Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Liberating the truth from history

Following his appearance at the Hay Literary Festival in Cartagena, author Salman Rushdie spoke at the National University of Colombia on 2 February.

Forthcoming, affable, with a sharp sense of humor, Rushdie spoke about his books, elements from his life that have influenced his writing, and the novel as an expression of popular culture.

Interviewer and Hay Festival Director Peter Florence began the interview by noting that Salman Rushdie has often been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his use of magical and supernatural elements in his writing. Rushdie acknowledged the similarity in the sense that both he and Garcia Marquez write about characters whose world view is colored by a sense of a world of wonder and magic that surrounds them and that this magic has become part of their everyday existence. "I'll take the comparison," Rushdie said, playing to the crowd. But there the similarity ends, for whereas Garcia is an eminently rural author, Rushdie's works are rooted in the in the hustle and bustle of the cities of India, color by his experience of growing up in Bombay (Mumbai), and nuanced with his experience of living in the cities of London and New York.

His first successful novel, Midnight's Children (1981), tells the story of a boy and other children, who were born on August 15, 1947, the day that India became independent of British colonial rule. The personal stories are interwoven into the fabric of history and, as Rushdie notes, his purpose is to liberate the truth from history. He also wanted to write a book to give voice to the vernacular to the Indian people. Until this point, the only authors who had written about India were British, such as E.M. Forrester's Passage to India, written in an English that was cool, classical, distant, and reserved. Rushdie wanted to capture the feeling of life in India, in all of its hot, vulgar, smelly, noisy, spiritual, surrealist glory. He joked with the audience that Latin America has nothing on India when it comes to squalor and passion.

He spoke about the book The Satanic Verses, which tells the story of Indian immigrants to England. He spoke about the experience of immigration as an existential process of questioning one's cultural identity, and deciding what to hold onto and what to let go of when suddenly all of the cultural and family references that have accompanied you are gone.

Rushdie commented that for him the novel must always be something new, something different. Just as the character explores a new concept identity, Rushdie allows himself to explore in the novel form. He stressed that the novel is inherently an irreverent form in which nothing is sacred, and that as an author he has the right to question as he sees fit. It is his voice, his unique voice, he stated, and nobody owns him. He referred to the novel as a vulgar form, meaning of the common people. He commented on the validity of the different expressions of music, film, and popular culture as reflecting the sensibilities of the times. Rushdie noted that people tend to like or dislike his books for exactly the same reason, often citing their cinematographic quality.

He talked about his new book The Enchantress of Florence (2009). Rushdie is enthusiastic about the 16th century as a time of newness, change, and creation. He incorporates historical figures into his plot such as Miccolo Machiavelli. Rushdie feels strongly about this character and gives a spirited defense about why Machiavelli is altogether misunderstood and maligned. Rushdie refers to Machiavelli's black humor and irony, coupled with a sharp political eye and insight in the examination of the nature of political power. At the center of the book is the enchantress herself, a woman who combines erotic and occult power: who is as dangerous as she is beautiful, and how the power that she wields, in turn puts her in danger.

I came away from the interview with a newfound respect for Salman Rushdie, an author of creativity, artistic integrity, humor, and gritty sensuality.

Also, kudos to Peter Florence as a wonderful interviewer.

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