A religious tyrant decides that Salman Rushdie should die for writing a “blasphemous” book. For ten years he is forced to flee from one safe-house to another with no one for company but his bodyguards and an increasingly estranged wife. How does he pass the time?
How about video games?
In his newly released memoir Joseph Anton, which is narrated in the third person, Rushdie briefly describes how he went through a phase when he found himself immersed in Super Mario Bros, the popular Nintendo game that his son Zafar taught him to play.
Those were dark days for the 41-year-old writer. Every morning brought fresh reports of either The Satanic Verses being burnt or him being burnt in effigy. Then came the chilling news that the police had foiled a group of assassins dispatched from overseas to execute the fatwa. If it sounded straight out of a bigoted video game, well, it wasn’t – or not yet, at least. But more on that later.
Given Rushdie’s lonely and claustrophobic circumstances in what his late friend Christopher Hitchens called “the time of the toad,” it was scarcely surprising that the fantasy-loving novelist whose favorite childhood stories were The Wizard of Oz and The Arabian Nights should occasionally transform himself into Mario the mustachioed plumber and run away to Mushroom Kingdom. The magic console was the next best thing to a magic carpet or magic lamp, and it quickly became the “Genie-come-lately” in his fantasy arsenal. It helped that in this digital world of magical mushrooms and fire flowers, he was hunter rather than hunted. A vital role reversal, even if his wife didn’t think so.
Marianne came around and scolded him for playing video games. Thanks to Zafar, he had grown fond of Mario the plumber and his brother Luigi and sometimes Super Mario World felt like a happy alternative to the one he lived in the rest of the time. “Read a good book,” his wife told him scornfully. “Give it up.” He lost his temper. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” he exploded, and she made a grand exit.
And, gleefully, a few days later:
Alone at Hermitage Lane he reached the end of his Super Mario game, defeating the big bad Bowser himself and rescuing the insufferably pink Princess Toadstool. He was glad Marianne was not there to witness his triumph.
Rushdie’s triumph must have dissipated quite rapidly, however, when reality intruded with cruel irony in the form of a flesh-and-blood West Indian plumber who showed up at the shoddy safe-house to fix the central heating, forcing him to scurry out of sight and “hide in the bathroom for several hours, drenched in the now habitual sweat of shame.”
But no experience is wasted on a writer who is a compulsive memory-miner, and Rushdie put his video-game expertise to good use in the two children’s novels he wrote for his sons, though the second, Luka and the Fire of Life, is more directly indebted to Mario and Luigi than the first. The first, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was dedicated to Zafar and written during the fatwa years, investing it with an immediacy that gave it a haunting power. Easily the most enchanting of Rushdie’s many novels, this allegorical tale about the war between Storytelling and Silence was an acutely topical portrayal of the synchronous real-world battle between free speech and fanaticism. In the novel, one of young Haroun’s tasks is to rescue the talkative and tuneless Princess Batcheat (baatcheat is the Urdu word for conversation) from Khattam-Shud, the emperor of Silence. Was the chatterbox Princess a reincarnation of the “insufferably pink Princess Toadstool?” And did Mario inspire the character of the mustachioed water genie Iff, who uses his plumber’s wrench to turn on and turn off the faucet through which the Stream of Stories flows via “a P2C2E” (Process too Complicated to Explain)?
It certainly seems like it. But where the impact of Super Mario bursts forth in full bloom is in Luka and the Fire of Life, which Rushdie wrote for younger son, Milan. (Incidentally, Rushdie, with an over 4,00,000 Twitter following, is quite the Geek Dad. He plays Angry Birds on his iPhone and when asked by the Wall Street Journal how he, living in New York, had managed to tell his boys in London bedtime stories, he replied, “There’s Skype and Apple’s Facetime.”) Luka is an Arabian Nights-meets-Nintendo novel in which “Super-Luka” is cast as a modern-day Prometheus who sets out to execute “the most deliciously Disrespectful Deed in All of Time.” Namely, to steal the fire of life and carry it back home in order to wake his beloved storyteller father Rashid Khalifa from his fatal coma-like sleep.
The young boy’s quest is constructed almost exactly like a Super Mario video game. He is given 999 lives, and has to pass through several levels of increasing difficulty to reach the magic fire. Each level is given a suitably video game-sounding title – the Respectorate of Rats, the Mists of Time, the Great Stagnation, the Inescapable Whirlpool, the Trillion and One Forking Paths and the Great Rings of Fire. Each time an enemy pots him with a loud BLLLAAARRRTT!, Luka loses one or more of his lives and bursts into “millions of shiny fragments” that join up again with “loud sucking noises.” Each time he clears a level, he saves his progress by punching a gold ball, which makes a loud and satisfying Ding. Eventually, after going through many “bouncing, burning, twisting, bubbling levels” and P2C2Es and magical M2C2D (Machines too Complicated to Describe), the plucky fire-thief and his friends ding their way to victory.
Naturally, a punster like Rushdie couldn’t pass up the temptation to game with the word “console.” Early in the novel, Luka’s mother, Soraya, who disapproves strongly of her son’s love of video games, angrily asks her husband if all these “hedgehogs and plumbers” will help improve their son’s poor handwriting. Rashid, a genial stand-in for Rushdie, is actually quite sympathetic about Luka’s gaming passion. Which is bad enough as far as his wife as is concerned, but then he makes the additional mistake of correcting her mid-rant to say that the right term for the “pisps” and “wees” her son is addicted to – “Such names! They sound like going to the bathroom or what” – is console. At which point, she stages a grand exit from the room (like Marianne?) declaring over her shoulder: “I am in-console-able.”
On a more serious note, video games seem to hold a special appeal for Rushdie for reasons that go the very heart of his writing. First, as glorious purveyors of an “infinite number of parallel realities,” they fit perfectly into his exuberant mosaic of magical realism in which everything from the mythological and historical to tabloid headlines jostle for space. Which other writer can give you Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Akbar, and Angelina Jolie in one line? And what other game allows the player to become a “plumber” or a “zooming hedgehog” or even an “Intergalactic Penguin named after a member of the Beatles?”
The other reason is the discursive narrative architecture of a video game, a non-linearity which he finds fascinating. Rushdie’s elliptical, story-within-story, detour-friendly, digression-heavy style is anything but linear. It can be maddening when he overdoes it, and he often does, but also richly rewarding if one just goes along for the ride. His books are not clean, blue Olympic swimming pools where each story has the good manners to stick to its own lane. Rather, they are an unruly and inquisitive and shape-shifting Ocean of Stories, into which hundreds of rivulets from different centuries and cultures – or streams of our collective sub-conscious, if you like – pour to pollute and mingle and fertilize one another.
Over the last few decades, with the exponential growth in the popularity of video games, writers have often been asked about the impact of these games on the future of the novel. Few have responded with as much insight as Rushdie did two years ago in this excellent Big Think interview. It’s worth listening to it in full. While he agreed that the concerns are legitimate and that too much gaming could have a dumbing-down effect and perhaps even erode man’s ancient attachment to the story, he made a powerful case for the new form. It interested him, he said, because of “the much looser structure of the game and the much greater agency the player has to choose how he will explore and inhabit the world that is provided. He doesn’t really have to follow the main narrative line of the game at all for long periods of time. There are all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose to go on and find mini stories to stories to participate in instead of the big story, the macro story. I think that really interests me as a storyteller…To tell the story sideways.”
It’s no coincidence that one of the trickiest levels that Luka has to pass through is called The Trillion and One Forking Paths. This was Rushdie doffing his cap to Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” widely credited with having predicted hypertext on the Internet. “I’ve always thought of the Borges story of the garden of the forking paths as a kind of model,” Rushdie said in the same interview.
It’s a story whose author has gone mad because what he’s tried to do is to offer every possible variation of every moment. So boy meets girl, they fall in love or they don’t fall in love. That’s the first fork. And he wants to tell both those stories and every variation of every moment down both those lines. And of course it’s like nuclear fission. The possibilities explode into millions and billions of possibilities and it becomes impossible to write the book. It seems to me, the internet is the garden of forking paths where you can have myriad possibilities offered at the same level of authority, if you like. I think that’s one of the ways storytelling could move. These games, these more free-form games, where the player can make choices of what the game is going to become, is a kind of gaming equivalent of that narrative possibility.
To loop back to the fatwa years where it all began, it’s quite strange that video games should continue to pop up in the relationship between Rushdie and Iran. Though the fatwa was lifted more than ten years ago, the present government evidently has no qualms about stoking the old death diktat. Earlier this year, the government-sponsored Islamic Students Association in Iran, as if determined to prove that history repeats itself as farce, announced that it had completed initial production on a video game called The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict. Two years ago, Rushdie told Big Think that in his opinion the great conflict in the world today is not so much the conflict between the West and the Islamic world but the conflict within Islam, between modernity and tradition, between the youth and the greybeard mullahs. This held true for Iran too, he said, and joked: “I often think the best way to liberate Iran is to drop Nintendo consoles from the air.” On second thought, perhaps not.
Publicity image via nintendo