I naturally like to immerse myself in the “food, wine and art” scene when I visit London from western Nevada County, CA, so I was glad to learn that the London Literature Festival coincided with my trip.
The Festival — the 12th annual gathering of book lovers from all over — included a conversation with distinguished author Salman Rushdie, so I snapped up a ticket. Here’s my report:
“I have a real problem being told not to do things.” That’s how Sir Salman Rushdie, the prize-winning British author of the highly charged The Satanic Verses and other novels, began his conversation at the 12th annual London Literature Festival this week.
On February 14, 1989, following the publication of his irreverant The Satanic Verses, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s assassination. The 71-year-old author said he still receives a “sort of Valentine’s card” from Iran each year on 14 February, letting him know the country has not forgotten the vow to kill him and has jokingly referred it as “my unfunny Valentine.”
This time, Rushdie was on stage to discuss his latest novel, The Golden House. Rushdie came to England from Bombay in 1961, went to school at Cambridge, and was knighted in 2007 for services to literature. He now lives in New York — and this marked his first appearance at London’s popular Southbank Centre in over a decade. The Royal Festival Hall was packed with Festival attendees, most of them younger people.
The Golden House is a parable of modern America politics, taking place after the Obama inauguration. One of the characters is a thinly veiled Donald Trump; others seem to share his traits. The Trump character likes to refer to himself as The Joker.
America enters the “comic-book universe”
“In a deck of cards, only two of them don’t behave properly: One is the trump and the other is a joker,” Rushdie observed wryly during the onstage conversation with America author and critic Erica Wagner.
During the discussion, Rushdie read a passage from his book. “It was the year of The Joker in Gotham and beyond,” as “America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe.”
Suddenly “lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny.” We are told that the Joker is insane, but that “people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero.”
Most of the book was written before Trump was president, so it was precient in predicting the outcome. “The book knew,” Rushdie joked to the audience.
This novel — the first of the Donald Trump era — is a good read. Rushdie said he wasn’t sure if Trump has read it, though, noting that the President doesn’t like books (AKA “doesn’t read.”). He hasn’t given up hope, though, concluding “I’ve been waiting for that tweet.”
Sir Salman speaks his mind on Brexit and Justice Kavanaugh
While in London, Rushdie gave some newspaper interviews. Referring to Brexit, he said Britain was hankering after a fictional “Golden Age.” He added in The Independent: “This whole tragedy that this country is going through is based on, in part, a nostalgic idea of British identity which is a fiction. … It ignores the fact that it was based on the exploitation of a quarter of a planet.”
He also commented on #MeToo: “Just recently, we’ve had Brett Kavanaugh rammed onto the Supreme Court, a man who strikes me as having a very suspect relationship with women,” he told the London Times. “That’s two out of nine members of the court [Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas] who have been publicly accused of harassment. #MeToo has been very valuable, exposing things that needed exposing.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Rushdie in conversation, and meeting him at a book signing afterward. On Thursday night, I’m returning to the Southbank Centre for a concert where Hollywood composer Brian Tyler conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in music from his most famous scores, including recent hits Crazy Rich Asians, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Fate of the Furious, and Iron Man 3.