International Literature Festival, Utrecht – ILFU

Rushdie: on New York, Nero and Naipaul – 19th September 2018

A one and a half hour security delay did not deter a full concert hall of Salman Rushdie fans at  last night’s Humanities Night, part of Utrecht’s International Literary Festival.  At seventy-one, Rushdie confesses that he loves living in New York in spite of its links with Donald Trump. This brings him to his latest novel, The Golden House, (2017) and one of its central characters, Nero. A larger-than-life Indian businessman of extensive wealth with a beautiful Russian gold-digger wife and a penchant for power. It goes without saying that it ends badly for both Nero and his three illustriously named sons, Petronius, Lucius and Dionysus. In spite of obvious parallels with the 45th president of the United States, as Rushdie likes to refer to him, the author insists that 95% of the book was already written well before Trump ran for presidency. Nevertheless, he admits that Trump’s election might have been bad for politics, but it was good for literature.

‘I wanted the book to have that echo of Greek tragedy’

The Golden men’s names link them with antiquity, specifically, Rushdie is at pains to point out, the tradition of Greek tragedy. The author admits that it is the inevitability of the fate of the Greek hero or heroine that appeals to him. The fact that the reader or audience is well aware of this fate, right from the start, but the individual himself is oblivious until it is too late. Continuing in this vein, Rushdie explains that his choice of setting, specifically the garden of the Golden’s house in the heart of Greenwhich Village, represents a sort of stage on which his characters play out their lives watched by their neighbours. In this sense, the book also draws on the claustrophobic setting of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, filmed in the same neighbour Rushdie later discovered.

Indeed, the writer admits that the construction of the book is ‘somewhat cinematic’, in its use of short scene-like chapters and the narrator’s own obsession with film. A wannabe movie maker, Rene Unterlinden is the only native New Yorker in the book. Although Rushdie initially imagined his narrator as a young writer, he acknowledges, that the minute he began to think of him as a filmmaker, ‘the whole book opened up’.  The seventy-one year old writer also admits that part of his decision to use a young, twenty-something narrator was inspired by a desire to write ‘a young man’s book’. One influenced by the younger generation of writers, many of whom are immigrants but who see themselves as American writers.

‘I have always been interested in the idea of metamorphosis.’

The issue of immigration and the opportunities it provides for re-invention are of course closely tied to the notion of the American dream. Rushdie agrees that he has always been interested in the idea of metamorphosis, the notion that people can and do dramatically reinvent themselves, of their own free will. ‘The radical change in the self is something that crops up quite often in my work’. The writer places himself firmly in this category and indeed when asked why he chose to make the move to New York, he describes it simply as ‘an experiment that worked.’ Rushdie himself strikes one as a man who is comfortable both with himself and his life in America. During the course of the evening, he mentioned the names of a number of famous filmmakers and writers with whom he is on friendly terms and one senses that this writer of New York best sellers is himself something of an advertisement for the American dream. Proof that even someone with a death sentence (fatwa) issued by none other than the Ayatollah Khomeini himself, can successfully reinvent himself and produce a New York Times best seller in his adopted country while declining the offer of a box at the US Open from Trump himself / negotiating a deal for a Netflix version of Midnight’s Children.

‘Naipaul was a hard man to love’.

Speaking finally about the recent death of Nobel Laureate and long-time rival, V.S. Naipaul, Rushdie admits that, on many counts, their differences outweighed their points of convergence, but one can not ignore the greatness of his talent. ‘When he died, it was like a very big tree falling in the forest’.  This may well be true, but Rushdie’s relaxed, disarming manner belies an obvious affinity with people which many great writers lack. It is perhaps this more than anything else that strikes you about the world-renowned author when meeting him in person. He is easy to like and in spite of his success, appears not to take  himself too seriously. Most people find such a quality very attractive, especially in the rich and famous.

Souwie Buis  20th September 2018

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