginning of September and people love the language, because everybody recognises it. It would be awful for the sake of political correctness to have to clean up one’s act and force everybody to speak in some terribly posh Fosterian English. It’s something I have tried all my life to get away from, Standard English.
QU: It’s really only in the dialogue.
SR: In some of my books that kind of, let’s say, “Indianised” English is also in the narrative voice. It’s there occasionally in this. The narrator does have the tendency to erupt into ladies-o and gents-o.
QU: How did you manage to concentrate during the fatwa, to be quiet enough to bring yourself down into that dreamlike state? Were you nervous about sitting in a quiet room on your own, to write?
SR: It wasn’t nervousness. It was a question of there being so much noise in my head that by the time I was able to clear that away in order to then think about what I’d sat down to think about, I was exhausted. There was too much static for a long time. It really was very difficult. I was very upset about what happened, in a literary sense. The way in which my book was reviled, the way it disappeared inside this cloud of shit that people threw at it. Well — it’s disappointing, isn’t it? You spend five years writing a book and then everybody throws shit at it. Fortunately it doesn’t feel like that now. The book showed itself to be resilient and has survived the mess quite well.
QU: How long did it take to write The Moor’s Last Sigh?
SR: On and off, I suppose five years. And some of it for very much longer than that. A friend of mine reminded me the other day that I’d first told him about my interest in the story of the fall of Granada 15 years ago. I’d said to him then that I was interested in having that involved in some way in a novel I’d write. The idea of a novel about a painter I’ve wanted to do for a long time, because I became friendly, again over the last 15 years or so, with a lot of the contemporary Indian painters.
QU: In your mind do Aurora’s paintings fit into a kind of informal school of painting?
SR: I do know what they look like. Some of them are a kind of combination of Magritte and Velazquez’s Las Meninas. There are tricks of sight-lines, impossible mirror reflections. In the sequence of the Moor paintings the way in which the figure of the Moor becomes more and more fantasised is similar to Ned Kelly in Nolan’s paintings. In that series Kelly becomes more and more abstract until he’s just a square with a slit in it.
So I pinched ideas from a lot of contemporary art in order to create something credible for her. But a lot of her pictures just came from somewhere, I don’t know where. I have absolutely sharp-edged, brilliant pictures in my mind of those paintings and it’s really frustrating that they don’t exist.
QU: Maybe you should try to paint them.
SR: I can draw quite well, but I’ve never tried oils or anything. There are one or two writers who are good painters or sculptors. One of the great examples is Gunter Grass. I went to visit him. He lived in a small village outside Hamburg. He had a house where he lived and worked and then he had another house down the road which was his art studio. It was full of the same stuff — little boys with tin drums, eels, flounders, rats. And I thought how wonderful it must be to put down your pen at the end of a day’s writing and fool around with the same ideas in bronze or dry-point etching, instead of with words. I envied him that.
QU: I think it’s possible to get weary of words, sometimes, isn’t it?
SR: Sure is.
QU: There was something I laughed at in the book — the famous model Ina, who refused to do interviews because they would ask her what colour her bedroom was. What colour is your bedroom?
SR: What colour is my bedroom? Well, it’s a rather simple, plain, whitish bedroom.
QU: Who’s your favourite movie hero?
SR: These are Ina’s questions, yes. How odd to be subjected to them! Who is my favourite movie hero? I don’t know. Michelle Pfeiffer.
QU: That’s a heroine.
SR: Let’ s not be sexist about this. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
QU: I won’t ask what song you hum when you take a bath, then. That was the other question. Did you do a lot of research for The Moor ’s Last Sigh?
SR: Some. I don’t have to do a lot, because India is carried around in my DNA. Research is probably too grand a word for what I did, but I did do some checking up. Particularly the first part of the novel, which is in South India, because I’m not from South India. I’ve been to Cochin many times, and to the synagogue. It does have those blue tiles and every one is different, although they’re not magic. The Jewish community is so small, there’s now under 40 people.
QU: You were saying that that community doesn’t have a rabbi. How on earth did they evolve not to have a rabbi?
SR: They never had one. The community has been there for so long. These people came from all over, some of them are Sephardic Jews, some of them came from Iraq, some of them came from Southern Spain, in successive waves of migration over a 2000-year period. Any member of the community can lead the prayers. It’s really tragic. Even 40 or 50 years ago there were hundreds of Jews there. But when the state of Israel was created all the young people left. So it’s all the old bachelors and spinsters sitting sunning themselves toothlessly in the lanes. It’s a very beautiful little bit, Jewtown, the part of Cochin where they live.
QU: So it’s not your own family portrayed in this book, at all?
SR: This one isn’t, no. I think it would be fair to say the family in Midnight ’s Children had more to do with my family. My mother is more the opposite of Aurora — a calm, peaceful serene lady, who would be horrified to be confused with this foul-mouthed dragon lady. My father was a reasonably successful Bombay businessman.
QU: But he never put heroin in baby powder.
SR: No, that’s true. Nor was he getting involved in the sale of nuclear technology to countries that shouldn’t have it. Almost all the business corruption in the novel has not exactly happened, but it is derived from stuff that has happened in the subcontinent over the last 20 years. So Abraham is a kind of encyclopedia of all the crooks in India rolled into one. A lot of the stuff that may seem to a reader who doesn’t know India to be fantastical is actually true. Baby Softo isn’t. I made it up. I rather like it, don’t you? Baby Sofio is all my own work.
There’s a passage in the book which deals with invisible people building invisible buildings. In Bombay in the 80s the city authorities decided they didn’t want to be bothered with all these people sleeping on the pavements. They won a court case against various activists, who sued them, and as a result they were able to declare that anyone who had been resident in Bombay at the time of the last census then would have claims on the city and rights to education and welfare, and so on. So if you had not been counted in the census then legally you didn’t exist. The poor often fall through the net and don’t get counted in the census anyway. So they were declared not there, literally hundreds of thousands of people, they didn’t exist as far as the city was concerned.
With the building boom in the 1980s they needed lots of unskilled labour to work on these
building sites, so these invisible people got hired. Then of course the buildings were breaking the law as well. Bombay being like Manhattan and built on a peninsula, there were laws preventing the building of skyscrapers. The city authorities wanted to prevent overcrowding in that downtown area. But this was valuable real estate, so people were bribed in the city hall to sign documents stating that these 45-storey buildings were actually only 15 storeys high. Suddenly these buildings were invisible too.
So you’ve got people who weren’t there, building buildings that weren’t there. This is literally true. If the reality of a country is like this, you just write it down as reportage and then you’re accused of writing magic realism. I don’t think there’s anything magic about my realism, I think it’s just there.
SJ : They have these expressions now like “dirty realism”.
SR: Yes, that was invented by my friend Bill Buford when he was editing Granta. He invented it to describe a particular group of young American writers. It fitted some of them, the kind of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jane Anne Phillips kind of writing.
QU: Have you read Will Self? .
SR: I have, yes. Dirty, but not realism.
QU: So who do you read and enjoy?
SR: Like most of us, I read a lot. The writers who I admired most when I was learning to be a writer were writers like Joyce, Sterne, Gogol, Cervantes, Beckett and Dickens. They would still be among the writers I think of as the best.
I go through reading jags. There was a point where I got very keen on North American fiction. I’m still a great admirer of Saul Bellow. I think he’s a great writer. I’m fond of Thomas Pynchon and some of Philip Roth.
QU: What about women writers? Do you not read women writers much?
SR: I think I do. Didn’t I mention any?
QU: Not a one!
SR: I said Jane Austen, didn’t I? I like Toni Morrison a lot. She’s a friend as well. I really thought Song Of Solomon was an extraordinary book. In a way I still prefer it of her books. I’ve read quite a lot of Atwood, and when she’s good, she’s very good. The writer whom I really admired, who was probably my closest friend among British writers, was Angela Carter.
QU: Angela Carter was a seminal writer for me. I always read and loved her, through my late teens and twenties.
SR: I think she’s getting her due now that she’s dead. And I think it’s sad because she would have loved it. But she had great confidence in her work and she had plenty of people telling her how much they admired it. It wasn’t as if she had no recognition, because she always did. I once had to introduce Angie to a reading in London. It was in winter and a huge snowstorm developed, which is not very common in London. I arrived at the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith and there was Angie at the bar and nobody came. Eventually six people arrived. She was determined to go on, so instead of stupidly doing it in this big theatre we went to a smaller room and drew six chairs around in a circle. She did her reading flat-out as if it were a thousand people and it was completely brilliant.
She loved to read her stories. She had a story-reading voice, which wasn’t like her real voice. A
strange artificial voice, much more sing-song and rather fey. A curious, witchy voice.
Doris Lessing is someone I’ve admired for years and years. I’ve got travelling round with me in my suitcase a proof of her new novel, which I’m told is about to scandalise people yet again. It’s a novel about an old lady who has an affair with a much younger man and is quite explicit, I gather, on the subject. So Doris has got it, she’s still able to churn people up.
QU: That’s what we hope, isn’t it, that we can go on writing. Like John Cheever, who wrote well into his 80s. One last question: is it odd, now, to find yourself more famous among non-readers as a celebrity rather than a writer?
SR: If one of the few advantages of this situation is that people will be drawn to my work out of curiosity, then fair enough. If I can get that small benefit out of seven dreadful years, then I’m happy to accept it. Actually, mostly I don’t think about it. Fame, who needs it?

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