Few writers are as synonymous with the Booker Prize as Salman Rushdie. Seven of his 12 adult novels have been nominated – more than any other author - with five of them making the shortlist
Rushdie has won the Booker Prize once, in 1981, for Midnight’s Children, a book that also won a special award, The Booker of Bookers, created in 1994 to mark the 25th anniversary of the prize, as well as The Best of the Booker, a 2008 prize to celebrate the Booker’s 40th year, and voted for by the public.
His nominations span 38 years, nearly his whole writing career, with his most recent coming in 2019 for his novel, Quichotte. Here is our guide to all seven of his nominated works.
Salman Rushdie has constantly challenged himself – and his readers - throughout his career, with novels set in different times and places, real and fictitious lands, blending magical realism with satire and commentary on the world today. Unafraid to ask difficult questions, they often share a playfulness, a wry sense of humour, and a compulsion to push at the boundaries of literary convention.
He has of course attracted controversy, notably around his 1988 Booker-shortlisted work The Satanic Verses, the publication of which led to Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, to call for Rushdie’s death. In August 2022, Rushdie was attacked on stage while on stage at an event in New York state, sustaining serious injuries.
Ahead of the publication of his eagerly-awaited new novel, Victory City, here is our guide to Rushdie’s seven Booker-nominated novels.
Midnight’s Children (1981)
The children in the title of Rushdie’s 1981 Booker winning book were born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947: the precise moment of India’s independence.
Among them are two babies born in the same nursing home in Bombay, one to a wealthy Kashmiri-descended family and the other to a singer, abandoned by a departing Englishman. The children are swapped by a nursemaid, and the Muslim infant is named Shiva and brought up by a street signer, while the rich Aziz/Sinai family is given the other child and names him Saleem; the latter narrates the novel.
As well as illuminating the challenges of India’s independence in its early years, Rushdie also injected elements of magical realism into Midnight’s Children; Saleem, like all those born at the same time as him, has special powers. His are of telepathy and smell, enabling him to sniff out the other children, so he can gather them together.
Although only Rushdie’s second novel - after 1975’s Grimus - Midnight’s Children achieved enormous critical and commercial success and has endured over the years since its publication.
The New York Times declared that ‘the literary map of India is about to be redrawn’ when reviewing Midnight’s Children. Reviewer Clark Blaise said as a ‘Bombay book’ it was ‘coarse, knowing, comfortable with Indian pop culture and, above all, aggressive’, and ‘flow of the book rushes to its conclusion in counterpointed harmony: myths intact, history accounted for, and a remarkable character fully alive’.
In the Times Literary Supplement, Valentine Cunningham said what made the book ‘so vertiginously exciting a reading experience is the way it takes in not just the whole apple cart of India and the problem of being a novel about India but also…the business of being a novel at all’.
The impact of Rushdie’s novel is perhaps best summed up by novelist Malcolm Bradbury, who chaired the Booker jury the year that Rushdie won the prize. He predicted in his award speech that 1981 and the surrounding years would be ‘looked back on as a major time of creation and invention’.
Midnight’s Children was, he said, ‘a work of extraordinary ambition and abundance’, offering ‘hope for the new development of the novel’ and was written by someone whose work would be ‘of lasting importance’.
Released two years after Midnight’s Children, the shadow of that book and its success hung over Shame, dividing critics. And sandwiched between Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses – Rushdie’s two best-known works – Shame can often be forgotten.
Shortlisted for the Booker in the year of its release, Shame is set in an imaginary country that strongly resembles Pakistan, and involves a rivalry between two different men: one a celebrated warrior, the other a debauched playboy. Like many of Rushdie’s novels, it is a commentary on the political development of a country, as well as an entertaining book about a myriad of characters.
The novel focuses on Omar Khayyam Shakil, who was taught to live a life without shame by his three mothers. When he leaves his mothers’ fortress and falls in love, he is caught up in the ongoing duel between a famous military strongman, General Raza Hyder and rich landlord and socialite, Iskander Harappa. Both men, while characters in their own right, are also stand ins for figures in Pakistani politics; General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, respectively.
Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Robert Towers said he found Rushdie’s ‘style a source of delight, a bright stream of words that lifted me happily past the most threatening snags and whirlpools of this impossible tale’.
The Times declared Shame ‘every bit as good as Midnight’s Children… a pitch-black comedy of public life and historical imperatives’.
The Satanic Verses (1988)
Undoubtedly Rushdie’s most globally famous novel, the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses can sometimes overshadow the book’s position as a great work of literature.
Like Midnight’s Children and Shame before it, The Satanic Verses is about a great rivalry. This time, the focus is on legendary Bollywood movie star Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, a voice actor, both of whom survive an explosion on a hijacked plane and wash up on an English beach – having transformed, respectively, into an angel and a devil.
Incorporating elements of magical realism, as well as drawing on stories from the founding of Islam, the novel was shortlisted for the Booker and also won the Whitbread Award. Kirkus Reviews described the book as a ‘surreal hallucinatory feast’ and ‘entertainment in the highest sense of that much-exploited word’.
Speaking ahead of the Booker Prize ceremony in 1988, Rushdie said that The Satanic Verses is a book about change: ‘It’s about the kind of change that comes when you move from one part of the world to another… and the effect that has on the individual self or on the group or the race or the culture. It’s about the kind of change that comes about when a new idea comes into the world, like a religion. It’s about transition, it’s about transformation.’
Rushdie was, and continues to be, the subject of a fatwa issued in 1989 by the Ayatollah Khomeini, calling for the author’s death and forcing him to live under continuous police protection for nine years. The Satanic Verses was also banned in a number of countries, including India.
The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995)
Rushdie’s fifth novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh was written and published while the author was still in hiding because of the fatwa.
It’s a story about Moraes ‘Moor’ Zogoiby, who is the last in the line of a crooked and fantastical dynasty of spice merchants and crime lords from Cochin. A compulsive storyteller, the book sees him recounting the labyrinthine story of his family and their history. Central to Moor’s world is his mother Aurora Zogoiby, a talented painter, and what happened to her.
The novel’s title refers to two paintings, one by Moor’s mother Aurora, and one by her one-time protege and lover, Vasco Miranda, who becomes Moor’s nemesis.
Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Norman Rush called it ‘a triumph, an intricate and deceptive one’. Kirkus Reviews called it ‘amazingly inventive fiction’ and predicted it would win the Booker Prize; it did not, although it was shortlisted in 1995. Publisher’s Weekly reported that the book had an initial print run of a huge 100,000 copies, reflecting the eagerness for a novel by Rushdie following Midnight’s Children.
The Moor’s Last Sigh was named in the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World.
Shalimar the Clown (2005)
A love story, a look at extremism and how neighbours can turn on one another, and a parable about America, Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown is told largely in flashbacks that illuminate the lives of its key characters.
The titular character was a skilful tightrope walker, a legend in his native home of Kashmir who is, in the novel’s present day, working in Los Angeles as a chauffeur.
One morning, Shalimar wakes up, goes to work, and kills his employer Maximilian Ophuls, America’s former counter-terrorism chief, in front of Ophuls’ illegitimate daughter, India. The killing has its roots in Kashmir, and it soon becomes clear that a fourth figure, lurking in the shadows, binds together Shalimar, India and Ophuls.
Reviewing the book in The Observer, Jason Cowley said: ‘Writing in several different registers, Rushdie combines the wonder of fairy tale with the grittiness of hard, political realism; at times, especially in the long section recounting Max’s wartime experiences, it reads as something close to reheated journalism.’
Suhayl Saadi in The Independent said the novel was ‘both deeply disturbing and immensely moving’, adding: ‘Salman Rushdie the Kashmiri writes from the heart as he describes this dark incandescence. His prose, like Kashmir, is an exquisite, broken thing of pain and beauty. In an earthy, poetic Sufism, he captures perfectly the existential intimacies between lovers and between people, song, dance and land.’
The Enchantress of Florence (2008)
Exploring the relationship between East and West through two cities, The Enchantress of Florence was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008.
The novel, as with a number of Rushdie’s novels, contains a story within a story: it features a young European traveller who arrives at Sikri, the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The traveller, who calls himself the Mughal of Love, claims to be the son of a lost princess, Lady Black Eyes, whose name and very existence have been erased from the country’s history.
Lady Black Eyes was believed to have possessed great powers of enchantment and sorcery, and after a series of abductions by besotted warlords, was carried to Machiavellian Florence. There, she attempted to command her own destiny in a world ruled by men.
Aamer Hussain in the Independent said ‘lovers of historical fantasy will be entranced by the Florentine strand, a complex intertwining of history and imagination’, but the novel is among Rushdie’s least critically acclaimed, with a number of reviewers focusing in on the amount of research the author did for the story, and how this shows.
Amy Willentz in the Los Angeles Times said there were moments of brilliance in the novel, though, writing: ‘Here and there, like tiny sparkling jewels peeking from the vast, fertile loam, are wonderful bits of Rushdie’s funny, nervy writing. There are beautiful sections on landscape painting, on combat at sea and on imprisonment, as well as brief, penetrating looks at married life… and at the public miracles created by the enchantress.’
Melding Cervantes’ Don Quixote with the American road trip movie, Quichotte provided with Rushdie with a record seventh nomination for the Booker Prize.
The novel’s protagonist is a mediocre writer, Sam DuChamp, who creates the character of Quichotte, a courtly, addled salesman obsessed with television, who impossibly falls in love with the television star Salman R. With his imaginary son Sancho, Quichotte sets off on a quest across America to prove worthy of winning Salman’s hand. Meanwhile his creator, in a midlife crisis, has challenges of his own.
In intertwining the stories of Quichotte and DuChamp, Rushdie addresses the clash between reality and illusion, and creates a portrait of America at a time of intense change.
Johanna Thomas-Corr in the Observer said the novel was ‘the work of a frisky imagination’ and ‘will make readers like Rushdie more’. In the Spectator, Lucasta Miller felt that it was a deserved Booker nomination and that it showcased Rushdie at his best. ‘We’re hit between the eyes,’ she wrote, ‘by a dizzying range of fictive positions and storylines from Kerouac to crime fiction to Armageddon sci-fi to Greek tragedy’