Salman Rushdie in conversation with Lisa Appignanesi

Salman Rushdie, one of the leading literary figures of our time discussed his latest book Shalimar the Clown (Jonathan Cape), published in September, with English PEN’s Deputy President Lisa Appignanesi.

Lisa Appignanesi began by introducing Rushdie and his latest novel, an epic narrative that moves from California to Kashmir, Nazi-occupied Europe to a world of modern terrorism,Salman Rushdie talking to fans at the Bloomsbury Theatre in a tale of murder, love and revenge that captures the spirit of a troubled age. Rushdie began by talking about the setting for the book, a town called Pachigam, which he came to through a desire to write a ‘village’ rather than an urban novel, having never written a story set in non-urban life, something he wanted to tackle. It was through writing about Kashmir that Rushdie was able to capture the physical beauty of the village, the human beauty of its inhabitants and lifestyle and also to document the physical destruction of a paradise.

Moving on to discuss one of the novel’s central characters, Rushdie explained that he wanted the figure of Max Ophuls, the victim of the opening crime, to be a ‘big’ man who had been significant during his life. Similarly to other protagonists, Max has many faults, namely his philandering ways, which bring a retribution bigger than he deserves but Rushdie wanted to draw characters about which it was not easy to make moral conclusions. Max is a rogue but is lovable; Boonyi is flawed but forgiveable. Rushdie also discussed his interest in the relationship between repentance and forgiveness: Boonyi repents but cannot be forgiven, while Max does not repent but India forgives him.

Rushdie then discussed the issue of the military presence in Kashmir and its relevance to today’s political climate. The author described the huge military occupation of the village as being a very claustrophobic force, out of which an Islamic counter-force arises. While both sides fight over the village the people of Kashmir’s culture and society is destroyed, only after the reader has been introduced to characters whom they understand and care for, making the destruction all the more poignant. Rushdie felt the book had to work in its own terms but that it also had a particular resonance at this time.  

Lisa Apppignanesi questioned why the book was not simply entitled ‘Shalimar’, to which Rushdie explained that he wanted the character to be understood in terms of his whole life, rather than simply what he becomes. The reference to Shalimar’s clownish beginnings also helps the reader to recall his innocent past as they view his destructive actions, the result of a life irreperably damaged by outside forces. The novel also asks us to question what it is in him that creates this shift in character; what makes Shalimar the clown into Shalimar the assasin.

 Salman Rushdie signing books after the event

As the discussusion opened up to the audience Rushdie was asked about the theme of plural identities in the novel, to which the writer replied that he himself has enjoyed multiple rooting in life and has found this a good way to exist in the world. The author expanded by saying that he felt people nowadays were expected to unify and simplify their identities; to make black and white decisions. Rushdie argued that in fact we are not unitary selves and that it is in our nature to be multiple entities. Moving back to his novel, he asserted that fiction allowed a complexity of response to the human condition that was not generally to be found in real life.

Rushdie was also asked by an audience member about his notion of the ‘unforgiveable thing’, used previously in Satanic Verses, and expanded here. Rushdie agreed that he had developed this idea in Shalimar the Clown and that the devastation of Kashmir, a subject deeply personal to him, had become one of these unforgiveable things. This subject was so hard for Rushdie to write about that he admitted often becoming emotional during composition and could hardly bear the idea of writing the passage that captures Kashmir’s destruction. It is largely for this reason that the section is written as a series of rhetorical questions, a method that allowed the author to be distanced from this harrowing topic while being truthful to the event.

Questions were rounded up and Lisa thanked Salman for what had been a highly enjoyable, informative and fascinating evening of discussion, after which the author kindly stayed to sign copies of his book. English PEN would like to thank Lisa Appignanesi and Salman Rushdie for a wonderful evening of entertainment, the Bloomsbury Theatre for hosting the event and Blackwells for all their hard work, with whom the event was in association.

Report by Alice O’Hanlon. Pictures by Tanya Andrews

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