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.
“And this idea that there’s this entity called ‘America’ which is responsible for everything that’s done within its shores, and which is secretly plotting the disgrace and insult of Islam – it’s a deeply paranoid view of the world. And when it incites violence, that’s shameful. And that is part of the same phenomenon.”
His years living at secret addresses in the company of armed police guards may have given Rushdie a unique insight into the consequences of upsetting religious zealots, but it was never a role he sought out. “I’ve always been a writer who was interested in politics, and vocal about it, but that’s one thing. Becoming the eye of the storm of a very big geopolitical row; that’s another thing.”
BORN IN BOMBAYto nonpractising Muslim parents in 1947, Rushdie lived in India until he was 13, when, of his own volition, he took “the westward road” and went off to boarding school in England. There he lost any lingering religious belief. Later, at university at Cambridge, the self-professed bookworm made his first tentative forays into writing.
Having worked as an advertising copywriter in the 1970s, he made his breakthrough in 1981 with Midnight’s Children, a magic-realist imagining of India’s partition that went on to win the Booker Prize.
The next decade saw Rushdie enjoy more critical and commercial success with his work. Then, in 1988, he published The Satanic Verses, a complex narrative that included, among its many elements, a reimagining of the life of a Muhammad-style prophet that offended some Muslims.
After that his life was never the same again. “I do have a great sense of loss, just in terms of what life might have been like,” he says. “Because, actually, I was at a really good moment. It took me a long time to get somewhere as a writer, and then I did. I thought, Great, this is what I want to do: I’m making enough money and life is good. I had an expectation of that continuing. And then it didn’t. So I feel there are things you can’t get back.”
In the wake of the fatwa – which would see Rushdie’s Japanese translator murdered, his Italian translator stabbed and his Norwegian publisher shot, as well as several bookshops firebombed – Rushdie struggled to adjust. “The first two years were very rocky,” he says.
Along the way there were what he terms slides, most notably his declaration that he had re-embraced Islam, a gesture (unsuccessfully) aimed at mollifying his Muslim critics. “Basically, I had to learn fast about how to act in a situation in which I was for a long time unclear about what was for the best. And I made a number of stupid mistakes.” But he never wavered in his determination to stand by his book.
“If your work is becoming a life-and-death issue, and you’re saying that you’re not going to withdraw it, then what is it that’s so important that you’ll risk your life for it? I gave a lot of thought to that, and in the end I came to feel that here was this conflict where many of the things I loved most were pitted against many of the things I loathed most, and I thought, If you’re in that fight, that’s a fight to have.
“I just felt this is much bigger than me: it’s a fight that’s been going on for hundreds of years. And, oddly, many people, including me, thought it was over – that this battle against religion for free expression was something that the Enlightenment finished 200 years ago. Then here I am in another episode of this fight. And I thought, I’m not going to be the one who caves in, because it matters too much.”
Rushdie was strongly aided in his struggle by a circle of friends, including the late playwright Harold Pinter and the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who offered moral support, not to mention accommodation and aid, before he finally found a secure home in London. “The power of friendship and the power of love was one of the major themes I wanted to write about, because that’s what got me through.”
But he was also strongly criticised by figures in the British political, media and literary worlds, a phenomenon that still baffles him.
“It was a very painful aspect of those years that there was this attempt to portray me as this horrible person. I was supposed to be greedy, opportunistic, arrogant, egomaniacal and much worse things too – traitorous, ungrateful. But I’m still friends with an enormous number of the police officers who looked after me; ask them if I was ungrateful.”
Though he says his memoir is not about settling scores, the book is dotted with accounts of snubs and insults by writers, which surely runs the risk of reopening such feuds. “You know what? I don’t give a f***. One of the things that happened was that I got a little tougher. If there are people who don’t like me, maybe I don’t like them so much either. It’s fine. But I think that stuff has slightly faded away.”
IF THERE IS ANuncomfortable aspect to Rushdie’s book it is his frank treatment of his personal life. He writes candidly about rifts with his late first wife, Clarissa; the acrimonious break-up of his second marriage, to the novelist Marianne Wiggins, whom he portrays as delusional; his infidelity during his third marriage, to Elizabeth West; and the end of his fourth marriage, to the model Padma Lakshmi.
“I’d just say about the personal stuff that, in the case of three of the four people that I was married to, my relationships with them continued to be okay. Clarissa remained close all the way through to her death; Elizabeth and I are very close now. And even with Padma, in the last year we’ve managed to reconstruct a very good friendship. So that’s the real life I’ve had with these people. The only one I’m not in touch with is Marianne, but I think if you read the book you’ll know why.”
The more existential matter of the menace to his life gradually fizzled out, even though the fatwa remains (an Iranian foundation this week raised the reward for his murder). “It was never the words; it was to do with the will of the state to carry it out.”
Having lived openly in New York and then Los Angeles from the late 1990s on, he finally had his police protection in the UK lifted in 2002. “You might have thought that after all these years it might be weird not to be in that bubble, but, oddly, I just went, ping, like that, in three days.”
Ten years on, his everyday life has become so normal that he does not even bother looking over his shoulder. “The world has moved on from that,” he says. “The steam has gone out of it.” Things appear to have worked out okay. He was knighted in 2007, reaffirming his connection to the country that he says he has deepest roots in. But he is ambivalent about the wider outcome of the controversy around The Satanic Verses.
“In the particular microcosm of me and this book, we did pretty well. The book’s around, I’m around, people stood up for it and defended it with astonishing principle and courage. So, at that narrow level, not so bad. But the wider effect of creating a climate of fear in which people would be very reluctant to touch almost anything about Islam – that’s still there.”
If there is comfort to be found, it is that he has “managed to wrestle down that material and turn it into a book”, one he thinks tells the truth about an extraordinarily difficult time. “I don’t want people to come out of it thinking either, Goodness, he’s a wonderful fellow, or, What a bastard,” he says. “All of us are somewhere in between.”
Ultimately, however, Rushdie misses the days when he was just a writer. “If it had never happened and I didn’t have that book to write, that would be better.”
Joseph Anton is published by Jonathan Cape; Fintan O’Toole reviews it on page 10