In the fall of 1989, eight months after the fatwa was proclaimed, it was arranged that I could meet Rushdie and interview him for the New York Times Magazine at a safe house in north London, and what I took away from that encounter (I’ve not seen him since) were two things above all: That the threat against his life was real and immediate, and that the threat against his literature was real and immediate, too.
Interestingly, and I would say courageously, it was the latter–the threat to his books–that Rushdie seemed more distressed about. There was the problem at hand of Penguin’s balking at publishing a paperback version of The Satanic Verses. Yet already he was foreseeing the larger problem of how The Satanic Verses would be approached and interpreted, whatever edition a reader might hold in his or her hands. The Ayatollah Khomeini was overdetermining the meaning of the book, turning an astonishingly rich and complex novel into anti-Muslim agitprop or, no better, a totem of liberal sentiment: Buy this book, put it on your coffee table, show your solidarity. I don’t think The Satanic Verses ever shook itself free of this extra-literary entanglement, and it is difficult to see how it will–despite the fact, the simple (OK, maybe not so simple) literary fact, that only a brief passage of the novel is taken up with a redescription of events depicted in the Koran, and that this redescription is open to a variety of readings. And, of course, as you have mentioned, the fatwa haunts his more recent books as well–you can’t help looking for “Rushdie in hiding” in the pages of his books, and he, rather understandably, can’t help dropping hints and clues and references, as in the very first line of The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I wonder, too, if other people writing about the new novel–should they have misgivings about it–won’t feel constrained about voicing them. I almost bailed out of this “Book Club” conversation after I finished the novel and realized I had problems with it, and even now I’ve never felt so lousy about voicing reservations about a book. There’s the voice in your head: My God, man, think of the guy’s situation.
As for his situation, I would say, first, that I have never thought it’s been taken quite seriously enough by America’s literary intelligentsia–not in the first hours of the “affair,” when any number of writers begged off appearing on TV talk shows to speak on his behalf, and not now, when you hear all the gossip about what a grand lifestyle he’s got here in the States and there in London with all his buddies and with all the money he’s pulling down. I remember a particularly savage New Republic editorial note after Rushdie spoke of his abiding Muslim–well, not faith exactly–and made a conciliatory gesture toward Islamic leaders in England. He was bargaining for his life, for Christ’s sake, feeling alone and frightened, but as the New Republic saw it, he just hadn’t been principled enough, brave enough. The truth is Rushdie has never been a pure enough victim for many among the literati; he hasn’t been consistent enough, or ascetic enough for some, and, for others, he’s not been sensitive enough about the feelings of the other.
Me, I’m something of an absolutist about this, as I am about few other things. I still think the threat against him is real–from rogue types looking for a bounty more than Islamic militants, perhaps–and I still think we owe it to Rushdie, and to ourselves, to put him before the “Iranian moderates” we are endlessly seeking out in the hopes of getting trade back on track. Meet and talk with Iranian leaders for sure, and encourage the more liberal ones, but make sure Rushdie, and our support for him, comes up in each and every conversation.