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7 February

Why Salman Rushdie’s imagination cannot be stopped

In his first interview since the attack on his life, the novelist refuses to be defined as target or victim.

By Leo Robson

Salman Rushdie’s work has staged a number of related battles – between freedom and repression, imaginative play and absolutism, rationalism and what he calls “the unreasoning mind”. But David Remnick’s profile of the novelist in this week’s New Yorker emphasises a more personal kind of struggle: Rushdie’s desire to find autonomy or normality as a citizen and a writer while being a cause and, for extended periods, a target. Rushdie’s story emerges as one not about principles or arguments but defiance and resilience, of forging a path, preserving his energies, protecting his talent.

As Remnick tells it, Rushdie’s life can be divided into a series of more or less discrete periods. First there was childhood in Mumbai (where he was born in 1947) and adolescence at Rugby School and Cambridge. Then he served his apprenticeship, writing various abandoned manuscripts and publishing one novel that appeared to little fanfare (Grimus) while working as a copywriter. For more or less the whole of the 1980s, he was the feted post-colonial writer, author of novels about India (Midnight’s Children), Pakistan (Shame) and South Asians in Britain (The Satanic Verses), mildly controversial for their portrayal of historical events and figures such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher. Growing anger towards The Satanic Verses, for its depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, culminated in the fatwa set down by Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme ruler of Iran, in February 1989, which sent Rushdie into hiding. In the late 1990s Rushdie moved to New York where he lived, as Remnick puts it, “freely, insistently unguarded” and wrote a steady stream of books, most recently the novel Victory City, which he finished last July and which appeared a few weeks ago. That appeared to be the status quo until six months ago when Rushdie was stabbed multiple times while attending a speaking engagement.

It is tempting to see this as a story of extremes. Rushdie either lived and wrote as he wished, or wrote within a constricting context and went everywhere with a security detail. (Martin Amis once recalled that he and Rushdie were forbidden from walking out of Four Weddings and a Funeral – “and no Iranian torturer could have elicited a greater variety of winces and flinches, of pleadings and whimperings”.) Clearly the best times came before the fatwa and after the move to New York, but the period of fatwa itself is presented in surprising and inspiring terms, as a period in which Rushdie recognised the power of his imagination. In the midst of the nightmare, Remnick explains, Rushdie wrote “one of his most enjoyable books” – Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Rushdie says that he was adamant not to write “revenge” books or “scared” books, and expresses the belief that an alien, reading his twenty-plus novels, would not think, “Something terrible happened to this writer in 1989.”

That “something terrible” is the closest precedent to what is occurring now. In 1991, talking to James Wood in the Guardian, Rushdie said, “When I’ve sat down to write, there’s been this huge storm in the way.” Speaking to Remnick, he admits that while he has been convalescing, “I sit down to write, and nothing happens.” But as Remnick points out, Victory City is his sixteenth book since the fatwa. In a triumphant moment, which once again shows his extraordinary approach to adversity, Rushdie says that he is “beginning to feel the return of the juices”.

[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

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