Salman Rushdie: “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” | Talks at Google

Salman Rushdie: “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” | Talks at Google


MALE SPEAKER: Welcome
to Talks at Google. Today we have a very special
guest, Salman Rushdie. It’s been over 25 years since
the publishing of “The Satanic Verses” that made
him a household name, but before that he was
already a fellow in the Royal Society of Literature. And in 2007, he was knighted
by Queen Elizabeth II. Not to mention that in 2001 he
stole the spotlight in the film “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” In his novel “Luka
and the Fire of Life,” there’s a telling bit
of dialogue that states, “You of all boys should know
that man is the storytelling animal, and that stories
are his identity, his meaning, his lifeblood. Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have
narrative purposes? Do elephants elephantisize? You know as well as I
do that they do not. Man alone burns with books.” With 12 novels and
many works to his name, he’s lived a life fully
realizing these words. He truly knows what
it means to have his stories he his identity,
his meaning, and his life blood. In his new novel, “Two
Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight
Nights,” Salman goes beyond the traditional
1,001 Nights with a magical story
spanning the centuries, and brings a mythical struggle
to America’s doorstop. It is my pleasure today to
introduce Salman Rushdie. [APPLAUSE] SALMAN RUSHDIE: So we
were just talking before, and I was asked if it was
true that in my earlier days I made my money writing
advertising copy. And I did. And actually, one of
the strangest things about the final
season of “Mad Men” is that it basically
caught up with the time when I was working
in advertising. So it was horribly familiar. I mean, I remember “I’d like
to teach the world to sing,” and it suddenly
made me think, oh, that’s why they work
in McCann Erickson, because that’s where
the Coke ad was made. And I have to say that
it wasn’t quite as alcoholic as this television
series, but pretty close. And it wasn’t completely as
sexist as the television world, but also pretty close. I remember I worked at Ogilvy
[INAUDIBLE] for a long time, on and off freelance. And when you work at
Ogilvy’s on the first day there– this was
a long time ago– you were given a
copy of the book by David Ogilvy about
his advertising. It’s called something like
Confessions of an Advertising Writer. And just to give you
a flavor of the time, the first sentence
of the book says, “The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife.” That was very much the– I think
you recognize that attitude from the television series. Anyway, I escaped that. In fact, when “Midnight’s
Children” came out in 1981 and started doing pretty well,
I thought, finally, I can leave. And so I went to the creative
director of the agency and I said, I wrote this
book and it’s doing fine. I always wanted to
be a writer, so I think I’m going to try
and be a full-time writer. And so I quit. And he said, oh
you want a raise. [LAUGHTER] And I said, no, really. This isn’t a negotiation. This is what I’ve
always wanted to do, and now I’m going
to go and do it. And he said, oh, you
want a big raise. [LAUGHTER] And I tried to say to him
that no, look, I’m supposed to give you 30 days notice. So this is 30 days
notice, and 31 days from now I’m not going to
be coming in the office. And he said, I don’t think we
could give you as much as that. [LAUGHTER] But then, to be fair to him,
when the book actually did do very well– it won the
Booker Prize and so on– we used to have these
things called telegrams. The first telegram I got was
from my very relieved bank manager. The second telegram was from
him, the creative director. And it said very sweetly,
one of us made it. Because of course, everybody
who works in advertising has a TV sitcom in the
bottom drawer or a novel or a play or a movie
script or something. So yeah, that was my
escape from advertising. But what it did teach
me– and I think it’s a lesson I’ve kept
paying attention to– it taught me two things. One is it taught me to
do the work like a job, not to think about inspiration
but just sit down every morning and do my day’s work and in a
way not give myself permission not to do it. Because when you’re
working to deadlines– I guess journalists
learn the same thing– you can’t afford to
have creative tantrums. You’ve just got to get
the work done on time, and it’s got to be good. So that was a good
lesson to learn, that lesson of professionalism. And the other thing,
which is a strange thing to say for somebody
who’s written very, very long books sometimes–
this book is, I’m happy to say, not that long;
finally in my old age learning to be brief. I have written some long
books, but advertising does teach you in fact
not to waste words, because you don’t have
any words to waste. And I’ve always again
taken that lesson into the writing of novels,
because even if you write a long novel, I’ve
always thought, it has to feel like it
needed to be that long and could have been much
longer if you hadn’t really been as concise as you could. The worst thing of all is to
read a long novel that feels like it’s going on forever. Then it’s kind of
close to unbearable. There’s too many
of those around. Anyway, so I think
I did actually get quite a lot of useful
information from that time. And I guess the other
thing you think about a lot and that I’ve thought about
more and more as I’ve gone on is exactly how readers read. It’s very easy as a
creative artist to think, well, I’m just doing my
thing, and I’ll do it exactly as I want and then
it’s up to the readers to find their way to it. I think I’ve probably been
guilty of that as well, but I’ve just become
very interested in exactly how readers go
about the business of reading, and what attracts them
and what repels them and how you hold attention
and how you lose it. And one of the things
that really helped me– I grew up in India, and one
of the things about India is there still is a
very rich oral tradition of storytelling in
some parts of India, particularly in south India. There are oral storytellers
who still command very large audiences,
like maybe 10 times the size of this audience. And they’re immensely popular. They’re so popular some
of them that they actually are recruited by politicians
during election campaigns and things like that,
and they can actually swing percentages of the vote. But the interesting thing
about the oral story in India is that characteristically,
it’s not told as a linear story. It doesn’t go
beginning, middle, end. The famous advice given to
the White Rabbit by the King of Hearts in the trial scene
in “Alice in Wonderland,” when the White Rabbit is having
trouble getting evidence, the King says, start
at the beginning, go on until you reach
the end, and then stop. And there’s a
conventional wisdom that that’s how
you tell stories. But the oral story,
very remarkably, doesn’t do that at all. When one of these
storytellers stands up, he will usually start
with an anecdote drawn out of mythology, out of the rich
Indian mythological tradition. And he’ll tell that
for a bit, and then he will connect that to
perhaps some political event of the time and try and show you
the connections between that, and then he’ll connect that
to some possible anecdote of his own life, and then
he’ll sing a little song, and then he’ll have
some other digressions. And there’s like four
or five narrative lines that he’s juggling
at any given moment. And what is interesting
is that instead of that being confusing
to the audience, it’s actually delightful. The audience enjoys
the skill with which the story lines are interwoven. And just when you think it
can’t get any more complicated, he’ll throw another
ball in the air and juggle these narrative
balls, if you like. And I thought, this
is the exact opposite of what you’re taught
about how to write a story. And yet, here is this
very, very ancient form, the oral narrative, and
the oral storyteller knows exactly when he loses
the attention of his reader, of his audience, because
they get up and walk away. Or if you’re really
unlucky, they start throwing things at you. But anyway, it
becomes very clear when they’re not with you. And so everything
about oral narration is designed to hold the
audience’s attention. That’s its sole purpose. And interestingly
then, this playfulness, this multiple
narration, turns out to be a better way of
holding people’s attention than the conventional
beginning, middle, end way. And so I thought, that’s
really interesting, and what could I do with that? One of the things this
book has is really quite a lot of
narrative lines that weave in and out of each
other, and I sometimes think of it and others
of my books as being, in a way, written down versions
of that oral storytelling tradition, or at least that
they’ve learned a great deal from that tradition. The other thing to say
about growing up in India is that you’re very lucky to
grow up in a world of story. The incredible narrative
traditions of India are a great gift to all
of us who grew there. First of all, of course,
there are the great epics, like the Ramayana
and the Mahabharata. But there are also
all these traditions of what collectively
have gotten known as wonder tales, of which
The Arabian Nights, the 1,001 Nights, is the most famous. But there are many others. In India there’s a
wonderful collection of animal fables,
the Panchatantra. And what is great and
very contemporary about those is that unlike
European fables, unlike the kind of
Aesop’s fable tradition, they’re not moralistic. Aesop’s fables always end
up with a neat little moral, like don’t be greedy,
or be kind to people. But the Panchatantra fables
aren’t like that at all. In fact, they’re very
often deeply cynical, and the bad guys often win. And that makes them
feel very modern. Then there are various
compendiums of wonder tales. And even the Arabian
Nights so-called, many of those stories
actually originated in India. The journey of that book
is very interesting. Almost certainly,
most of the stories started out as Indian folktales. And then at a certain point
they were written down in Persian, in Farsi
originally, because that was the court language at the time. And they moved west into
the Persian-speaking, Farsi-speaking world. That was a book which was
called Hazar Afsanah, which means 1,000 stories. And that book has
been completely lost. There’s not a single
copy of it survives. And the only reason we
know of its existence is because it’s referred
to in other people’s books. But we know of it
that in that book already, the famous story of
Scheherazade, telling stories to save her life
is already present. And at the certain point it
goes from Farsi into Arabic and becomes Alf Layla Wa-Layla,
the 1,000 nights and one night. And on each of these
steps of the journey, certain stories fall
out and other stories are added so that there isn’t
really a definitive text. The text changes
as the book moves. And after the
Arabic version moved around the
Arabic-speaking world, it eventually found
its way into Europe, initially into French, where
it was translated into French by a man called Antoine Galland,
who again dropped a few stories and added a few stories. And interestingly, some
of the stories he added are the ones that
you all know about. That’s when Aladin enters
the Arabian Nights, and that’s when Ali-Baba
enters the Arabian Nights. So oddly, these are actually
not Eastern stories at all. They’re kind of French. Do you think of Aladin
as a French person? And then eventually from
French they made their way into English and so on. It’s a very interesting
journey about how stories move across the world and
inspire people in one culture after another– and
survive, in this case, probably these stories,
the earliest of them, are probably 2,000 years old. And yet, here we are still
reading them and having movies made out of them. I actually did meet
one real genie. I did meet Robin Williams,
and that was extraordinary because he never
stopped [INAUDIBLE]. He was always on. And it was kind of extraordinary
to just sit there and listen to this soliloquy. I’ll share with you
a story he told me about playing the
genie in the movie. It was originally supposed
to be quite a small part, and so he was hired
essentially as a day player to come in to do a day’s
recording, and went and did it, the bit that was written. And then he said to
them, I think there’s a bit more in this character. Can I just have a go? Can I just try a few things out? And they said all right, and
so he was there for a few hours and he just went. And the improvisations
were so brilliant that they actually had to
reanimate the film in order to make the character
much bigger. And he said, then they
got a little bit guilty, because they hadn’t
really paid me very much money, because
initially it was supposed to be quite a small role. He says, they got guilty. So he took me into his
dining room and he said, so they gave me this. And he pointed over
the mantlepiece and there was really quite
a large, rather beautiful late-period Picasso. [LAUGHTER] So that’s what he
got for being blue. Anyway, so this book has genies
in it attacking Manhattan. And the last thing I
want to say before I just read you a little bit of
it– and then we can talk– is that it comes out of not
just an Eastern tradition of magic stories, but also a
Western tradition for which I suppose the generic
term is surrealism. And I think I’ve been
very affected as an artist not just by the
literature of surrealism, but actually by the visual
arts of surrealism– by the paintings
of Rene Magritte, by the films of Luis
Bunuel and Salvador Dali. And I think their influence is
here somewhere in this book. And also, what then
developed out of surrealism, which was what was called
the theatre of the absurd, playwrights like Eugene
Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. So I think that
tradition, which to me is the kind of Western
counterpart of the Eastern wonder tale– those two
things are the things that came together in
a way to give me the way that I’ve
characteristically approached writing. And one of the things
that really struck me about surrealism is that
one of the key ideas of the surrealists was the idea
that when we look at the world, we look at it through eyes
that are dulled by habituation, because we’re used to things. We look at things
through habituated eyes. And they argued that that
formed a kind of, if you like, coating over our vision, which
made us neglect to notice that the world is marvelous. And so the idea
of surrealism was the idea of making
it strange, the idea of scratching away
that patina that dulls our vision so
that we can again perceive the world as wonderful. I think that’s as good a reason
for doing this kind of thing as any. So in this book, the jinn
is the collective term. The singular is
jinnia, which is where the word “genie” comes from. There’s good ones and bad ones. Actually, one of the good
ones is a jinnia princess who falls in love
with a human being. And there was this awful
moment halfway through the book where I thought that I might be
rewriting “I Dream of Jeannie.” [LAUGHTER] And it there was just a moment
where you stop and think, really? Have I just done
that by mistake? I think you’ll see
if you read the book that the people involved,
both supernatural and human, are really extremely unlike
the characters in the sitcom. There’s no harem pants. There’s no nose-wiggling. But there is, at the
center of the book, a love affair between a fairy
princess and a human beings, so make of that what you will. But I wanted to read you
a bit about the bad ones. What happens in the novel is
that four very powerful what are called dark jinn
manage to reenter our world after a
long absence, and they acquire world domination
plans, which fortunately they’re not that good at. The jinn suffer from all kinds
of problems, such as laziness and a kind of ADD. They can’t keep their mind
on anything for very long. But I thought I’d
just read you, there’s a bit– just since the
classic thing about the genies is that you get
them out of bottles, there actually is one
moment in this novel where the most powerful of the jinn
who is a gigantic figure called [INAUDIBLE] the Great,
is rescued by one of the other
characters who recurs in the book, this conservative
Islamic philosopher called [INAUDIBLE], who is anxious to
impose a very doctrinaire– I guess what we might now
call fundamentalist, although this is
slightly earlier that– vision of the world. And the jinn and the
philosopher sort of join forces. His adversary is a much
more liberal philosopher known in the West
as [INAUDIBLE], but whose Arab name is Ibn
Rushd, which is actually obviously cognates
with my surname. And that was interesting also. But I thought I’d just read
you the bit about the bad guy, the sort of villain
of the novel. “The grand [INAUDIBLE],
Zumurrud Shah, on whose head was
a golden crown, taken from the head of a prince
he had accidentally or not so accidentally decapitated
once upon a time, had, at a certain
point in history, become the philosopher
Ghazali’s personal jinnia, a terrifying entity whose name
was too terrifying to utter. Ghazali was not however
the jinnia’s master. The words “master” and
“servant” are inappropriate when applied to the relationship
between human beings and the jinn, for any service a
jinnia may perform for a human being is a boon rather than
evidence of enslavement, an act of generosity, or in
the case of a jinnia liberated from some sort of trap–
a lamp for example– a gesture of gratitude. The story goes that
Ghazali had in fact freed Zumurrud
Shah from just such a trap, a blue bottle in which
a forgotten sorcerer had trapped him. Long, long ago, wandering in
the streets of his native city of [INAUDIBLE], Ghazali had
spotted the opaque bottle lying abandoned in the heaps
of trash, which unfortunately disfigured that old town
of [INAUDIBLE] minarets and enigmatic walls,
and had intuited at once, as philosophers
with the proper training are able to intuit, the presence
of a captive spirit therein. He scooped up the
bottle casually, but with the guilty expression
of a novice burglar, and pressing his lips
against the royal blue glass, whispered a little too loudly
the occult incantation that is the required opening for all
dialogues with captured jinn. ‘Jinnia great and jinnia grand,
now I hold you in my hand. Tell me e’er I set you free
what reward you’ll offer me.” A miniaturized genie
speaking through glass sounds like a talking
mouse in a cartoon. Many human beings
have been deceived by this feeble squeaktiy
squeak into swallowing the poisoned pill the captive
jinnia will invariably offer them. Ghazali however was
made of sterner stuff. This was the jinnia’s
reply, ‘Never bargain. Let me go. Weak men bargain. Strong men know, those who
freely set me ever more will blessed be.’ But Ghazali knew
the proper retort to this childish deception. Well, I know your tribe and kin. Make your promise
while you’re in. Without a sacred vow to
keep, only fool lets jinnia leap.’ Zumurrud Shah, knowing
that he had little choice, offered the usual
three wishes formula. Ghazali replied, sealing
the contract, accepting in words that deviated
somewhat from the usual ones, ‘Anytime, ‘neath any moon,
I may ask you for a boon. Any time these one, two, three,
swiftly will fulfill it be.’ Released, expanding at
once to his full immensity, the jinnia was struck by two
things that marked out Ghazali as a most unusual mortal. Firstly, he did not quail. Quailing was not
only de rigueur, it was also in most cases
the instinctive reaction to the sight of Zumurrud
the Great in his dark glory. However, this mortal,
the grand [INAUDIBLE] noted with some
perplexity, quaileth not. That was firstly. And secondly, he didn’t ask
for something right away. That was unprecedented. Infinite wealth, a
bigger sexual organ, unlimited power–
these wishes were at the top of any jinnia’s
list of the top demands of the human male. The human male wishing mind
was surprisingly unimaginative. [LAUGHTER] But no wish? The deferral all three wishes? That was almost indecent. ‘You ask for nothing?’
Zumurrud Shah roared. ‘Nothing is a thing I cannot
give.’ Ghazali inclined his philosopher’s head and put
a hand around his chin. ‘I see that you give to
nothing the quality of a thing. Nothing is the thing
that cannot be given, precisely because
it is not a thing. Yet in your view,
it’s not-thingness is itself a form of thingness. This perhaps we may discuss.’ [LAUGHTER] Understand, jinnia, that I am
a man of few personal needs. I need neither infinite wealth
nor a bigger sexual organ nor unlimited power. However, the time may come when
I ask for some larger service. I’ll let you know. In the meantime, be off. You’re free to go. ‘When will this time come?’
Zumurrud Shah demanded. I’m going to be busy, you know. After being stuck in that bottle
for so long there are many things to be done.’
‘The time will come when it’s time,’ Ghazali said
infuriatingly and turned away to his book. ‘I spit upon all philosophers,’
Zumurrud Shah told him, ‘also artists and the rest
of humanity as well.’ And he whirled himself into a
funnel of rage and was gone. And then, time passed. Years passed. Decades passed. And Ghazali was dead, and
with him died the contract, or so the jinnia believed. And the slits between the
world silted up and closed, and Zummurd, which is
fairyland, forgot for a time all about the world of
men, all about the man who refused to make a wish. And centuries passed, and
a new millennium began, and the seals which separated
the worlds began to break. And then boom, here he
was again in the world of these feeble beings,
and suddenly there was a voice in his head
commanding his presence, the voice of a dead
man, the voice of dust, of less than dust, the voice
of the void in the grave where the dust of the
dead man had been, a void that was somehow
animated, somehow possessed of the
sensibility of the dead man, a void that was ordering
him to present itself to be told its first great wish. And he, having no option,
being bound by the contract, even though he intended to argue
that the contract did not apply posthumously, he remembered
Ghazali’s unusual language– ‘anytime, ‘neath any moon,
any time these one, two, three.’ And he knew that as he
had forgotten to insert a death clause, a detail he should
make it a point to remember if at any point in the future
he needed to grant the three wishes contract again, the
obligation still lay upon him like a shroud, and he had to
do whatever the void desired. He remembered and
summoned up in a rush all his unassuaged rage,
the wrath of a grand [INAUDIBLE] who had spent half
an eternity bottled up in blue and conceived the
desire to be avenged against the entire species
from which his captor came. He would rid himself of this
puny obligation to a dead man, and then it would be
time for vengeance. This he swore.” I’ll just finish that
story by leaving out a bit. This is just how much he
hates the human beings. “He was the enemy of the human
race because of his contempt for human character. It was as if he took the
complexity of human beings as a personal
affront, the maddening inconsistency of human beings,
their contradictions, which they made no attempt to
wipe out or reconcile, their mixture of idealism
and greed, grandeur and pettiness, truths and lies. They were not to be
taken seriously anymore than a cockroach deserve
serious consideration. At best there were toys, and
he was as close as any of them would ever get to a wanton god,
and he would, if he so chose, kill them for their sport. In other words, even if the
philosopher Ghazali had not unleashed him upon the
unsuspecting world, he would have unleashed
himself upon it. His inclination
was in accordance with his instructions,
that the instructions from the dead
philosopher were clear. ‘Instill fear,’
Ghazali told him. ‘Only fear will move
sinful man towards God. Fear is a part of
God in the sense that it is that feeble creature
man’s appropriate response to the infinite power
and punitive nature of the almighty. One may say that fear
is the echo of God, and wherever that echo is
heard men fall to their knees and cry mercy. In some parts of the earth
God is already feared. Don’t bother about
those regions. Go where man’s pride
is swollen, where man believes himself to be godlike. Lay waste his arsenals
and flesh pots, his temples of technology,
knowledge, and wealth. Go also to those
sentimental locations where it is said that God is love. Go and show them the truth.’ ‘I don’t have to agree with you
about God,’ replied Zumurrud Shah ‘about his nature
or even his existence. That is not and never
will be my business. In fairyland we do
not speak of religion, and our daily life there
is utterly alien to life on Earth, and if I may
say so, far superior. I can tell that even in death
you are a censorious prude, so I will not go into details,
although they are juicy. At any rate,
philosophy is a subject of no interest except
to bores, and theology is philosophy’s
more tedious cousin. I’ll leave such
soporific matters to you in your dusty
grave, but as to your wish, I not only accept
it as my command, it will be my
pleasure to comply. With the proviso that as you
are in fact asking for a series of acts, this will redeem the
entirety of my three wishes pledge.’ ‘Agreed,’ the void that
was Ghazali replied. If the dead could
giggle with delight, then the dead philosopher
would have chortled with glee. The jinn perceived this. ‘Why
so mirthful?’ he inquired. ‘Unleashing chaos upon
the unsuspecting world is not a joke. Or is it?’ Ghazali was thinking
of his old rival Ibn Rushd. ‘My adversary in thought,’
he told Zumurrud Shah, ‘was a poor fool who was
convinced that with the passage of time human beings would turn
from faith to reason in spite of all the inadequacies
of the rational mind. I obviously am of a
different opinion. I have triumphed
over him many times, yet the argument continues. And it is a fine
thing in a battle of wits to be in possession
of a secret weapon, an ace in the hole to
play, a trump card to use at an opportune time. In this particular case, mighty
Zumurrud, you are that trump. I relish the fool’s
evident discomfiture at his further
inevitable defeat. Philosophers are
children,’ the jinnia said. ‘And I’ve never liked
children myself.'” I’ll stop there. [APPLAUSE] Yeah, a very odd book. After that it gets really odd. [LAUGHTER] So let me just stop there. If you want to talk about–
or we’ll just sit here. [LAUGHTER] All right, we will
just sit here. All right, somebody. Yeah, good. AUDIENCE: In the book,
Geronimo goes back to India and laments about the
differences between Bombay and Mumbai. I was wondering if you
travel to India much now and if you could talk
about the differences now between now and your time. SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well yes, I
do go back fairly regular. As you perhaps know,
there’s this kind of joke in India about all of
us who are NRIs, Non-resident Indians, that come the winter we
all like homing pigeons return. They say, oh, here
you are again. Must be that season of the year. So yes, I do. And I think Bombay
has– which I still persist in calling Bombay in
the way that people in Saigon don’t call it Ho Chi Minh
City– it has changed. Of course, first of all
it’s grown enormously. Secondly, of course,
places do change anyway over a space or period of time. But I think one of
the ways in which it’s changed that is
saddening is that it used to be a city that
prided itself on not having communal disputes. The Hindu-Muslim trouble between
people of different traditions kind of didn’t happen there. Even at the time of the
independence of India and Pakistan and
the partition, when there were these
great massacres, and in Bombay essentially
nothing happened. And people lived perfectly
well alongside each other. And that was true all the time
that I was growing up there. It really went on
until about the end of the ’80s it was like
that, and then gradually what happened was the rise
of a Hindu nationalism that was more progressive
than anything in the past. And the quality of the
city began to change, and the proof of
that was in 1993 when there were these series
of terrorist explosions across the city. That was, if you
like, a moment of loss of innocence after that. And ever since
then, the city has been the victim of communal
discord, like anywhere else. The kind of
exceptionalism of the city no longer exists,
and that’s a shame. It’s still my hometown. I’m still very fond of it. It’s just a messier,
slightly nastier place now. But everywhere is,
so it’s not alone. Anyone else? AUDIENCE: Let me
preface my question by saying that I’m
sorry to say I have not read your books in the past. I’m hoping to remedy that some. SALMAN RUSHDIE: OK, good. If you get infected,
it’s a long infection. There’s a lot of books to read. AUDIENCE: I’ll start here
and see where that takes me. SALMAN RUSHDIE: Go backwards. AUDIENCE: Indeed. I was intrigued by
your comment that you introduced your own
name, in a fashion, as a character in this book. And I wondered
whether in this book or in some of your
previous books you have likewise
introduced alter egos for real personages
in your life. SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah. Well, first of
all, the reason is my father, who was in part a
scholar of Arabic and Farsi, was very interested in the
philosophy of Ibn Rushd, who in his time in the 12th century
was a very progressive voice. He was an Aristotelian
philosopher, one of the great
commentators on Aristotle whose work enormously influenced
afterwards Western philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and so on. But he was in his time a
very progressive voice. He argued for the primacy of
reason and logic and science against blind faith,
and he came up against the kind of blind
faith advocates of his time. There actually was a moment in
which he was exiled in disgrace and his books got burned, so
I felt I had that in common with him too, I discovered. Anyway, for obvious reasons I
found him an attractive person. Not just because
of the main thing, because my father basically
changed our family name to Rushdie because of
his admiration for Ibn Rushd. And so that was
obviously a first point of entry into finding
out about him. But then I just became
interested in him as him. And because at the
center of the book there’s this ongoing
argument between the rational and the irrational, between
the world of tolerance and the world of intolerance,
between faith and unfaith, that all those
oppositions– which may have taken a particular
form right now, if you like, in the news, but it’s
an ancient opposition. And I wanted to articulate
that in some way, and he became a very
useful character through which to
approach that subject. I mean, again, I
did obviously do the reading about the
historical character, so I do know about him insofar
as we know, whatever we know about him which is
not his life, as is characteristic of something
that’s almost 900 years ago, there are gaps in the record. But the things that are
known about his life I do know, and so this
character in the book is not incompatible with
what is known about his life. But of course, I suspect
he didn’t have a love affair with a fairy princess. That may be my invention. I’ll leave it to you to decide. My training was as a historian,
so I’ve always, if you liked, had two processes in my thought. One is a historicist
process, because one of the great
questions of history is also one of the great
questions of literature, which is what is the relationship
between the individual and the world. Are we simply the
victims of history, or do we have the kind of agency
that allows us to make history? That question of the
individual’s relationship to society in general and to
the great events of his time– that’s something
which as a historian you’ll always be
asked to consider. And history, as it developed
in the 20th century, moved away from a kind
of kings and battles idea of history to
something more social, what was originally called the
Marxist interpretation of history, which basically
said that in order to understand history you
must look at the people. You must look at how
ordinary life was lived and what moved the masses
of people and so on. And from that arises
the political sphere of kings and battles. Anyway, I’ve always
been interested in that. And of course, literature asks
these questions all the time, about how does the
individual human being sit in the context of his time. So for me, I’ve often
looked for stories in which individual human beings
are at a kind of crossroads with great events. And I try and look at
what they do to the events and what the events do to them. So that’s one
project in my mind, which is if you
like, naturalistic, historically based. And the other project is
this kind of fairytale thing. And it seems to me that the
two are both very good ways of approaching the truth about
human nature and who we are and what we do to each other. And quite often in my books
I’ve tried to put them both in. What happens when you take
both those kinds of discourse and allow them to
collide with each other? What sparks does that throw off? So yeah, I think in quite a
lot of my books– not all, but in a lot of
them– there have been one or two historical
figures here and there. Not usually in leading roles. I haven’t written the classic
historical novel the way that Gore Vidal wrote
about Lincoln or Burr. And Lincoln, actually. But history is always
there, very frequently there in [INAUDIBLE]. AUDIENCE: So I’ve been
trying to figure out how to articulate
the question, but you had the misfortune of becoming
a historical figure when the fatwa against you, and
the victim of fundamentalism in a serious way. My understanding is
that fundamentalism is a modern historical event. SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well,
in this form it is, yes. AUDIENCE: So what I thought
would be interesting to hear from you is what do you see
as the history, development, of this sort of fundamentalism,
and what do we do to– SALMAN RUSHDIE: About it? AUDIENCE: Yes. SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I’m happy
that you asked me to solve the most intractable problem. [LAUGHTER] Because as it happens, of
course, I have all the answers. If only people would ask me, it
would all be fixed very fast. Well, first of all
there always has been– this argument between
Ghazali and Ibn Rushd is a very important one. Just to be clear, they
didn’t live in the same place or the same time. Ghazali lived hundreds of miles
away in a different country, and probably almost
a century earlier. But Ghazali wrote
a very famous book called “The Incoherence
of the Philosophers,” in which he attacked
the philosophy which was of the forebears of
Ibn Rushd, philosophers like Avicenna in the West,
Ibn Sina and [INAUDIBLE] one or two others who were
also people who advocated the use of reason and logic
and science as opposed to simply bowing down
before the almighty. And Ibn Rushd wrote a
response to that, a book with the wonderful title
of “The Incoherence of the Incoherence,”
in which he argued on behalf of reason
and science and logic and against blind faith. But that argument, to an extent,
has always been there in Islam. And as we now see,
the literalists seem to have essentially
won that argument. But in its modern
form, I don’t know. It’s certainly not more
than half a century old. A certain amount of it
has to do with the rise from Saudi Arabia
of the Wahhabi cult, now sometimes also
called Salafist, which the royal family, the
Sauds, were followers of. And almost nobody
else was until they launched this enormous
campaign to propagate Wahhabi Islam across the world
by using the gigantic oil money to set up schools
and to send preachers around the world. And so now, Wahhabi Islam has
taken root all over the place and is the source of
a lot of the trouble, because that’s a very
fanatical brand of Islam. And it’s one of
the reasons why I keep trying to persuade
people that the Saudis are not our friends. There are also different
reasons in different places for the rise of extremism. In Afghanistan, you can
say that the Taliban are kind of a reaction
to and borne out of the struggle against
the Russian invasion, the so-called Mujahideen who
fought against the Russians, morphed into the Taliban after
the Russians were expelled. In places like Algeria,
what you had was initially a very popular and
completely secular Marxist party of the
revolution, which had expelled the colonial
power and then take over, and then over the
years became fat, became complacent
and rich and corrupt. And people swung away from
that towards the religious extremists as a reaction. So it’s not the same
thing everywhere. It’s a phenomenon that’s
developed a lot of momentum but actually arose from
local roots and local places. As to the cure, I
really think I’ll have to admit to not having one. But one of the things I
think that we can notice is that in those countries
in which fanatical extremist Islam has gained the
most power, those are also the countries in
which it’s most disliked. The people of Afghanistan
were not fans of the Taliban. The people of Iran, to
a very large extent, feel oppressed by the rule
of the ayatollahs, and so on. In Algeria, the radical Islamic
groups, the FIS and GIA, took power but were very rapidly
disliked and fell from power. So maybe if you take
a long historical view that this is a thing
that is burning through the Muslim
world– I mean, ISIS is something else again,
because that’s something that hasn’t happened before. There’s never been an army Before. And this army,
which is recruiting from all over the
world and which seems to have a lot of funds at
its disposal, partly from– we don’t know which governments
are giving money to ISIS, but you could have a pretty good
bet in the direction of Saudi Arabia and Yemen and Qatar. But they also have
seized oil wells, and they’re selling oil on
the black market and so on. So they’re suddenly
very well-funded, and they’re getting recruits
from all over the world. That’s a new phenomenon, which
is in a way harder to defeat. The other thing,
I think you could argue that the other
thing would burn itself, because people would
rapidly become disenchanted. But what’s happened in Iraq
is you have a failed state. And in that lawless
place, this new entity can present itself as
the law, by brute force can present itself as the law. And that’s going to be
very difficult to defeat, and I sort of doubt that it
can be defeated by air strikes alone. So yeah, I’ll stop
there, which is not the place you want me to stop. But I don’t have the cure. So that’s what I
can say right now. AUDIENCE: To shift from
solving the world’s problems to your writing, you play
with all sorts of ideas. You mentioned that you were
worried that you were slipping into “I Dream of Jeannie.” SALMAN RUSHDIE:
Slipping into what? Sorry? AUDIENCE: Into “I
Dream of Jeannie.” Why shouldn’t an astronaut
fall into the middle of your narrative? SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, there
ain’t no astronauts in here. Larry Hagman is not present, and
there’s no harem pants either. At the point in which I
realized that there was this echo I decided
to make it conscious, and so there
actually is a moment in the book where you’ll see
a conscious direct reference to that particular thing. [LAUGHTER] I’ll leave it to
you to discover it. I thought, if you
realize you’re doing it you may as well let
people know that you know, rather than have somebody tell
you as if you didn’t know. I’m very interested
in popular culture. I always have been. And I kind of don’t make
a distinction really between high and low
culture, because I think the thing about
being a novelist is you have to be very
interested in life as it’s actually lived. You have to know what’s
really in people’s heads. What are people
really thinking about, and how are they
talking, and so on. So you need to know what is
the rubbish in people’s heads. Otherwise you can’t
make them talk properly. This is something I take
from writers like Dickens. If you think about
Dickens, his novels go into every part of society. They go into the slums
and the criminal areas and the debtor’s prisons, but
they also go into high society and so on. And he himself, I think,
set out to know– London in particular, but not
only London– as profoundly as he could, to get
into as many rooms and into as many
interesting places as he could so that afterwards
he had that at his disposal to write about. But I think that’s exactly
what a writer should do. You should try and
learn the world. Learn what people’s
lives are like in places which are completely
not like the place where you spend your time. And learn what they think about. What do they watch? What do they talk about? What is the slang of
different generations? All of that stuff. I think to be a novelist you
have to engage with that. So you’ll find all
kinds of references to popular culture scattered
through this book, as well as the egghead stuff. But I think that’s fine. Once upon a time writers
could expect from readers that readers would have quite a
wide knowledge of, for example, Greek and Roman mythology,
that you could refer to, I don’t know, the shirt
of Nessus and your readers would know what you
were talking about, that you were talking about
this poisoned shirt that was given to Hercules
by the widow of somebody that he killed, and when
he puts on the shirt, the shirt begins to
attack him and eat him. And you could assume
that your readers would have a general knowledge
of that kind of mythology. Now they don’t, right? But there is a
popular mythology, which is based on things
like music and television and people whose
names begin with K. And you may as well
be aware of that too, because it becomes a
way of making references that people will grasp. So yeah, “I Dream
of Jeannie” as well. AUDIENCE: So back to
the world’s problems, but I won’t ask
you to solve them. Something I noticed
recently, I started reading little bits of more
like ancient literature, like Marcus Aurelius
or Epictetus, like stoic philosophers. I was really struck by
a lot of this really applies– it’s about the mind
versus one’s circumstances and things like that. And it seems like a lot of
these issues still apply today. And even just reading
about Roman history, it’s a lot the same issues. We live in much
better circumstances, I think, than during
the Roman Empire. Life is a lot easier,
at least here, than a lot of
places in the world. So it seems like the trends are
generally good over centuries or millennia, but also in some
ways the stakes are higher, the risks are
higher, technology’s a huge catalyst for
destructive capabilities as well as kind of hopefulness
for mankind– nuclear weapons obviously a devastating form. So with my very kind
of some simplistic view of these things,
on one hand things seem to be trending well
for mankind as a whole, but also there’s
some greater risks which do seem
unique to our times and potentially like the
genie’s out of the bottle. It’s like these things
can’t go back in. How do you think
about these things? SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I agree
with most of what you said. I mean, clearly,
there’s a way of writing about the modern world which
would be very dystopic. You could argue that the
world is in bad shape, and it’s going to get worse
and probably will end badly. And it would have been easy
to write this book like that. But for that reason, I
didn’t want to do it. Because again, one of
the things that you do learn which is very useful to
know from the study of history is that history is
not set on timelines. It is not inevitable. It’s not determinist. It very often– almost
always, frankly– does not go in the direction you
think it’s going to go. There are strange
left turns and night moves and unexpected
developments, for better or worse. It can be either way. So it’s a very good idea not
to see the future as inevitable or set, because it isn’t. Put it like this– if in January
of 1989 I had told you guys that the Soviet Union would
not exist by Christmas, you would probably have thought
I was crazy, because it seemed crazy to say such a thing. And yet, within a very
few months– actually, within a very few weeks–
it just blew away. I mean, the fact
that there’s somebody trying to put it back
together now is another story. But that’s what I’m
saying, that there can be gigantic changes in
world conditions at very, very high speed. Especially, I feel, that we
live in a very accelerated time, in which the rate of
change is probably greater than it’s ever been
in human history. I was just thinking
that within my memory, the gesture for a telephone
has changed three times. When you used to
say “call me,” you would make a dialing gesture. Then when phones
became a bit modern, you would make a
pushing buttons gesture. And now you do that. So just if you look at
something like the telephone, the rate of transformation
has been great. There’s also– you
remember fax machines? I remember when fax machines
arrived and somebody said to me, you should
have a fax machine. I thought, why
should I have one? Because nobody else I know has
one, so there’s nobody to fax. And then suddenly
everybody had one, and now once again
nobody has one. So when you live in a world
that’s changing like that, it can go anywhere. And I don’t think anybody
can foretell how it will go. So I wanted to
suggest in the book– I’m not going to tell you
what happens at the end, but it ends in a
future which may be at the moment we don’t
have any right to believe might happen. That doesn’t it won’t. I just wanted to
invent something else other than the
inevitable, because in my vieww– futurology
has become a big thing now. People try to
predict directions, and my view is futurology
is the science of being wrong about the future. Think about the film
“2001 A Space Odyssey.” Look at how people
dress in that film. They all wear kind of
Pierre Cardin jumpsuits, and that’s not what’s happening. No matter how brilliantly
you foresee the future– I mean, all science fiction
that talks about the future is really talking
about the present. “1984” was really
talking about 1948, and the only reason
he called it “1984” was because it’s the
last two digits reversed. So literature of the
future uses the future as a way to make an allegory or
a myth about the present day. And so it’s better to say, OK,
we don’t know what’s coming. But let’s not assume the worst. Let’s not assume
the best, either. I mean, let’s not be stupid. But the worst is not inevitable. And I just wanted to have
that thought in the book. AUDIENCE: Hi. I first of all
wanted to say thank you so much for being here. It’s been an honor
hearing you speak. I’ve been a fan of
yours for a long time. Actually, I first picked up
“Haroun and the Sea of Stories” when I was about 11,
and my mind was opened. I loved it so much. I thought, hey, let’s see what
else this author has written. Picked up “The Satanic Verses”
and had a slightly different experience at age 12. SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah,
that may not be the age. AUDIENCE: No, it might not
have been quite aimed at me. But actually, that’s
part of my question, is you do have a
few books that are aimed towards younger readers. And I’m wondering what sort
of considerations do you have when writing a book for
children than for adults? SALMAN RUSHDIE:
Well, first of all they’re not for little children. They’re kind of
young adult books. They’re aimed at sort of 11, 12. These days, of course,
kids grow up younger. So 11, 12-year-olds
now are kind of 18. And basically two of them
were written one each for my two sons. But I think kids now– I
mean, children’s literature takes on very rough themes. There’s a lot of young
adult books which deal with violence and child
abuse and drugs and et cetera, and kids seem to be able
to do to deal with that. So I think kids are much more
able to deal with stuff than we think sometimes. These books are not like that. They’re more– in
a way, this book is like “Haroun” for grownups. It’s in the same
neck of the woods. The great writer EB White, who
wrote “Charlotte’s Web” and so on, famously said you don’t
write down to children, you write up. And it’s true that children
are very, very tough readers. If they don’t like a book,
they do not finish the book. Sometimes they think put
it down quite roughly. There’s a great line of
Dorothy Parker’s when she didn’t like a book, and
she said this book should not be put down, it should
be thrown across the room with great force. [LAUGHTER] And children will do that. Children will write to you
and tell you what they like, but they will also write and
tell you what they don’t like. One of the great pleasures
of writing “Haroun” was that I would get
these bundles of letters where an entire classroom
somewhere had read the book, and they would send me
drawings of the characters and tips for sequels, and which
characters they liked best and which ones they
didn’t, and so on. And it was wonderful
reader response. I think the only
question that is different from
writing for adults is there are issues of a
category, where sometimes you’ll use a simple word instead
of a more complicated word. But on the other hand, kids
like complicated words. They like to sort of walk around
saying four-syllable words, because it makes them feel good. And sometimes I would
cut a sentence in half and have two short sentences
rather than one long one. But really, just writing
really in the end. It didn’t require that
much of a change of gear. Because the form of the fable,
which I guess what “Haroun” is, is notable because the
fable classically uses very simple language to say
things which are not simple. That’s what makes it
a beautiful vehicle. So again, if you’re
writing in that vein, the point is to write
a simple story that ends up not being simple. So in that sense you don’t have
to worry too much about issues of language or form, because
the form itself dictates that kind of simplicity. So yeah, it was fun to do. I’ve done two. If I had a third
child, I’d do three. But I might have to find
somebody else’s child to do one for. I’m a great believer
in the Rule of Three, and I’ve only done two. And one of the things,
because I never had a daughter both of
those are books about boys. And I’d quite like to do one
in which the main character was female rather than male. So maybe that’ll show
up at some point. OK, I think we have to stop. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]

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