The Afterlife of Salman Rushdie

A decade after the ayatollah's death sentence, the author still finds joy in writing and exhilaration in living.

May 09, 1999|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOKS EDITOR

New York -- A queue is wrapped around Cooper Union in west Greenwich Village. It is 6:20 p.m. on Tuesday, April 13, and in 40 minutes, Salman Rushdie is scheduled to give his first reading open to the American public in more than a decade

The event coincides with publication of "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," the longest and most ambitious of Rushdie's seven novels. His appearance defies a decree that he be put to death.

Ten years and two months ago, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini informed all Muslims of the world that Rushdie "and all those involved in ['The Satanic Verses,' his fourth novel's] 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."

Yet a decade later, Salman Rushdie remains a literary lion. A hunted one, with a $2.8 million bounty on his head, but living joyfully, wrapped in myth.

There are 3 million Muslims in the United States, the 1999 New York Times Almanac reports, "most in cities in the Northeast and industrial Midwest." Are there, I wonder, any among this crowd of 800 waiting outside Cooper Union?

There is a great deal of savvy, insider talk about books and publishing, and not a lot about Islam.

No more than one out of 10 people in this line looks to be over 30. Earlier, in a morning-long interview, Rushdie, who will turn 52 in June, had celebrated this fact about his audiences: "The truism is that without old ladies, there could not be literary readings. But when I do readings the audiences are young."

That is perhaps the simplest of the improbabilities, legends, misapprehensions and falsehoods surrounding Rushdie -- novelist, condemned blasphemer, consummate punster, intellectual, rock and roll fan, cosmopolite, doting father.

The next simplest paradox about this eloquent, entertaining and astonishingly accessible man may be that he seems indomitably to enjoy life, to revel in an almost bubbly ecstasy of being.

He has come to a sort of peace with the Khomeini fatwa (loosely translated as "infallible edict"). He takes comfort in the Iranian government's announcement last autumn that killing him is no longer its official policy. He takes caution, though, from the subsequent declaration by Iranian fundamentalists that they have raised the bounty on his head from $2.5 million to $2.8 million, and the re-affirmation by Ayotollah Hassan Sanei that the fatwa cannot be rescinded.

In England, where he lives, Rushdie is protected by government security agents. When he is abroad, private security is arranged by publishers. Here in New York he is watched over by men with broad shoulders and keen-looking eyes wearing business suits with subtle bulges under their jackets.

But none is visible outside Cooper Union this evening. New Yorkers may be the planet's least publicly convivial people. Yet in this line, strangers are chatting. Is there some magic about Rushdie, or his work, that frees people from fear or self-consciousness?

Perhaps an aura emanates from his isolation and his conquest of it. There is joy in the man's writing, in his being. It is that joy, I think, that has kept him alive and sane.

A City Is a Place in Time

Rushdie first came to New York when he was 23, and he has returned every year or two since. During long stays here he learned two or even three New Yorks. All different cities. Just in the same place.

He loves cities, considers them fragile, organic, nourishing things. He is a conscious, contemplative exile who celebrates "outsiderness." He grew up in Bombay in a prosperous, multilingual family of nonpracticing Muslims. The family was pressured to Pakistan; he was driven away -- though willingly -- to England.

He suffers from a sense of homelessness. "I do think it is a great problem for a writer to not have natural territory," he says. "You make it up, of course. As you write books, you sort of develop a territory of interest and manner. I certainly view it as a loss, though. The closest I had was Bombay. But Bombay at a certain time. ... I don't have a very good feeling for the Bombay that is there now. It is another city that is just in the same place."

By 6:35, the line has moved only 25 or 30 feet. Many later arrivers are in their 40s and beyond, raising the age ante. By 7, though, the line's pace begins to accelerate toward the entrance, where uniformed security men and women ask that coats and jackets be held wide open. They run metal-detecting wands up, down, across each body.

That morning, I had con-fronted Rushdie about living with fear, and he had confronted me right back. "I am not really making any complaints about my day-to-day life," he insisted. "It is a good sort of life. I am very happily married. I have a 2-year-old boy. I have a 20-year-old boy. I do the work I like."

He concedes only minor annoyance with the effects of the fatwa: "It's just as if somebody tied a lead weight to your leg. It makes it harder to run."

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