Putting Aside the Fear Taking risks: Author Salman Rushdie, still under a Muslim death warrant, criss-crosses America to talk, once again, about his work. This time he's promoting 'The Moor's Last Sigh.'

January 25, 1996|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN STAFF

Come this Valentine's Day, Ahmed Salman Rushdie, who yearns for love, will have dodged death for seven years. Now he is making a very public run for daylight.

He speaks with disarming sureness of what drives him: The history of literature teaches us "that we cannot use persecution as an excuse not to do our work."

That was far from obvious when, in 1988, Mr. Rushdie was sentenced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to die for his novel "The Satanic Verses." He spent the next two years in a state of despair and mental chaos. When he came out of it, he set to work on "The Moor's Last Sigh," published last month by Pantheon.

This is how he describes that emergence from darkness: " 'Stop whining,' I thought. 'Stop whining, Rushdie, get on with your work.' " (He pronounces the first syllable of the name halfway between Rush and Roosh.)

And now, having produced a book that could be loved -- he delights in that idea -- he is traveling, talking, taking risks, asking almost outright to be loved for himself as well as for his work.

Mr. Rushdie, surrounded by bodyguards, is on a high-speed, high-intensity book promotion tour. There has never been one quite like it. To meet him privately, you are instructed by an agent from Pantheon to go to a designated restaurant at a designated time. In front of the restaurant (which is closing), you are intercepted by the contact and identity is confirmed. Down several blocks to a hotel, up several floors, you pass the scrutiny of three gray-suited security men and are allowed to enter a large suite. Inside -- well away from a window -- sits Mr. Rushdie in a comfortable chair.

Under similar circumstances in the last week or two, he appeared on what seems like every national television show whose guests are neither searching for a fiance nor careening carts in supermarket aisles. He did talk radio with hosts from Seattle to Detroit, and up and down much of the East Coast. He read aloud to 300 fans at the New York Public Library, and dined with 80 of America's literati/glitterati in a TriBeCa boite. Relentlessly, the tour goes on.

Why?

Mr. Rushdie, widely recognized as one of the premier novelists writing in English today, is doing fine financially. Tour or no tour, this book will sell. There is something more.

"It is very nice to have people love your books," Mr. Rushdie says. "In these years I have been the recipient of disproportionate quantities of both hatred and love. Substantial quantities. Those matters have come very much to the center of my consciousness."

This talk of hate and love, in his rather formal language, looks stiff in black type. But when he speaks the words, there is a power of conviction about them. One feels he is never unaware of the sentence of death, and of the depth of the religious and political passions it involves. Love and hate run through it all, the natural lines of his life and his art, inseparable. About love, he speaks with a personal intensity that seems almost plaintive. It includes, he says, immense support he has received from other writers, from intellectuals throughout he world who have rallied behind him, encouraging, protective.

But there is also the love of his work by readers -- and that he has deeply missed.

Mr. Rushdie laughs easily, comfortably, playing with language like a dexterous child with Tinkertoys. He speaks in an almost prismatic Oxbridge English, with just the faintest lilt of an Indian accent. His face is bright, flashing with expression. He seems plumper than his pictures have suggested, a bit soft, but with underlying energy.

Twelve years have passed since he last could travel to talk about a just-published work. That was to promote "Shame," his third novel, which was published in 1983 and followed the immensely well-received "Midnight's Children." Then, in the autumn of 1988, came "The Satanic Verses" -- and all hell broke loose.

Most Americans know of the "fatwa" (infallible edict) issued on Feb. 14, 1989, by the ayatollah, speaking as chief of state of Iran and as one of the premier spiritual authorities in all Islam. The precise language, however, is instructive:

"I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled 'The Satanic Verses' -- which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an -- and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed in this path is a martyr."

A "charitable" foundation in Tehran has advised that it holds for the assassin a bounty variously reported as $1 million to $3 million.

On the move

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