He came. He saw. He gaffed.

Sir Salman Rushdie, the only writer thrice crowned Booker winner , paid Winnipeg a little visit on Oct. 22. The controversial British writer was here to speak at the 25th anniversary of the Winnipeg Arts Council. Indeed, it was the current chair of the council, Moti Shojania, who was instrumental in bringing him here, and introduced him to the sizable audience at Pantages Playhouse Theatre. She also mentioned something that some of us may not be aware of — that our humble city has been named by Ottawa as the cultural capital of Canada for 2010.

Born in 1947, and raised in a Muslim Shiite home, in Mumbai (then Bombay), India, Salman Rushdie was one of the midnight’s very special children. He created a fascinating weave of personal and political history in his second novel, the much read and celebrated Midnight’s Children, which focused on India’s traumatic partition into two new countries on the midnight of Rushdie’s year of birth. In doing this he blazed a whole new literary trail that numerous writers after him have continued to follow.

Rushdie’s lecture, entitled “Literature and Politics in the Modern World,” was full of little anecdotes but also engaging seriously. The author came across as down-to-earth, conventional-liberal and fairly mainstream in his choice of the literary texts he discussed. For instance, he spoke a great deal about the way Dickens and Jane Austen communicated a sense of “the real world” to their readers, particularly to emphasize that literary writing today, even more than earlier, is a far more reliable medium for transmitting what’s going on than journalistic news or politician-speak.

Does history make us or do we make history, are we masters of our time or are we victims, Rushdie asked, as he reflected upon the power of storytelling to define identity, humanity and moments of truth. He spoke about the human being as the only storytelling animal in the world. Indeed, we use stories and storytelling to know who we are, and we live in our stories — religion, family and nation are all grand narratives. Stories of groups and communities are about belonging and identity — we begin to know ourselves by the stories we have of ourselves and by our telling of them.

Today’s world is not “hermetically sealed,” he said, and all of us are vulnerable to the “butterfly effect.” Giving an example, he talked about 9-11 transforming forever the history of New York in linking it inextricably with that of the Arab world. Rushdie made little jokes about the fatwa officially still on his head for The Satanic Verses, light-heartedly reminding others out there who think like the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” so don’t mess with writers.
The value of great art, Rushdie reiterated, is to increase the sum total that we understand, feel, think and therefore be in the world — that the purpose of literature should be to open up the universe a little bit more, but also that there exist grand narratives that believe the opposite. Indeed, the novel in earlier times, since Heraclitus, was founded on the principle that character is destiny, that the hero’s agency is paramount. Of course, chance and the random also impacted events. But now the outside affects our lives much more intimately. As such, the purpose of contemporary literature is to write of human destiny almost as though “to make love in a combat zone.”

He mentioned several writers as the evening advanced. Apart from the 19th century British writers in the classic realist tradition, in whose case he spoke of the surreal being an integral part of the real, just as “realism” in magic realism is an equally significant component, he also referred passingly to the work of Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, Michael Ondaatje, Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Grossman and, more specifically, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. He could not refrain from some requisite Dan Brown bashing, as well.

Of course the evening is also memorable because of its fair share of faux pas moments. For example, on a couple of occasions, members from the audience had to remind the author that he was in Canada, not the U.S.A.. Afterward, Rushdie, spent a great deal of time signing books for admiring fans. Needless to add, this writer was happy to have her personal history intersect, albeit briefly, with that of the icon.