Salman Rushdie has had, in no particular order, more than a life’s share of excitement, success and peril. His fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” enraptured both pop culture and world politics with its controversial 1989 release (leading to, among other things, assassination attempts against Rushdie himself). He’s published nineteen books — fourteen since the controversy — for which he’s been awarded a Booker and PEN Pinter Prize. This excludes, of course, his most recent “Quichotte,” which is currently shortlisted for the 2019 Booker, and still a potential prize winner.
But nothing about his well-completed biography is inhibiting Rushdie. “The road ahead is shorter than the road behind,” Rushdie said to an audience in Rackham Auditorium Thursday night. Yet this means little — he’s more concentrated on his writing than ever before, hoping to put his work to use more by diagnosing and accepting its purpose and potential.
The event, put on by Literati Bookstore, facilitated a talk covering subjects from writing methodology to age to immigration. In conversation with “PBS Books” host Rich Fahle in front of an audience laden with new copies of the 400-page “Quichotte,” Rushdie made clear that degree of thought and intention injected into both his novels and philosophy. He spoke easily and quickly in response to even controversial political topics, though his responses never felt half-hearted or incomplete. Rushdie’s humor landed happily — each bit of drollery said with script-placed perfection — over the audience. Rushdie spoke of the intrigue of a spy novelist in his new book, the details pulled from his first-hand experience with spies after “The Satanic Verses” controversy. And he spoke to the ups and downs of the writing process, which included hours of binge-watching reality television. Done as research for his reality-television-induced main character, Rushdie made it no question that he finds such cultural norms absurd. In moments like these Rushdie excelled on stage.
Recurring in the conversation was the theme of a road in Rushdie’s work, particularly “Quichotte.” Compared to his prior novel, which was placed entirely in New York City, the Booker Shortlister falls over a much larger space, with characters traveling during much of the story. In writing his earlier novels, Rushdie remembered telling himself, “Next time, you need to leave town.” It was too restricting, being contained to one space. And so he did. Hoping to capture the greatness of many novels that mechanize movement — “The Hobbit,” say, or “Lolita” — Rushdie incorporated the road throughout “Quichotte” as his main character traversed the country with his (imaginary) son in search of love. The road is “an ancient form of pilgrimage,” Rushdie explained, a physical change that can mirror the internal twists a character experiences.
Nearing the end of the discussion, the talk turned distinctly political. “Quichotte” has been described as a “gutting satire of America right now,” and Rushdie owned up to such clamor without hesitation. We are in a transitional moment, he explained. One where things — technologically, politically — are changing at a more rapid pace than ever before. Much of today’s politics are unrecognizable from a past perspective. In crafting “Quichotte,” Rushdie said he hoped to mold a comedy with something of a darker side that can simultaneously critique and make sense of the chaos of present-day America. With these hopes he aimed to incorporate subtle themes of race and immigration into his reworking of “Don Quixote.”
“In times of tyranny, literature becomes particularly important,” Rushdie said, looking thoughtfully to the crowd at Rackham. Even when the state pushes information that may not be true, the significance of art remains, he explained — it is the artist who gets to set the narrative straight. “We get to tell the story to the future.” It seemed, throughout his talk, that if there is an author of competence this responsibility should be delegated to, Rushdie may be it.