Salman of knowledge
Salman Rushdie was a young literary star when, in 1989, he was forced into hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini urged Muslims to kill him for the ‘blasphemy’ in his novel ‘The Satanic Verses’. He tells MICK HEANEY about his wilderness years, his new memoir and why he no longer cares if people like him
SALMAN RUSHDIE is a writer. It is self-evident, but, lest there be any doubt, the author is seated in the London offices of his literary agent beside a carefully arranged display of his back catalogue, both in English and in translation. There cannot be many bestselling, Booker-winning novelists who require such a display as a reminder of their vocation, but in Rushdie’s case it is perhaps understandable.
Nearly a quarter-century after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his execution, Rushdie is more famous as a long-time fugitive from Iranian hit squads than as the author of acclaimed novels such as Midnight’s Children. Even the book he is most renowned for, The Satanic Verses, is better known for being branded blasphemous by the imam than for its literary merits. The threat to the life of the 65-year-old writer may have receded, but his work remains overshadowed by the controversy that enveloped him in 1989.
“I really felt it was a problem,” says Rushdie. “I was lucky as a writer, in that I had a broad readership which largely stuck around, but this event went so much further than that. People who had never picked up a book of mine still had an opinion, and that was odd. The kind of people who would say, ‘Why did you do it?’ And I would say, ‘What do you think I did? Have you read anything, by any chance?’ And of course they never had, because those people who had read my work didn’t ask that question.
“It’s still difficult. And you could argue this new book in two ways. One is that it makes it worse, because you’re putting it right out there, and another is that you’re drawing a line under it.”
The new book in question is Joseph Anton, a memoir that chronicles Rushdie’s years in hiding; the title borrows his pseudonym while under police protection, for which he used the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. Drawing on his personal journals from the period, the book recounts his and his family’s fear, uncertainty and frustration, as well as his friends’ remarkable solidarity. “It’s about a group of people in crisis, and I wanted to follow that story and tell the public story through that private story, which I guess is a novelist’s instinct.”
The book has some of the stylistic traits of fiction, such as referring to Rushdie in the third person. “I started writing it in the first person, but it made me cringe: it felt too embarrassing and narcissistic.” But while Rushdie, an articulate and engaging if slightly reserved presence, compares the completion of the memoir to a monkey off his back – “If anyone wants to ask me a fatwa question now, I can hit them over the head with a 600-page book” – the autobiographical subject matter also reinforces the wider public image of Rushdie as a lightning rod in the clash between Islamic fundamentalism and western society.
As it turns out, he partly shares that perception. “I did come to feel that what happened to me was a sort of a prologue, and what has happened to all of us since is the main story.” For Rushdie, that “main story” includes the current crop of violent demonstrations and fatal attacks across the Arab world in protest at the crude anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, up to a point at least.
“I don’t feel particularly pleased to be bracketed with that absurd, pathetic and clearly malevolent YouTube piece of shit,” he says. “But I think the response is depressing, because it’s so thin-skinned, instead of people just dismissing it as a piece of crap, which is the obvious response. If somebody did that about Christians or Jews, no one would lift a finger; it would just be thought to be ugly and unimportant, rather than magnify its importance by this ridiculous response, which holds innocent people responsible.