Will a better world emerge from COVID-19? Salman Rushdie says no, if previous plagues are anything to go by
Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year shows some things haven't changed since 1665: Rushdie
Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie is doubtful that a better world will emerge from the lessons of the pandemic, because some of his recent reading suggests not much has changed since another great plague over 300 years ago.
Rushdie has been reading Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, with the class he teaches at New York University. The book explores the last great outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665.
"On almost every page of that book ... the way people behaved in the 17th century is exactly the way in which they behave now," said Rushdie, whose new book Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020 is published in Canada this week.
The book details how some Londoners locked down, sequestered themselves and successfully avoided the disease, while others "refused to do that, [saying] it was an intrusion on their freedom — and many of them died," Rushdie said. There were also "quacks peddling crazy cures," and political wrangling around how to handle the outbreak.
"It just showed me that we are just who we are, human nature is what it is, and back in 1665 people were doing exactly what people have been doing during this plague year," Rushdie told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"I don't know whether that's comforting or not, but it seems as a species, we haven't grown up very much since the 17th century."
Rushdie rose to literary fame when his second novel, Midnight's Children, won the Man Booker Prize in 1981. He has been shortlisted for the award five times, most recently in 2019 for Quichotte.
His new book Languages of Truth gathers some of his non-fiction criticism and essays from the first two decades of the 21st century, touching on topics ranging from how the world has handled the pandemic, to his great friendship with late actor Carrie Fisher.
The Indian-born British author now lives in New York. He contracted COVID-19 in March of last year, but said he didn't experience the worst effects of the disease and was able "to tough it out at home."
Writing in the pandemic
In the book, Rushdie writes that people have asked him how a year of pandemic lockdowns compared to the decade he spent in hiding in the 90s, after then-Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his death.
Rushdie said one thing doesn't feel like the other, because of the way the pandemic permeated the lives of so many.
"It's sort of, I guess, the difference between somebody being threatened in the public square, and an avalanche descending and destroying the town," he said.
It's usually not intelligent to push yourself to write something because you feel that that's what you ought to write.- Salman Rushdie
The religious edict was issued in 1989, over claims that his novel The Satanic Verses mocked the Prophet Muhammad, which amounts to blasphemy. The author spent the next 10 years moving from safe house to safe house, under police protection. Iran's government said in 1999 that it would do nothing to pursue the fatwa, but some Iranian clerics have renewed the fatwa or increased the bounty over the years.
People also suggested that the pandemic must be a great time to get some writing done, a suggestion he found "wrong-headed."
"I thought, 'Yeah, you know, half a million people are dead, but it's a great time to be a novelist,'" he said.
Rushdie said the solitude that came with lockdown may have been familiar to some writers, who already need to be alone to write. But he found the situation overwhelming at times, starting projects only to abandon them 80 pages in, deciding they were "dreadful."
But he's coming out of the pandemic with something he's never written before: a play.
"It's about Helen of Troy, and ... it's in verse. And there's nowhere to put it," he said.
"I'm stuck now with a play that there's nowhere to perform."
Rushdie said his play about the Greek myth ties into a major theme in his writing: "going back to very old stories, in order to see what they have to say to us now."
Avoid writing not-very-good pandemic books: Rushdie
Rushdie waited more than 20 years after the fatwa was issued to write about his life in hiding, with the 2012 memoir Joseph Anton.
He thinks the great works of literature around the pandemic may take even longer to emerge.
"If you tell yourself, 'I must write a book about the pandemic,' what usually happens is not-a-very-good book about the pandemic," he said.
Rushdie pointed to Tolstoy's War and Peace, which came more than 50 years after the events it depicts — Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia — but is considered "the greatest novel written about that time."
Even Defoe's book about the 1655 plague came later than the events it depicts. Though the narrative is presented as a true recollection of a survivor, Defoe was just five years old when the outbreak happened, and the book was researched and published 55 years later, in 1722.
Rushdie described it as "almost the definitive book about the Great Plague," which might hold a lesson for writers trying to capture the pandemic they're still living in.
"It's usually not intelligent to push yourself to write something because you feel that that's what you ought to write," he said.
"You have to see what comes to you that insists on being written, and that you can't avoid writing."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.
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