As part of Bristol Festival of Ideas’ Autumn Programme, Salman Rushdie, renowned writer of the controversial book The Satanic Verses, visited Bristol, after a 20-year absence. Although his talk revolved around his latest book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Rushdie touched upon various themes, from bits and pieces about his creative process to personal tastes and autobiographical anecdotes, all to the audience’s delight.
Rushdie’s latest novel is a literary work about the age-old conflicts that remain in today’s world, told by means of interwoven stories full of fantastical elements. Overall, it depicts a grand war between light and dark, good and evil, over the span of a thousand and one nights – or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights.
At first, readers are led to locate Rushdie’s inspiration for the novel in the traditional “wonder tales” of the East. Rushdie obligingly told about his fascination with “fictional fiction” (presently teaching a class on the non-fiction novel with its blurry features), drawing equal stimulation from Eastern wonder tales to South American magic realism and French surrealism. In fact, he finds them all coming from a similar source, which is the non-naturalistic tradition.
Rushdie related a personal account linked to one of the novel’s main characters – a real-life Aristotelian philosopher in 12th century Spain, Ibn Rushd, popularly known as Averroes. Completely captivated with Ibn Rushd’s philosophy, Rushdie’s father decided to change their family name, which, of course, subsequently led Salman Rushdie to get to know the philosophy of Rushd inside out, and he grew rather fond of him and his teachings.
As for the creative process behind the novel, Rushdie revealed that rather than shaping a pre-emptive narrative and characterization architecture, this time he indulged in improvisation – not knowing where he was going with the story – which he found liberating despite ending in a blind alley on some occasions.
Some have characterised Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights as a pop-novel, and Rushdie communicated the cues taken from Charles Dickens, immersing himself in all layers of society, learning how they talk, think and feel. “I wanted it to be a contemporary novel, thus the pop-form feel to it,” he said.
Another interesting point of discussion was Rushdie’s expressed intoxication with living in big cities, as a personal preference. In this sense, he elaborated the evidence of this appeal in his writing, which can be spotted in the intentionally ‘overpopulated’ narrative, crowded stories, wasted material – all with the aim of representing the complication of life in a city.
A lot was said about fairy tales, which Rushdie defined as holding collective wisdom about the world, praising Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber for reaching the highest achievement in the genre.
Rushdie’s talk was full of personality and humour or, one might add, Rushdie flavour – and almost certainly an indulging experience for the literary-minded.