Salman Rushdie at Edinburgh International Book Festival

Well, this year’s stint at the Edinburgh Book Fest got off to a rousing start – Salman Rushdie. I almost can’t believe that I’ve never seen him before, but then on the other hand, he was in hiding for almost ten years. That kind of crimps one’s book related promotions. Not surprisingly it was a sold out show.

Throughout the interview, conducted by John Freeman of Granta, Rushdie came off as an affable, humorous and charming man of letters. He told numerous anecdotes about his life in hiding, his friendships with Christopher Hitchins, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Freeman referred quite frequently to Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoir, making me wish that I had read it before coming, though it certainly wasn’t necessary.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on Rushdie’s big works: Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie said that he had to understand who he was before he could write it. In retrospect this is self evident. Like the characters in the novel, Rushdie was also born in 1947, the year in which the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan. For the first time in Midnight’s Children what can be called Indian English was used in a literary novel. Rushdie said he had to experiment with language to come up with something that could portray the hot, dirty chaos that is India.

And of course there was discussion of The Satanic Verses. Just as Midnight’s Children marked an important point in the growth of South Asian literature, a point at which India was present in language that was more vibrant than the cold prose of E.M. Forrester (who Rushdie greatly admires), The Satanic Verses introduced the world to the idea that international terrorism could be leveled against literature. Rushdie gave the impression that he knew The Satanic Verses was a great book and may cause a stir, but he thought that for all the wrong reasons. He viewed the novel as a book about London and Thatcherism in the 1980s. He felt that it was all about social upheaval and racial unrest, but did not anticipate the controversy or worldwide attention it garnered.

Throughout the hour during which Rushdie and Freeman conversed thoughts of Rushdie’s well-known womanizing tendencies kept returning to to my mind. He is certainly a charismatic and fascinating person, however it never became apparent to me why so many women are drawn to him. I get the whole brilliant older man thing, but for me it just doesn’t work with Rushdie.

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