09 October 2012

Salman Rushdie at the New Yorker Festival: "There is no right not to be offended."

The first time Salman Rushdie came to New York after February 14, 1989, when Iran announced it had laid a fatwa on him, he barely saw the city at all. He was rushed from the airport in an armored limo in a motorcade to Columbia University and whisked offstage during his own applause to be taken back. His trip to the SVA Theater on Sunday to talk with New Yorker editor David Remnick about his years in captivity was undoubtedly less complex -- maybe he took a cab, maybe he even walked -- but as he stepped up to the podium a hush fell over the crowd greater than an ordinary reading.

Rushdie is currently on book tour supporting his first memoir JOSEPH ANTON, about his years in hiding (and named for the Conrad + Chekhov code name the British secret police used for him). I finished JOSEPH ANTON right before the event (no, seriously, I was waiting in line at the auditorium with about 10 pages remaining) and, at the risk of sounding like a philistine, it was one of my great surprises of the year. The description of Rushdie's years under the fatwa, how he was a virtual prisoner under state protection forced to find safe houses at his own expense is horrifying -- but also absurd, occasionally bitchy (at last, a chance to settle scores against writers who didn't support him then!) and funny. Rushdie is issued a wig so that he can go out, only to hear someone call out "Look, it's that bastard Rushdie in a wig!" and retreat. When he's allowed to look for a permanent safe house, that location is never "blown," and the only shooting occurs when a policeman's gun accidentally goes off while cleaning. He travels to Australia and New Zealand to spend an off-the-map Christmas, only to practically kill himself and his girlfriend and son in a car crash -- after which the ambulance driver asks for his autograph.

It is easy to have a sense of humor about these events because Rushdie's life is no longer in danger from the official government fatwa (although there are still people out there who want to kill him). The book goes into this bizarre coda after Rushdie becomes officially "free" of protection in Britain, a time in which he continued to publish novels but also left his wife (who had been his girlfriend for most of the  for Padma Lakshmi, moved to New York and then Los Angeles to be with her and was ultimately left by her. Rushdie told Remnick that his biggest regret was signing a conciliatory statement drafted by British Muslim leaders in the early days of the fatwa and believing (wrongly) that if he just sat down with his enemies, they would see that he meant no offense. He may also come to regret the extended passage in which he compares Lakshmi's lover after him to Scrooge McDuck. None of these decisions would have been possible, it is suggested, while Rushdie's life was still in danger; but maybe freedom contains its own noxious consequences.

The furor over THE SATANIC VERSES may have officially died down, but clearly in Rushdie's life it will never end. After the author was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival in India due to threats against his life, a reading of passages from the book (which is still banned in India -- where Rushdie was born) was held, and he gave an interview to the effect that it probably would not have been published today. He states this case more strongly in JOSEPH ANTON by casting his demonization as a prefiguring moment to the outbursts of violence by fundamentalist Muslims culminating in the September 11th attacks. But the frame he sees both of these events and other examples in the intervening years is, unsurprisingly, extreme. It's very strong to see an author, especially one who grew up Muslim by culture (though secular in practice), suggest that all of Islam has been contaminated by these radical fringes -- since so much time has been spent since 9/11 trying to talk people out of believing that. Rushdie, who says he decided he was an atheist when he ate a ham sandwich at boarding school and nothing happened, sees the past quarter-century cast in the rise of violent Islam and the rise in "the outrage industry -- where you define yourself by what you hate," but clearly hasn't been living in that himself.

Rushdie told Remnick he always knew he would eventually write about his years in hiding, and wanted to be the one to do it -- but waited till he was "in a calm place" to do so. These days Rushdie makes more appearances in the New York Post than in militant speeches. Yet, though he tries, I still don't have any idea how Rushdie went on writing in those years. Perhaps the captivity played a part in his actual productivity, but emotionally -- how did he do it? It is an impulse that perhaps can only be understood by people who have been in similar straits. At several points in the book, Rushdie mentions that he's far from the only writer who has experienced sanctions or death threats the way he did, but notes that up to the end elements of the British press still pushed the idea that he'd brought it on himself. That may be the most enduring shadow of all.

No comments: