Søren Frank’s Speech at SDU

Sir Salman Rushdie and the Spirit of Hans Christian Andersen
Søren Frank, Associate Professor, Institute for the Study of Culture, Comparative Literature
University of Southern Denmark

Dear Sir Salman Rushdie, dear colleagues, dear students, dear guests,

I speak to you today both as a Rushdie scholar and as chair of the Academic Advisory Board that proposes candidates to the prize committee for the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award.

We are assembled here at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, the birthplace of one of the world’s most famous authors, to celebrate world-class literature. In particular, we are here to honor you, Sir Salman Rushdie, and your literary oeuvre, which is – to a large extent – written in the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen.

Rushdie’s many books are indeed written in many spirits, not least his own of course, but also in the spirit of works and authors such as Arabian Nights, the global archive of myths and religious stories, Rabelais, Carroll, Tagore, Joyce, and Grass to mention just a few of the influences. However, on this occasion it is the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen permeating the works of Rushdie that shall be our center of attention and our cause of praise – and I hope, Mr. Rushdie, that you can cope with just a little more attention and praise after yesterday’s many events and celebrations.

At this moment in my speech I want to share with all of you the official wording in the motivation behind giving the largest literary award in Denmark to Salman Rushdie. Rushdie receives the award because he“is an incomparable storyteller, who through a blend of worldly realism and marvelous fabulation depicts the significance of journeys and cultural encounters for our contemporary world – and thus he enriches world literature. Sir Salman Rushdie shares with Hans Christian Andersen the love of the narrative art of the fairytale.”

Rushdie was born in Bombay, today Mumbai, in India in 1947, the year of independence. At the time of his birth Bombay was a lively city in which different religions and cultures co-existed, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in tension. Rushdie’s Muslim family was never particularly religious, as he tells us himself in Joseph Anton, his book of memoirs, and with his father having a university degree from Cambridge University it was natural for Rushdie to go to England, too, in order to complete his schooling. At the age of 13, he was sent to Rugby, one of England’s oldest and most prestigious boarding schools. Rushdie was excited about the prospect of going to England, but he soon discovered a different England from the one he had expected – a country of racism, abuse, and suspicion. For the first time in his life he felt as an outsider at Rugby, and, to use one of his own words with roots in his native country, he felt like“a pariah, that is, an outcast. Later in his life, in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s to be more precise, Rushdie would again experience – this time in a much more intense and life-threatening way, though – the feeling of being the ugly duckling. This happened in the aftermath of the publication of The Satanic Verses, indisputably one of the most brilliant and important novels of the twentieth century, when Rushdie had to go into hiding. Today’s occasion represents, at least I would like to think so, one of many happy events in Rushdie’s career that contribute to his metamorphosis into a beautiful strong-winged swan.

If Rushdie shares certain biographical traits with Hans Christian Andersen – not least the initial feeling of being an outsider and the subsequent transformation into a literary and cultural icon as well as the love of travelling (in Rushdie’s universe travel has morphed into migration) – there are indeed also literary traits common to both authors.

Rushdie has so far published nine novels, one book of memoirs, one collection of short stories, two collections of essays, a travel book, and two children’s books – that is, two books for childish adults and adultish children. Like the fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen, Rushdie’s books for children can also be read by grown ups because of their many layers of meaning, their sheer narrative magnetism, and their sprawling magic.

However, it is not only because of your children’s books that you deserve the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award. In all your books, also those solely meant for adults, the spirit of Andersen can be felt. Just listen to these opening lines from Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s literary break-through novel published in 1981:

I was born in the city of Bombay … once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more … On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. […] thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate – at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time.

Midnight’s Children heralds a new kind of literature in which eastern material – in many ways exotic to western readers – and oriental traditions of oral storytelling are grafted onto a western form – the novel. In the passage I just quoted we immediately sense two of your stylistic trademarks, namely fabulation and digression, that is, techniques of emphasizing the perpetual invention of stories and their rambling character respectively. The presence of the storytelling voice is almost materially felt and heard, and the quote is also typical of you in the sense that it mixes the universalism of the fairytale’s vocabulary –“once upon a time” – with the concreteness of realism – the wiping of noses and the breaking of toes, gasps and baldies, and, more matter-of-factly, Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home in Bombay, August 15th, 1947. Finally, Midnight’s Children is a perfect example of your preoccupation with cultural encounters and your constant challenging of Kipling’s famous “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”– in your books, East and West inevitably meet all the time and fusions and fissions occur constantly.

To be sure, in many of your other books we also encounter the storyteller’s“once upon a time”and the imaginary homelands in which everything is possible, but the brutal reality of contemporary history and politics with their clash of cultures, censorship and dictatorships, and growing gaps between those who have and those who don’t is also and always part of your concerns and artistic output.

Today, we can look back upon the beginning of 1989 and see that The Satanic Verses and the reactions to its publication signaled the rise of a new world order. In that sense, Sir Salman Rushdie and his books symbolize the world order in which we live today. And as one of my esteemed colleagues from the English department said when news broke that Rushdie was going to be the next award winner: “If there is one author, who stands above all else in the literatures written in English since 1960, it must be Salman Rushdie.”I absolutely agree with this colleague, and as a lover of world-class literature, of storytelling, and of fairytales, as a Rushdie scholar, and as chair of the academic advisory board that unanimously proposed Rushdie as the next winner, I am very happy that you, Sir Salman Rushdie, have accepted to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award.

Thank you to all of you for your attention!