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Rushdie's Latest Novel Blurs Imagination, History

Salman Rushdie's days of living in hiding are long over.

Almost 20 years ago, the novelist faced death threats and an Iranian fatwa that called for his execution after his book The Satanic Verses was published. He went underground for nearly a decade.

Today, Rushdie lives and publishes openly. Some critics say his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, released Tuesday in the U.S., should be a front-runner for the Man/Booker Prize in Great Britain. It's a tangled work of historical fiction that spans generations of Mughal Indian emperors and Florentine aristocrats.

In a conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel, Rushdie talks about the blurring of imagination and reality to create the novel. Rushie, who studied history at Cambridge University, says he created characters based on historical figures who, in turn, imagined other characters.

"It comes out of the old Pygmalion idea of men who invent women to fall in love with who then escape them," Rushdie says. "In the case of the Emperor Akbar, who is the character in the novel who invents the queen for himself, it came out of the fact that in India today, if you ask people who was the queen of the great emperor Akbar, they all say Jodha. If you look at the historical records, she didn't exist."

Rushdie calls it a "curious legend" of the Hindu queen.

"To show his tolerance, he did not ask her to convert to Islam and indeed continued to observe her religious practices alongside his own," Rushie says. "It's a happy legend for India because it's a myth of inclusion and tolerance."

But that got him thinking about the queen's very existence.

"If she doesn't exist now but everyone thinks she did, then maybe she didn't exist then but everyone thought she did."

In creating the novel, Rushdie says he was serious about sticking to the historical record in his account of India and Renaissance Italy in the 16th century. But then he took the story a step further to give it life.

"No matter how well people are known in history, if you're a novelist, you still have to perform the imaginative act of entering their heads and working out how they would think and feel," Rushdie says. "And of course, that's the pleasure of it."

One phrase that is repeated throughout the book is this: "The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike."

Rushdie says the great discovery he had while writing the book was he began to find "mirrorings and echoes" that showed the similarities between the two civilizations.

"I abandoned one or two story lines as not convincing, then I found this true incident in the early career of the first emperor, Barbar, where he was besieged and had to surrender his beautiful sister to his rival warlord as the price of his own survival," Rushdie says of the Indian leader.

"The great thing about history is the stuff that's there is better than you can make up," he says. "An Uzbek warlord called Lord Wormword is just too good to be true."

Indeed, Rushdie admits that the stuff readers would think is magic realism is actually in the historical record, and the stuff people will assume is real is what he made up.

When it comes to his own personal history, Rushdie says he leads the normal life of a writer despite having lived under protective custody in a suburban Virginia hotel more than a decade ago.

But he's trying to shed the reputation that he has a dark and serious personality.

"The threat against me was arcane and theological and unfunny. There's an assumption that I must be arcane and theological and unfunny," Rushdie says. "And I think it puts people off. When I go around lecturing at colleges and so on, every single time I do it somebody comes up to me and says 'Who knew that you'd be funny?' People have this expectation of a very dark, serious kind of burdened person. I'm just trying to burst back into Technicolor."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.