The Booker Prize’s most decorated author, Salman Rushdie has lived under a death sentence for over thirty years. But as well as recognising his immense bravery, we must celebrate his limitless imagination and his impact on the literary landscape

Gaby Wood

Written by Gaby Wood

Publication date and time: Published

In mid-March 2020, Salman Rushdie contracted a serious case of Covid-19. After he recovered, he found it almost impossible to write. As he later explained, ‘The roar of the real world was deafening and left no quiet space in which an imagined world might grow.’   
The damage inflicted by the pandemic itself would take time to heal, he observed, but in the three countries he cared about most – India, the UK and the US – the rifts in society had deepened in recent years, and this would take much longer to fix. ‘It would not be exaggerating to say that as we stare across those chasms, we have begun to hate the people on the other side,’ he wrote, concluding: ‘I may not see the wounds mended in my lifetime.’  
These reflections suggest, if not an anticipation of the brutal attack on his life on 12 August 2022, then a profound understanding of its circumstances.

Seven years ago I asked Rushdie how his life was now. It was 26 years after the Ayatollah of Iran had responded to his Booker-shortlisted novel, The Satanic Verses, by calling for Rushdie’s death, causing the murder of some of his collaborators and leading him to live under continuous police protection for nine years.  
‘Pretty dull, thank you,’ he said.   
We were having coffee in a bookshop in New York; the occasion was an interview about his novel Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. ‘My life got too interesting for a while,’ he explained, ‘and I’m quite happy that it’s boring. When you’ve been deprived of everyday life and then you get it back, you grab it with both hands – it’s all you want.’  
Three years earlier he had published a memoir, Joseph Anton (the title is the name he took in hiding – borrowed from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov), which had served to draw a line under the period of his persecution. That had reached an apparent end point when the President of Iran announced in 1998 that ‘we should think of the Salman Rushdie issue as completely finished’. Rushdie’s 600-page factual account emerged, he said, ‘like a kind of flood’.   
As a contrast to the reality that had been dammed up inside him he had written Two Years…, an exuberant novel that put his sense of humour on full display. Still, its underlying themes – magic, rationalism and the ideas of a particular 12th century Islamic philosopher – were not a million miles from those that led him to write The Satanic Verses, and I asked him if he thought anything in the book would land him in trouble.   
‘Everything lands me in trouble,’ he said with a shrug. ‘I only have to go out for the evening, I’ve landed in trouble. My view is: either write your books or don’t write your books. But don’t write them being scared.’  
Two years later the Supreme Leader of Iran declared that the fatwa against Rushdie remained as it had originally been issued.  
And two years after that – in 2019 – Rushdie was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for the seventh time: a record number, and exactly half the number of novels he has written. He attended events with no increased protection, spoke about that book, Quichotte (which melded Cervantes’ Don Quixote with the American road movie genre, political satire and a poignant reflection on the life of a writer), and, most memorably, he praised that year’s longlisted writers, most of them much younger, on every possible public occasion.  

Salman Rushdie, 1984

The threat under which Rushdie has lived is not only one of physical violence against human beings but of violence against acts of imagination. He has come to be an inveterate supporter of free speech, within which his most frequent mode of expression is as a novelist. The act that incurred the wrath of the Ayatollah Khomeini was a double fiction: a dream sequence within a novel. (You could even argue that it was a triple fiction, since Khomeini had not read it.)  This – the freedom not only to say what one believes but to construct a world beyond the real one – must be defended at almost any cost.  

The Satanic Verses, published seven years after Rushdie had won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children, perhaps owes as much to Kafka as it does to the Quran. It opens with two Indian actors – one a Bollywood movie star, the other an expat in a bowler hat – falling from a hijacked plane into the English Channel. From there they metamorphose, one into an angel, the other into a devil, and act out their rivalry in various registers from the real-world migrant to the mythic to the mad. 

But if you want to understand Rushdie’s work the place to start is Midnight’s Children, whose narrator, Saleem Sinai, is a child born on the stroke of midnight, August 15th 1947 – the moment India is sundered and achieves independence. He is a character who, in his own description, is ‘handcuffed to history’. The timing of his birth not only gives him instant celebrity but endows him with special powers of telepathy and smell. Rushdie has fun with the slightly-less-special powers granted to those born later in the hour between midnight and one. A few seconds later: the ability to fly or travel in time. Closer to one a.m.: ‘(to be frank) little more than circus freaks’. Saleem himself is able to sniff out the thousand and one midnight children and gather them together for a ‘Midnight’s Children Conference’, or M.C.C. – the cricketing reference, and the nod to The Arabian Nights, are deliberate. As the newly born countries which once were India fight for their budding postcolonial lives, Saleem’s own travails mirror theirs.   

A few sample superpowers show some of Rushdie’s purposeful wit. There is the boy who is incapable of forgetting anything – an homage to Jorge Luis Borges’ character Funes the Memorious. There is the child who is so beautiful she blinds her mother at birth, and leaves her father (who has been warned) with vision so impaired ‘that he was unable, afterwards, to distinguish between Indians and foreign tourists, a handicap which greatly affected his earning power as a beggar’. There is the ‘sharp-tongued girl whose words already had the power of inflicting physical wounds, so that after a few adults had found themselves bleeding freely as a result of some barb flung casually from her lips, they had decided to lock her up in a bamboo cage and float her off down the Ganges’.  
All of these characters are also, by the time Saleem tracks them down at the age of ten, ‘just a bunch of kids’. As he puts it: ‘Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real.’ 

Still from Midnight's Children.

In 1981, when Midnight’s Children won the prize, the chair of the judges was Malcolm Bradbury – novelist, critic and founder of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, which generated a number of future Booker winners (Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright). After dinner at the winner ceremony, Bradbury gave a speech about the state of the novel, which makes for resonant reading today. 

There was a rumour, he said, that the British novel was over – that after Joyce and Woolf had died in 1941, the American novel had stepped in. And it was true, he said, that the British novel was ‘disposed towards provinciality’: ‘Hampstead talking to Hampstead, Islington and, if daring, Camden Town’.   
But in 1981 Bradbury believed ‘a new climate [was] growing in our fictional culture’. In fact, he said, ‘I think it will be looked back on as a major time of creation and invention’. He pointed to more international influences and scope than the so-called Hampstead novel had countenanced, and said that the book his judging panel had chosen as their winner offered ‘hope for the new development of the novel’. It was written, he thought, by someone whose work would be ‘of lasting importance.’   
Bradbury described Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s second book, as ‘a work of extraordinary ambition and abundance’, ‘of amazing imaginative fertility as well as of political courage, a tale of the largest intentions’.   
And he was right: not only about that book’s lasting influence but about the burgeoning, border-blind creativity that decade witnessed in British fiction, from Rushdie’s Booker win in 1981 to Ishiguro’s in 1989.

A few years ago, Rushdie and I spoke at a Hay festival in Mexico. Because of the location it was fitting that he should speak about García Márquez, who had lived in Mexico for many years. Rushdie explained how magical realism, among other ways of writing, had given him permission, almost, to experiment: 
‘Any writer will tell you that there are writers who open the door for you,’ he said. ‘They say: you could go through this door, and go this way. Certainly García Márquez was one of those. And Borges – I remember picking up the paperback of Ficciones [translated as Labyrinths], going home and reading it three times straight through. It was, in the true sense of the word, mind-blowing.  
‘In that period after the Second World War – the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies – there was this great flowering of world literature, and a number of gigantic figures, like García Márquez, like Günther Grass, Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Borges, became very important to me, and showed me things that I might also want to try and do in my own way.’ 
Ishiguro, who went on to win the Nobel, looked back at the moment when Midnight’s Children won the Booker and reflected that it was a turning point in Britain. ‘That was a signal that a substantial core group within the reading public had declared that they were interested in reading books written by people, apparently from the outside, about other societies,’ he told Alan Yentob in the course of an Imagine documentary on the BBC four decades later. ‘Something was happening in British society at that point – not just in the literary culture but in the wider culture. People had suddenly moved on to a different era.’  
That era has lasted some time - and long may it continue. Midnight’s Children didn’t just win the Booker Prize once. It also won the ‘Booker of Bookers’ and the ‘Best of the Booker’, as a result of votes taken on the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the prize. 

Booker Prize authors 1998

When he completed the ‘Proust Questionnaire’ for Vanity Fair magazine, Rushdie was asked where he would like to live.   
‘On bookshelves. Forever,’ he replied.  
As news of his health improves and we wish for his ongoing physical recovery, that particular fate seems secure. His next novel, Victory City, is due to be published early next year.  
Why should his living on bookshelves matter to us, his readers? Well: I’ll leave it to Rushdie to explain the empowering force of invention and self-invention.  
In 1992, when he was living under the protection of Scotland Yard, Rushdie wrote a short, brilliant book about The Wizard of Oz, a ‘radical, enabling film’, in his words, that had been the inspiration for his very first work of fiction (written at the age of ten). Dorothy’s famous line, ‘there’s no place like home’ led him to remark drily that ‘my own relationship with “home” has become, let’s say, more problematic of late’. But when he came to analyse that part of the film’s ending more closely his book became an essay about the nature of fiction - about where it can take us, what it can do for us, and the notion that at its best it’s inextricable from who we are.   
Jovially objecting (‘Well, excuse me, Glinda’) to the ‘conservative little homily’ of ‘there’s no place like home’, Rushdie goes on to say that in later Oz books Dorothy takes Auntie Em and Uncle Henry to live in Oz, rather than accepting the limitations of Kansas. ‘So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because,’ he explains:   
‘Once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that “there’s no place like home”, but rather that there is no longer any such place *as* home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.’