Salman Rushdie: 'Fiction saved my life'

Symbol, victim, blasphemer, target – Salman Rushdie, it seems, is anything people need him to be. As his new novel is published, the writer talks to Boyd Tonkin

In Salman Rushdie's tenth novel, the great Mughal emperor Akbar conjures up his favourite wife by the sheer force of imagination alone: "The creation of real life from a dream was a superhuman act, usurping the prerogative of the gods." Non-existent, but still solid enough to breed fiery resentment from her rival queens, Jodha in The Enchantress of Florence can stand for all the heretical coups and stunts of story-telling magic that have peppered Rushdie's fiction for the past 30 years. Yet this grand master of the power of fantasy has suffered as its slave as well. More than any other writer alive, he has found himself transformed into a character – ogre, joker, beast and, just occasionally, hero – in other people's scripts and stories.

"Sometimes," he says, his voice tinged more by sadness than anger, "I think that when people become famous, there's a public perception that they are not human beings any more. They don't have feelings; they don't get hurt; you can act and say as you like about them." They become "things, not people" – a status and a plight that, outside global politics and showbiz, Rushdie has sampled at a length and depth unparalleled in modern times.

Even if you try hard to treat the novelist as a professional author, not a symbol, a slogan or a cause, the buzz of fantasy kicks in. My particular Rushdie delusion endows him with the Jodha-like ability to materialise out of thin air. At a Booker Prize dinner in the mid-1990s, with the Iranian fatwa that followed The Satanic Verses in 1989 still a clear and present danger to his life, the shifty-eyed ox in a tux seated next to me promptly vanished as the first course arrived. The next time I turned my head, the target of several deadly serious assassination plots (and Ayatollah Khomeini's judgement, remember, was suspended but not rescinded by Tehran in 1998) had slipped in to replace his ever-watchful bodyguard. Not long ago, I went to dinner at a friend's, looked away to grab a crisp – and, abracadabra, there he suddenly sat.

Now, I push through an open door at his agent's eerily silent offices, wander into a seemingly deserted room – and find him standing alone, near a shelf of books by another quizzically subversive spellbinder, and one of his true heroes: Italo Calvino.

Everyone, fan or foe, invokes their own imaginary Rushdie. We dream him up, and he duly takes shape: as blaspheming apostate for many still-outraged Muslims; as cocky subcontinental pseud for old-school British racists; as martyr to free speech for liberal literati. With the announcement of his knighthood, last June, this parade of straw men swelled to a seething carnival of prejudice and projection. From one corner, the pious haters swung into action: the parliament of Pakistan passed a motion against the honour as an insult to Islam. From another, the gossip-sheet haters seized on rumours of an impending divorce to renew their attritional campaign of "attacks on my physical appearance, as if I've ever invested anything in how beautiful I am". From yet another, the kneejerk-leftist haters matched them all in bile: The Guardian ran a defamatory rant from a Cambridge English don that grossly misrepresented his books, his politics and his ideas with a recklessness that would shame a GCSE-level duffer.

"Truthfully, I don't get it," says this hard-working 60-year-old writer, clad in a writer's comfy sweater, mulling over his burdensome double life as multipurpose scapegoat. "I just don't understand it. I think I've led a serious creative life. All that I've tried to do for over 30 years is to be the best writer that I know how to be... It's as if people don't see that in some way, and that's distressing."

The flesh-and-blood author has never wanted to make a mystery of himself. Even in the perilous depths of the fatwa, he proved easier to contact than many shy sages with no price upon their heads. Now, he is about to launch the fourth season of the World Voices festival in New York: a crowd-pulling array of global authors that Rushdie has energetically fronted and boosted from the start. With his friends Umberto Eco and Mario Vargas Llosa, he will re-stage the "Three Musketeers" gig that proved so popular in the 1990s. And, for a month every year, he makes time to teach modern fiction (including such colleagues and contemporaries as Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro and Hanif Kureishi) at Emory University in Georgia: "There's something very enjoyable about sitting in a room with 16 intelligent young people, talking about a book."

So ordinary life, and ordinary talk, carries on regardless. The Indian-origin family who run a gas station he uses in New York were "thrilled and proud" at the knighthood. Most people have responded "very sweetly" to it, he says: they understand "that real life is not the same thing as what's in the newspapers. If you know that, it's a way of dealing with what appears in print." Still, he admits: "I don't get over it. It hurts me and, like anybody else who gets hurt, you have to try to heal."

So is work a good way to heal? "Yes. Last year was a horrible year for me in many ways because of the end of my marriage" – his fourth, to the model, actress and TV presenter Padma Lakshmi – "and I don't know how I got inside this book, really." Hard on the heels of the knighthood furore, reports of their split brought another media shot of the sour cocktail of mockery and malice that had greeted the start of the couple's relationship. "It wasn't straightforward" to plunge into the therapeutic toil of fiction, he says, "considering the enormous amount of upheaval. But I do think it saved my life, this book. It reminded me of who I've always wanted to be, and who I think I am. And it was a matter of enormous pride to be able to do it and, at the end, to think, 'Not so bad.'"

The Enchantress of Florence returns Rushdie to the roots of his craft, and his gift. From Midnight's Children in 1981 to Shalimar the Clown in 2005, his strongest fiction has explored and enacted the interchange of history, memory and myth – as comedy, as tragedy, and often as a brand of fantasy that dances with, and through, recorded facts. The new novel sticks to two connected sectors of the past: the early 1500s in Florence, and the later 16th century in the new (but soon to be abandoned) Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri. So India and Italy embrace in a tale of two cities.

The book teases out the strands that bind two types of Renaissance, two types of humanism, and two types of magic. Via Rushdie's narrative alchemy, one woman, the "hidden princess" Qara Köz, knits the entire plot in her westward drift from court to court across (and beyond) the known world. Driven by the Hitchcock-style V C "McGuffin" of a blond stranger in Akbar's city and his tall tales of a genealogy that weds East and West, the story unspools irresistibly like a roll of brightly coloured ribbon, full of the virtues of "lightness and swiftness" that Calvino taught, and Rushdie admires. "I just had the most good time writing it," the author purrs, "and it's slightly given me the appetite for doing it again."

"For me," he says, "one of the most interesting discoveries of this book was how similar the two worlds were. In my starting-point idea," which drew on the Indian princess who plays a leading role in Ariosto's Renaissance epic poem Orlando Furioso, "I thought, 'Here are these two worlds that have very little contact with each other, and yet are both at a kind of peak.' But the more I found out about it, the more I found that, actually, they were surprisingly alike: in the interest in magic, in the remarkable hedonism of both worlds – the very open debauchery of both cultures." "Florence was everywhere and everywhere was Florence," thinks the Tuscan scamp turned Ottoman warlord Argalia, one of the novel's self-seeking bridge-builders and go-betweens who bind East and West.

Rushdie says that "how the world adds up, and how this part connects to that part, is something I've been trying to explore for a really long time now. The Satanic Verses is a novel about migrations, but in the last three or four books, I've been trying to write about how over here connects to over there." He adds: "I'm not trying to say they're identical, but human nature is identical. It's interesting to see that human beings were everywhere alike... I'm not a relativist. I do think that there is such a thing as human nature, and that the things that we have in common are perhaps greater than the things that divide us."

So the arch-Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli (whom Rushdie commends as "a profound philosopher of republican humanism") seeks for the "hidden truths" about society and politics behind the official smokescreen of doctrine and dignity. Two generations later, in Fatehpur Sikri, the Emperor Akbar slips slowly away from mainstream Islam to harbour dreams of a synthetic, humanistic faith with "man at the centre of things, not God".

All of this actually happened. I have visited the riotously carved pavilion in the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri ("a most enchanted place," says Rushdie), where the questing, tolerant Akbar welcomed spokesmen for different creeds to debate the nature of God, and man, in a mood of mutual goodwill and respect. For Rushdie, "I myself don't think that Akbar ever really moved outside Islam... However much he experimented with all these ideas, I don't think he ever ceased to be a believing Muslim. But he had this pantheistic idea: that, in the end, all religions are one."

The author stresses that he deals in historical fiction, not topical allegory or coded polemic. "When I'm writing a book, sentence by sentence, I'm not thinking theoretically. I'm just trying to work out the story from inside the characters I've got." His novel may feature a prince who hopes that "in Paradise, the words 'worship' and 'argument' mean the same thing", but he has no particular message for believers, or unbelievers, today. "My impulse was not didactic. It was the novelist's impulse: to bring things to life in an interesting way. I don't like books that seem to want to teach me things. Which is not to say that one doesn't learn from books – but you do your own learning in your own way."

Rushdie did plenty of new learning for The Enchantress of Florence ("I've never done so much research in my life") and he slips in a seven-page bibliography. During a rough passage, history offered both an escape and a homecoming. "It felt like returning to a use of my mind, a place where I hadn't been for a long time," says the history graduate of King's College, Cambridge. He remembers that a favourite tutor there, Arthur Hibbert, told him that "you should not write history until you can hear the people speak. I've always thought that was quite a good piece of advice for fiction, too. For me, this book was that act: trying to understand the people well enough so that I could hear them speak."

These princes, whores, scholars and warriors, Rushdie insists, live in their own times, on their own terms. He worries that the gossip-hounds invariably treat his fiction as "disguised autobiography". In this yarn of a glamorous incomer from India who seduces Italy, many will seek for echoes of his former wife, once a prime-time host on Italian television. But Qara Köz cannot be Padma Lakshmi: "No – she's 400 years older!" More seriously: "The reason why none of these characters can be equated to modern characters is that their processes of thought are not modern. They don't make choices or understand the world in the way that people in our day would. They are genuinely, I hope, of their time."

Like people in our time, though, they voyage across the world in search of fortune, passion or adventure. Born in Bombay to a Kashmiri Muslim family; a schoolboy at Rugby, a student at Cambridge; the 1980s superstar of a fresh, border-hopping brand of cosmopolitan English-language fiction; then, after the fatwa, the fugitive proof of the downside of fame before he came to rest in Manhattan: Rushdie could hardly dodge migration and cultural mingling as a recurrent motif in his work.

Yet, he thinks, the art of passing frontiers feels harder now. "Because of the kind of life I've had, of being bounced around the planet quite a lot... I've had constantly to be aware of likeness and unlikeness. And so it becomes a subject for me." However, compared to 20 years ago, "the world has changed in that people are more troubled" about human flux and flow. It used to be "easier to imagine mass migration as a positive force, a liberating force, both for the migrant and the culture into which the migrant came... Now, I think there are big question marks around that idea because people are scared. The element of fear has arrived in a way that wasn't there before, because of the violence of the age."

In such a climate, the pleasures of story-telling rather than punditry beckon. "Because of all the things that happened to me, there are people who think of me primarily as some kind of political animal. I began to feel it was getting in the way of people being able to read my books as books should be read." So Rushdie won't be drawn far into the electoral drama unfolding in his adopted home. "If I had a vote, I'd probably vote for Obama. But one of the things I've been doing in America is: keeping out of it. It struck me that if an American writer living in England began to start sounding off about who we should vote for, people wouldn't take kindly to it. There was that long period when Roth was living here. If Philip had started sounding off about whether you should vote for Margaret Thatcher, it wouldn't have gone down well."

Back in his Renaissance, East and West, the power-plays of the past bewitch him now, however fantastic they feel. "A lot of the stuff people might think is most obviously made up is true," he says of The Enchantress of Florence, where we meet not only Akbar and Machiavelli, but a bloodier icon. "The Ottoman campaign against Dracula actually took place. Dracula's decision to impale 20,000 people on stakes to put off the Ottoman army really happened. That's not magic realism, although it sounds like it... It comes from the memoirs of a Serbian janissary who took part in that campaign. There it is, gruesomely described in great detail. I couldn't believe my luck when Dracula showed up."

In the minds of his diehard antagonists, Rushdie often figures as a near-demonic blend of Dracula and the mythical (if not historical) Machiavelli. Yet he writes and acts much more like his benevolent but baffled Akbar, showing through the story-teller's unarmed might that "human nature, not divine will, was the great force that moved history"; and hoping that "discord, difference, disobedience" might turn out after all to be "wellsprings of the good".

Though enemies will continue to sharpen their stakes for him, the writer has found his way back into a not-so-secret garden of fictional delights. With The Enchantress of Florence, "there was an unexpected joy in the writing for me. I loved doing it, and I felt that there is some sense of release into literature in the book. It was a lot of fun, at a time that wasn't fun."

'The Enchantress of Florence' is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). Salman Rushdie appears in International PEN's Free the Word! festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, on Sunday at 7.30pm

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