BOOKS: Salman Rushdie At The Free Library

[Illustration via ARISTOTLE’S LACKEY] CAROLINE SCHMIDT Salman Rushdie’s personal life has been the focus of media attention ever since the publication of The Satanic Verses lead Iran’s Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini to issue a fatwah that called for the author’s execution in 1989 forcing the author into hiding for more than a decade. Starting with 1975’s Grimus, he has published more than a dozen novels, received numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Man Booker Prize for 1981’s Midnight’s Children, and been knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He is more infamously known for his four marriages — to striking women with names like Clarissa, Marianne, Elizabeth, Padma — and four divorces. But, not surprisingly, there was no mention of this sort of thing during his reading last night at the Free Library.

Rushdie opened with an anecdote about living in London as an emerging writer. At a “legendary Christmas party, which was only for writers,” Rushdie was cornered by his publisher’s father, an émigré intellectual and publisher who had fled Germany due to the rise of Nazism. In a “strong Germanic accent,” he said to him, “You must a children’s book write.”

Rushdie’s new novel, Luka and the Fire of Life, is his second book for children. His first, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was written directly after the controversial publication of The Satanic Verses. Luka and the Fire of Life is replete with riddles and wordplay. The book’s hero — a character based on Rushdie’s son — is presented with a world of imagery and challenges resonant of the ancient heroic epic tradition and modern video games. There is a deathly doppelganger, and even a flying carpet. “I’ve always wanted a flying carpet,” Rushdie said.

When asked what age group he felt his new novel was best suited for, he replied, “I think we’re all children, really,” and, “It’s just for anybody who enjoys it.” He later suggested, “The fable, folktale, or fairy tale, has always been the way of speaking to all generations.” On writing for children, he said:

Children like complicated words, they like finding words they don’t understand in a text. It makes them feel grown up; not knowing that grown ups actually like simple words. You don’t write down to children, you write up.

Citing one of his self-proclaimed heroes Lewis Carroll, Rushdie joked, “When Humpty Dumpty says, ‘When I use a word it means what I want it to mean, neither more nor less,’ he could be any politician, really.” He also spoke of the impact that cinema has had on fantasy fiction as a genre in
contemporary literature:

Fantasy fiction used to be the poor relation of literature; it used to be the kind of ignorant country cousin that people would look down on. That’s changed, and I think a lot of the change is due to the cinema; a lot of the change is due to the arrival of technology in filmmaking, which makes it possible to make films about things that don’t exist and make them look as though they do. […] I grew up in a very different age in the cinema, in which world cinema, really, was having an extraordinary moment. It’s very hard now, to tell people what it felt like, when the great films, which are now the classics of the cinema, were that week’s new movies. When you went to the movies and that week the new movie was La Dolce Vita, and the next week it was the new Godard movie, and then the new Kurosawa samurai movie, and then the new Ingmar Bergman movie, and so on and so on. The extraordinary excitement of world cinema in the 50s, 60s, 70s, it’s something which, is gone now. And what we have instead, is this kind of fantasy stuff.

Lastly, he defied the categorization that is often applied to his novels:

The term magic realism gets used about my work a lot, and I worry about it a bit, because I think when people use the phrase, what they hear is “magic,” and they don’t hear “realism.”

A podcast of Rushdie reading passages from Luca and the Fire of Life, along with an audience question and answer segment should be available Monday; you can find it here:

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