‘As if by magic!’ announced Salman Rushdie when his new microphone was switched on. He had already entertained the crowd with mime after a technical fault silenced the start of his discussion with John Freeman. The rest of Rushdie’s appearance was filled with his own unique voice. Like his fiction, it was a mixture of the profound and the comedic.
The comedy was drawn from Rushdie’s new autobiography, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. The anecdotes included a tale concerning ‘William Styron’s testicles’ and the story of Hanif Kureishi running after a special forces officer in Shepherd’s Bush whilst holding a gun aloft and shouting ‘ ‘ere, you forgot yer shooter!’ Rushdie’s dinner meeting with reclusive author Thomas Pynchon was the more revealing of the anecdotes, if ethically suspect. Pynchon, we were told, ‘looks exactly like Thomas Pynchon should look…he wears a kind of lumberjack shirt, blue jeans and has, like, Albert Einstein long hair and Bugs Bunny front teeth’.
During more serious discussion Rushdie debunked the myth that the meeting of east and west is a recent phenomenon. Instead he pinpointed the sixteenth century as the time when Europe and India first encountered one another. Growing up in Bombay Rushdie did not see east and west as separate entities and has tried to celebrate that in his fiction. It was a shame the global village of the last five hundred years was clearly not represented by the audience.
The most profound insight came from what Rushdie learned from his father. One lesson concerned Prophet Mohammed’s own description of his revelation when he saw the Angel Gabriel fill the horizon. Rushdie recounted his father asking him: ‘If you had been standing next to him would you have seen the Angel?’ The question of what it means for one person to see something that someone else can’t proved an important one when Rushdie was researching The Satanic Verses.
But in the end it was Rushdie’s turn of phrase that triumphed: ‘all the things that people think I made up are true and all the things that people think are true I made up,’ he quipped, talking of The Enchantress of Florence. His comment on the magic of fiction sent this audience member into a kind of religious ecstasy : ‘you can make the thing happen that didn’t happen and see what would have happened if it had happened.’