I saw Salman Rushdie in a public appearance in Marin last week. He’s just published an account of his 12-1/2 years in hiding, following the condemnation of his novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1989 by Muslim extremists and a death sentence handed down by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The new book is called Joseph Anton, the title coming from the code name used for him by the British Secret Service, MI6, who guarded him. (Rushdie chose the name himself from two of his favorite writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.)
Rushdie’s talk described how the news of his “fatwa” first came to him, how it changed his life and that of his family, how he continued to write, and his desire to write his autobiography. His talk had elements of the terrifying obviously, but also, as relayed with Rushdie’s wit, a surprisingly amount of humor.
Here are some highlights:
I never thought of myself as a religious writer…. I never thought of The Satanic Verses as a political novel, certainly not as much as my earlier novels. I intended it to be about the migrant experience, which was my own story and that of many others in our time. It shows how a writer can be wrong about his own book.
But then, somewhat depressingly, I acquired what most writers don't have, which is an interesting life.
Scotland Yard rated the threat level against me as Level 2, which I shared with just two people, the prime minister and the Queen of England. I asked what Level 1 was, and they said that’s when someone is actually outside your home shooting at you.
Being a writer is a kind of disease. Even when terrible things are happening, you think: good story!
For a long time, I didn’t think I could write about the experience, because I didn’t know the last chapter.
For someone whose work was not known for happy endings, I became very interested in one.
I was never interested in spy novels. Then my own life turned into a spy novel, and I found myself stuck inside exactly the kind of novel that I didn’t enjoy reading.
It was quite common that people who objected to the novel had not read it. Years later, one of men who organized the demonstrations against me in England said that he had recently read the book, and now he couldn’t make out what all the fuss was about.
I wasn’t the first writer to be attacked for his writing. It’s been a part of the history of literature. What was unusual was that a leader in one country reached across several continents to another country to say that I should be killed.
At the end, the Secret Service said that the threat had been “frustrated.” It was such an odd word. I tried to imagine frustrated assassins.
I was surprised at how quickly I got back to normal. I think I learned that the need of human beings for normalcy is so great that when you return to it, you grab it.
What sustained me was a line from Joseph Conrad’s novella The Nigger of the Narcissus, where a sailor ill with tuberculosis says: “I must live until I die.” I thought to myself, “Do that. Don't stop being yourself. Write your books, try and be a father to your children, a friend to your friends, and live until you die.” And that helped me get through it.