Salman Rushdie: I don't think Trump reads many books

In author Salman Rushdie's The Golden House, a cartoonish villain referred to as the Joker wins the US Presidential election

When America went to the polls to elect a President nearly a year ago, award-winning author Salman Rushdie was rooting for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The novel that the 70-year-old was writing, however, seemed to favour a different outcome.

In The Golden House, which came out last month, the election is won by a cartoonish villain referred to as the Joker.

"I've often believed that there are moments when a work of art is wiser than its creator," says Rushdie over the telephone from London, where he is on a book tour. "That was certainly true in this case.

"Here is this real world, where real human beings are grappling with real problems in their lives," he continues. "But when you rise to the level of power, it seems as if that world is inhabited by cartoons and grotesques."

Real-life United States President Donald Trump is never mentioned by name in the novel, but his presence looms large.

Rushdie, who has lived in New York since 2000, says: "I thought, if you look at a deck of playing cards, the two that don't behave like the others are the Joker and the trump. I didn't want to refer to the trump, so I thought I'd have the Joker instead."

The Golden House, by award winning author Salman Rushdie (above), was released last month. PHOTO: BEOWULF SHEEHAN, JONATHAN CAPE, COURTESY OF SAMANTHA CHONG

Rushdie, who was born in India and lived in Britain before moving to the US, is a much-feted writer. His second novel, Midnight's Children, won not only the Man Booker Prize in 1981, but also the 1993 Booker of Bookers and the 2008 Best of the Booker, as the best novel to have received the prize during its first 25 and 40 years.

In The Golden House, a displaced tycoon who calls himself Nero Golden moves into a palatial Manhattan home with his three sons, following unknown catastrophe in an unnamed city.

Nero is in his 70s, was formerly in real estate and acquires in the course of the novel a beautiful Russian wife much younger than himself.

Rushdie created his character long before last year's election, but coincidence or no, the parallels with Mr Trump are unmistakable.

Not that the President is likely to notice anyway, says Rushdie, who has met him a couple of times before and even been offered use of his box at the US Open tennis tournament.

"I don't think he reads very many books, do you? I doubt he will have any awareness of this book and, if he does, I guess we will find out on Twitter."

He adds: "I am not sure that right-wing Republicans ever read many of my books. I don't think I am losing many readers in that regard. A book is not a polemic, it is an attempt to entertain and stimulate people."

Rushdie may not intend it, but his work has certainly polemicised. In 1989, after he published his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering all Muslims to kill him and those involved in the book's publication.

As riots followed and bookstores selling the novel were firebombed, the book was widely banned and even burnt. Its Japanese translator was stabbed to death, while its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher were also seriously injured in attacks.

The Golden House (above), by award winning author Salman Rushdie, was released last month. PHOTO: BEOWULF SHEEHAN, JONATHAN CAPE, COURTESY OF SAMANTHA CHONG

Numerous attempts were made on Rushdie's life, forcing him into hiding for many years, during which he moved repeatedly under an alias and lived round the clock under heavy police protection.

Today, the father of two, who has been married four times, says he no longer thinks about the fatwa except when journalists bring it up.

It has even recently been turned into a plot arc by comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which show creator Larry David writes Fatwa! The Musical, based on Rushdie's life in hiding, but ends up with the show's fictional ayatollah declaring a fatwa on him.

I don't think he reads very many books, do you? I doubt he will have any awareness of this book and, if he does, I guess we will find out on Twitter.

SALMAN RUSHDIE on US President Donald Trump, whose presence looms large in the author’s latest novel, The Golden House

Rushdie is amused by this, which he does not think was possible 10 or 20 years ago.

"In those days, there were moments when things could have been funny if they had not been so alarming. It was a confusing state of affairs."

He is looking forward to seeing how the rest of the season pans out. "What I want to know is if they actually make the musical or not."

The US, Britain and India on Rushdie's mind

It is a time of "enormous fragility", he says, in the three countries he spends his life thinking about: the US - "there are clearly two Americas now and they find it almost impossible to speak to or understand one another" - Britain, which is now experiencing great division, thanks to Brexit; and India.

"I worry a great deal about India," he says. "The current administration is throwing out of the window many of the values our founding fathers lived by and tried to build the nation on, like secular values."

While The Golden House is very much in the tradition of the great American novel - it has drawn comparisons with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - it has its origins, like Rushdie, in Bombay, now Mumbai.

In 2008, 10 members of Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out a series of shootings and bombings across Mumbai that lasted four days and killed 166.

This event, says Rushdie, was to India what the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks were to the US.

In its aftermath, he began to dig around and grew interested in how the Indian criminal mafia not only seemed to move freely among the elite classes, but also had ties to terrorist organisations.

"I thought this was an interesting triangle among wealth, terrorism and the mafia," he says, "and I thought I could put a character somewhere in the middle of that.

"But in another part of my head, I was thinking about some kind of social panoramic novel of America and, eventually, I understood these were two parts of the same story."

The Goldens come to America to, in a way, turn themselves into fiction.

The line between fiction and reality is heavily elided in the novel, which uses the structure of a film within a book, as the Goldens' neighbour Rene inserts himself into their lives so he can make a film about them.

The book is replete with film references, among them: The Godfather (1972), Rear Window (1954) and The Seventh Seal (1957).

Rushdie, a self-avowed film buff, wanted to create tension between Rene's visual, cinematic story and his own textual narrative. "To what extent is he fictionalising (the Goldens) in the same ways they try to fictionalise themselves?"

He is hard-pressed to name his own favourite film - "I could name my favourite hundred films" - but finally allows that if he had to pick the greatest film ever made, it would be Pather Panchali (1955), the first film of Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy.

The line between fiction and reality in the world has also come under fire of late, he says.

"We live in a moment where there is so much fiction being put out by official sources that the world is so full of lies. It does create a problem for fiction.

"But one of the things the art of the novel is good at is creating between the writer and the reader an agreement about the nature of reality," he adds.

"In this moment, when there is such an assault of reality carried out by very powerful people, it may be that one of the reasons for reading novels is that we - the reader and writer - can together recreate an understanding of what the world really is, what is true and how things are."

•The Golden House ($33.71) is available at major bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Joker in the Golden House'. Print Edition | Subscribe