12. 03. 2007. 09:17

In the world of things that never happened

An interview with Salman Rushdie in Budapest

Ten minutes with Rushdie is not much – only enough to learn which Hungarian film director influenced him; what he thinks the problem with Islam is; and in what language a British-Indian writer dreams.

On November 28-29 Salman Rushdie visited Budapest for the launching of five of his books in Hungarian on the same day by Ulpius Press. "I am very happy", Rushdie said, "that five books are coming out at the same time and none of them is the Satanic Verses. It is a good opportunity for people maybe to notice what kind of writer I really am." After the press conference we had a chance to talk to him at his hotel, Budapest's Art Nouveau gem, the Gresham Palace.

At the press conference, you said that you don't like the label ”postcolonial writer”, or labels at all, for that matter. Yet I would like to ask you about another label that is often used for your novels: magical realism. Do you think it is helpful in describing your works? Why do you think the kind of writing that is called magic realistic emerged in the last few decades? Is ”magic realism” the trademark of a global literature, so to say?

First of all, when I use this term, I use it to describe a particular group of South American writers. It is useful to describe what happened in the literature of Latin America in the fifties, sixties and seventies for writers like Gabriel García Márquez, but also Carlos Fuentes and Alejo Carpentier, because they had a kind of common program for a while. Even though, Fuentes once said to me the only person doing magic realism in Latin America now is Márquez, and all the others just left it to him. And he said a very funny thing: now in Latin America you cannot use the word solitude any more, because people assume that you are referring to García Márquez. He said he is afraid that soon you will not be able to use the phrase one hundred years, because these things now belong to Gabo.

As for me, before I knew about Latin American literature, the main influence was from a kind of visual surrealism. I was very affected by artists like Magritte, and some early Salvador Dali, especially Salvador Dali in cinematic collaboration with Buñuel, and also a lot of the cinema of the so called  French and Italian new wave. Some of it is very realistic, like Truffaut, but there are a lot of very strange films as well – Alain Resnais’s L'Année dernière à Marienbad is as strange as a film can get. Even a filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman would sometimes move into a fable-like world, when he made the Seventh Seal for example. One Hungarian I should mention here is Miklós Jancsó. I saw Roundup in the early seventies, and I was absolutely blown away by it. Something about that technique of the very long take, trying to tell the story in one long sentence, so to say, was something that I thought was fantastic. This kind of non-naturalistic idea of how to tell a story is very old, that’s why I think magic realism is just a distraction as a label. The reason I sometimes write like that (not always, less and less) is that I come from a tradition of the wonderful tale. If you grow up in India, you start with the Arabian Nights and the Panchatantra, and the whole collection of Eastern fables, and that's your introduction to the story. You start off by knowing a very important truth, which is that stories are not true, that the people in these stories didn't exist and these things never happened. Whether they are naturalistic events or fantastic events, they still never happened. They are fiction. So among the things that never happened, a flying carpet is the same thing as a kitchen sink. They both didn't happen. And that's a liberation. So that was for me one starting-point.

Another very important thing was to read Shakespeare, because he is not a naturalistic writer. If you look at Hamlet, part of it is political intrigue, and part of it is a ghost story, and he will allow the two things to sit side by side with no sense of contradiction. Macbeth has witches and politics, and it doesn’t matter, it’s fine. These are the things that made me into the kind of writer that I became, all of them. And, as I say, sometimes I do it a lot and sometimes I hardly do it at all. When a composer is composing a symphony, there is a whole orchestra and he uses all the instruments. Sometimes he writes a bigger part for one than for the other, but these are all the instruments he has. Surrealism is a very useful instrument, but it is just one instrument.

I am very much intrigued by your relationship to the Western tradition, which seems to be ambiguous. You certainly have much against the condescending attitude of the West, yet you are of the opinion that the reformation of Islam should and will come from the West.

It will come from the diaspora. I don't think it will come from outside, it has to be done from the inside. There are Muslim communities all over the world which are very heavily secularized, even though people don’t pay much attention to it. There is this tiny little minority that is not secularized, the extremists, and they get all the attention. But I do think there is a very big problem in Islam, which is not just the fanatics. The problem is resisting innovation and scepticism, whereas these things are the sources from which new things come. If you make it illegal or offensive to criticize or to interrogate tradition, you create a strangled society. I am not talking about fanaticism, but the ordinary life of many Muslim countries. If you look at them, you feel that they are strangled societies, societies that are not being allowed to grow and develop. For me, this is a bigger problem than the terrorist problem.

Yet not everything is fine with the West either. In your Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the Guppees' fault is that they didn't guard the source properly, that they lost touch with their wellspring.

I don't think about the Guppees and the Chupwalas as East and West – they are more about language and silence, they are not culturally specific. I am by nature a satirical writer and satire always wants to find out what it is against. And mostly when you look out of the window – well, not this window, this window has a very nice view – mostly you find things wrong with the world. But if you are a writer of novels, it is unquestionable that the Western tradition is going to be absolutely central for you, because the novel in the East is not a very old form. That curious kind of prose fiction that the novel form is has only been in India for less than 150 years. So most of the history of the novel is a Western history. If you are going to be interested in form, then you talk about Faulkner, Melville, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, because this is the history of the novel, whoever you are. If you are Haruki Murakami, you are thinking about Western writers too.

What was the reception of your novels in India and Pakistan?

In India my books were for a long time only in English. I am happy to say that in India the reaction to my works is in general very good. I think Midnight’s Children is kind of an important novel for Indian writers as well as readers. What is now happening – which I am very pleased about – is that the books are getting translated into other Indian languages: there are Hindi, Tamil and Kannada, Malayalam and Bengali editions. It is just beginning, and actually I am quite flattered by that because these are quite healthy literatures in their own right, and they do not very often translate from English. There are not many books that start out in English that are translated into those languages.

Do you get involved in the translation?

You know there is a moment at which you have to trust your publisher. I mean, I can read Hindi, but I can’t read Bengali, Kannada,Tamil, etc. One of the strange things about being translated into many languages is that you very often can’t even read the script. When I get the Korean editions of my book, I have no idea of what is being said, I just hope the publisher is paying attention.

You once said you switch languages whenever you go back to India or Pakistan: you start to dream in Urdu. What about writing: what language do you think in when you are writing about India?

It is true that the language switch is always a very pleasurable moment. When I go back to India, after two or three days the characters in my head might start talking in different languages. It depends… when I am writing about India it is quite clear that sometimes the characters would really be speaking in English, and sometimes they would not so I always have to have in my head what they might really be saying in the language they would actually be speaking, and then to try and find a way of representing that, so that is already an act of translation. But of course if you are talking about urban India, in the middle classes, many people would be speaking a kind of English anyway… so it depends who you are writing about. Sometimes there is another language in your head, sometimes there is not.

Ágnes Orzóy - Gabriella Horn

Tags: Salman Rushdie