ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The author Salman Rushdie has set his books all over the world. His most famous novels, "Midnight's Children" and "The Satanic Verses," take place in India and the U.K., both countries where Rushdie has lived. His new book is mostly set in the city he now calls home, New York. It's called "The Golden House." And its themes are deeply American. One character says, your country is young. One thinks differently when one has millennia behind one. You have not even 250 years. I asked Salman Rushdie whether that youthfulness shapes his view of the U.S.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: It's a very interesting thing - having been brought up in one very ancient country, India, and then having lived in a kind of reasonably old country, England - and then to come to a new country. And they all have their slightly different characteristics.
SHAPIRO: For people who spend their whole lives in the United States, I'm not sure that we feel how our youthfulness as a country affects us. Bringing an outside perspective, how would you describe the way that shapes what the United States is?
RUSHDIE: It's just the weight of history. You know, I mean, America clearly has some very heavy and even dark aspects to its history. But it's not like having a couple of thousand years or 3,000 years of history. The burden of history is greater. And so one of the things that happens in this book is that people from an old country - let's just say, you know, an Indian family - wealthy, Indian family - in a way, trying to shed the burden of their own history, comes to a country in which the subject of reinvention of the self is completely central.
Everybody does it. People come through Ellis Island and change their names. People move from the Midwest to the big city and try and be new people. And it seemed appropriate for people from an old country trying to get rid of the shadow of the past to come to somewhere where it's possible to be new.
SHAPIRO: Is it really possible, though? That's the question that the book seems to keep returning to.
SHAPIRO: Some characters believe it is. Others believe it's not. Ultimately, can you escape your past?
RUSHDIE: Well, I mean, I think in a novel, you can't. You know, I think...
RUSHDIE: I think in a novel, if a family arrives in Manhattan, obviously concealing some very dark secret, you know...
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) The secret will come out.
RUSHDIE: It's pretty clear that the secret is going to blow up in their face at some point.
RUSHDIE: In real life, I think people do manage to leave the past behind and start again. You know, I think New York is full of those stories of families, whether Jewish families from Eastern Europe or, nowadays, immigrants from all over the world - you know, come here and make new lives and seem to do it quite successfully.
SHAPIRO: But at the same time, as one character in this book puts it, the trouble with trying to escape yourself is that you bring yourself along for the ride.
RUSHDIE: Yeah. I mean, that is, of course, the tragedy of the novel - that this family, you know, Nero Golden, the patriarch, which, of course - not his real name but the name that he takes - clearly has a lot of luggage. He's somebody who, as we begin to discover as the novel unfolds, has had quite a shady past. And in trying to escape that past along with his three adult sons, he is guilty, I guess, of a little bit of innocence. You know, he really thinks that by coming to America, he can go beyond the reach of the - well, to put it bluntly, gangsters - who might be interested in harming him. But, sometimes, you underestimate the opposition, you know? And I think he does.
SHAPIRO: The books that you write have always felt connected to myths and legends. And this story almost feels like a fairy tale. It's very archetypal. There is a sort of king in his castle with three sons. There's a kind of wicked stepmother figure. There's almost a curse on the family. Are these archetypes just part of the water that you swim in, or do you choose one to work with? Is this conscious, or is it automatic?
RUSHDIE: No, I think it's just the way the stuff comes out. I do have a lot of mythology in my head, both Indian and kind of Greek and Roman. And that tends to spill into the characters quite often. And in this case, obviously, these characters who renamed themselves after characters from ancient Greece and Rome are very aware of their own self myth-making. They're trying to create themselves as kind of heroic or even quasi-divine figures. But there's a gap between that self-aggrandizing naming and the reality of their lives.
SHAPIRO: When you take a step back and observe that the novel you've written does follow an archetype, do you think to yourself, oh, how lovely - I'm part of this ancient tradition? Or do you think, oh, well, damn, I'm telling the same story humans have been telling themselves for millennia?
RUSHDIE: Oh, we all tell each other the same stories all the time. The question is whether you tell the story in a new way.
SHAPIRO: This is actually the question that I've most wanted to ask you. Your narrator - this filmmaker - at one point asks, why even try to understand the human condition if humanity revealed itself as grotesque, dark, not worth it? How do you answer that question for yourself as a writer?
RUSHDIE: Well, it's obviously a tough question because it carries with it a sense of despair. And I think at that moment, Rene looking at America is very disillusioned with his own country, very disillusioned with the choices it's making and with what's happening in it. And he asks himself, you know, what is it that I'm a part of? And is it worth being a part of? Is it worth writing about? But I think, clearly, he himself doesn't fully think that because he ends up making his movie, and he ends up, in a way, narrating this novel.
SHAPIRO: But does that mean that humanity is not grotesque, dark, and not worth it? Or does it just mean that it's worth writing about anyway?
RUSHDIE: Well, I think it means both things, actually - that even if it were grotesque, dark and not worth it, it would be worth writing about. But what I - a way, what the novel tries to present is a world that's not grotesque. I see a real, I think, credible world, you know, a believable city in a believable time in which real characters, real human beings are having their lives. But then when you ascend to the level of public life, you find grotesques and cartoons.
SHAPIRO: And so in writing, do you find that humanity is not dark, that humanity is, in fact, worth it?
RUSHDIE: Yeah. I...
SHAPIRO: Or do your write in spite of the darkness?
RUSHDIE: I think human beings are the most interesting thing I know about. They're inexhaustibly interesting. And I think one of the great beauties of the novel as a form is that it shows us that human nature is the great constant. Human nature is the same in all places, in all times, in all languages. And that makes it the great subject of any writer's life - just to try and explore this vast ocean of human beings.
There's a wonderful line near the end of Saul Bellow's novel "The Adventures of Augie Marsh" in which he describes himself as a Columbus of the near at hand. You know, setting out to explore the terra incognita, he says, the unknown land that spreads out from every gaze. You know, and I think that's sort of what the writer is. He's looking - he's a Columbus of the near at hand. You know, we're exploring the world that is not across an ocean but that is outside our front door.
SHAPIRO: Salman Rushdie - the new novel is called "The Golden House." What a privilege to talk to you. Thank you very much.
RUSHDIE: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBAY DUB ORCHESTRA'S "STRANGE CONSTELLATIONS")
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