Magical Realism Is Still Realism
The publication of his fourth novel "The Satanic Verses" in 1988 led to violent protests in the Muslim world for its depiction of the prophet Mohammad. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a death fatwa against Rushdie, which sent him into hiding for nearly a decade. Rushdie weathered countless death threats and many assassination attempts.
In June 2007, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. In 2008 he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named a Library Lion of the New York Public Library. In addition, "Midnight’s Children" was named the Best of the Booker—the best prize-winner in the award’s 40 year history—by a public vote. In 2008, The Times of London ranked Rushdie thirteenth on their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945."
Question: How do magic and fantasy help you arrive at realism?
Salman Rushdie: The question is: "What does truth mean in fiction?" Because of course the first premise of fiction is that it’s not true, that the story does not record events that took place. These people didn’t exist. These things did not happen. And that’s the going in point of a novel. So the novel tells you flat out at the beginning that it’s untruthful. But then so what do we mean then by "truth in literature?" And clearly what we mean is human truth, not photographic, journalistic, recorded truth, but the truth we recognize as human beings. About how we are with each other, how we deal with each other, what are our strengths and our weaknesses, how we interact and what is the meaning of our lives? I mean this is what we look at. We don’t need to know that Anna Karenina really existed. We need to know who she is, and what moves her, and what her story tells us about our own lives and about ourselves and that is the kind of truth that as readers we look for in literature. And now once you accept that stories are not true, once you start from that position, then you understand that a flying carpet and "Madam Bovary" are untrue in the same way, and as a result both of them are ways of arriving at the truth by the road of untruth, and so then they can both do it the same way. I mean this is the first novel in which I have actually managed finally to include a flying carpet. I really I've been wanting to do it for a long time and the immediate thing that I thought. The moment you decide you’re going to have a rug that flies through the air is you must immediately ask yourself realistic questions about it. What would that be like if you were standing on a carpet and it levitated? Would it be difficult to keep your balance? Would the carpet be rigid or would the movement of the air under the carpet make the carpet undulate? If you flew very high, wouldn’t it get very cold? How do you keep warm on a flying carpet? And I think the moment you start asking yourself those kind of practical, real-world questions the flying carpet becomes believable. It becomes a thing that might exist and if existed, it would function like this. But in the end what you’re looking for in this book, a fairy tale, a fable, an allegory, a fantasy is the same thing you’re looking for in kind of kitchen-sink realism. You’re looking for people that you can believe in behaving in ways that you can recognize, and which tell you something. Those behaviors tell you something about your own behavior and your own nature and about the life of the person next door to you as well, so human truth is what you’re looking for and you can get to that by many different roads.
Recorded November 12, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler
People tend to focus on the "magic" more than the "realism." But, like all fiction, fantasy arrives at truth via the road of untruth.
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- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.