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Salman Rushdie: 'even this colossal threat did not work. Life goes on.'(Interview)

`Even this colossal threat did not work. Life goes on.'

If it were not for the threat of murder, and the fact that this murder has been solicited by a religious leadership, I believe that Salman Rushdie might now be the Nobel Laureate in literature. And, as time advances, it will seem more and more strange if he continues to be only a runner-up. He has raised a body of fiction that explores the world of the post-colonial multi-ethnic and the multi-identity exile or emigrant. He has done so, moreover (and most notably in his most recent novel, The Moor's Last Sigh), by making experiments in language that recall those of Joyce. The Satanic Verses raised the question: Can holy writ be employed for literary purposes? All of his works, even the ones written for children, are designed to show that there is no mastery of language unless it is conceded that language is master.

With the other half of his life, Salman Rushdie acts and speaks on behalf of threatened authors. He is chair of the International Parliament of Writers, based in Strasbourg, France. Among other activities, the International Parliament of Writers maintains a network of refuge cities for a few of the thousands of writers who face persecution, censorship, and even the threat of death in their home countries. Three years after its inception, the network has spread to twenty-four European cities. The city governments provide a two-bedroom apartment and a salary of just over $1,000 per month for a year in the case of a single person, and two years in the case of a family. (If you would like your city to become a city of refuge for writers, please contact the International Parliament of Writers, 10 Rue du 22 November, BP 13-67068, Strasbourg, France.)

This April, Rushdie came to the University of Pittsburgh, where I was then a visiting professor of English. The following is an edited transcript of our public conversation.

Q: Shall we get the unpleasantry out of the way?

Salman Rushdie: Alright-O. If you insist.

Q: Spoken like a true Brit. About eight years or so ago, Valentine's Day, I seem to remember, you received an extremely bad review of The Satanic Verses. And this review, unlike most bad reviews, came accompanied with a very large advance. Could you dilate a little upon the kind of relationship between the Ayatollah's review and the large cash value he placed on your writing? The advance has gone up, I think.

Rushdie: In fact, there's a remarkable correlation between the size of that advance and the size of my own. It's still there and, with any luck, if he keeps putting money up, I'll keep getting more for my books. It's kind of ugly and obscene and stupid. I remember something you said once when advising me about all this. You quoted an encounter with a British labor-union officer. Perhaps you'd like to tell that bit.

Q: He said about some proposal the boss had made, "I'm going to treat it with a complete ignoral."

Rushdie: Yes, I'm going to give it the ignoral it deserves. I think I'm trying to do that, really. What to tell you? It's still there. It hasn't changed, and it won't until somebody gets exercised about it, which they seem not, sufficiently, to be. In my view, the best one can do is to show, by writing books, by continuing, that it didn't work. That even this colossal threat did not work. The Satanic Verses was not suppressed, the author of The Satanic Verses went on writing. Life goes on. We can go on leading the life of literature: writing books, publishing them, selling them, reading them, and making up our own minds about them. They didn't do what they set out to do, so I think that's very good.

Q: As a result of your success, in a way you can become a victim of it. People can forget that something quite unprecedented happened and is still happening. Namely, the theocratic leader of a foreign state solicits murder in public, in his own name, for bounty, right? And there are theocratic and political leaders in the West who say, "Well, it's not that big a deal."

Rushdie: Yes, one of the things that was very striking in the moment of the maximum storm was the way in which the god team revealed itself to be the very unified and coherent team, so that amongst the supporters of Khomeini were, to name only a few: the Pope, the Cardinal of New York, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Chief Rabbi of England. So it was very interesting. Let's just assume for the moment that The Satanic Verses was an attack on Islam. Presumably the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't believe in Islam. Presumably the Chief Rabbi is also a non-Muslim. Yet it seemed, in fact, at a more profound level, they were all Muslims.

Q: Ecumenical reversism? Or reverse Ecumenism?

Rushdie: That's right, that's right. It was really one of the more surprising aspects of the whole thing. And the political response is all the more surprising. I've now discovered that it has been well known to Europe's leaders--indeed, to America's leaders--that for all this time, there has been in Europe a large number of Iranian assassins carrying out assassinations against mainly Iranian dissidents living in exile.

This happened with the full backing of the Iranian embassies, particularly in France and Germany, which financed all these hits that were being ordered at the highest levels of the Iranian state. And everybody has known this for years. Yet nobody has done a thing about it because, frankly, of greed--the desire to cash in on Iran, to sell them guns and butter. If cultures which believe themselves to be moral get into bed in this way with an extremely immoral regime, there is a point at which you have to say they are complicit in the acts of that regime and are, in fact, accessories to murder.

I think that is presently the case with many Western governments--not, I must say, this government. The American government's position on Iran, which is a very hard-line one--and which was scoffed at by most European governments when announced--looks more and more correct by the day as time goes on. There is currently a very important case in progress in Germany, the so-called Mykonos Trial, which refers to the murder of people in Germany in a restaurant by agents who it now seems have been proved to have been authorized directly by the religious leader and the president of Iran. It looks like the judge is going to name Ayatollah Khomeni and President Rafsanjani as the direct architects of the assassinations. [Just a few days after this interview, the Mykonos verdict in Berlin did indeed name senior Iranian government and security people in the murder of several Iranian Kurdish exiles. The Mykonos is a Greek restaurant in Berlin where the crime occurred.]

Now, if this happens, it may finally push European policy out the window, because it just becomes untenable to keep up the status quo. It is true, I think, that the Americans got it right and the Europeans got it wrong. The Europeans say it is easy for the Americans to say this because, after all, they don't do any business with Iran and don't have much to lose. But in the end, one has to decide if foreign policy has a moral dimension or not. If it doesn't, then we're no better than them. That's really the question we have to ask ourselves as so-called free societies. If our freedom is built on supporting tyranny elsewhere, then it's a poor freedom.

Q: Two of your translators and one of your publishers have fallen victim to this very tyranny.

Rushdie: Yes, that's true. It's important to say that the fatwah is not theoretical because it is actually being carried out. My Japanese translator was killed. He was found stabbed to death in his university in a corridor, and the evidence found leads directly to the Iranian state. Unfortunately, Japan is politically very close to Iran because it imports most of its fuel from Iran, and therefore chose not to pursue the matter. The Italian translator of The Satanic Verses was likewise stabbed and fortunately survived. The Italian government took no steps. The Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses was shot several times in the back. Once again, all the evidence points directly to the Iranian government, and the Norwegian government has to this date taken no steps. So that's how it is.

It was very difficult to begin with during the fatwah because life was very disrupted and also, frankly, life was very upsetting. I had to learn a much greater flexibility. Most writers are set in their writing habits and don't like them to be changed. Mine changed all of the time.

What was most alarming to me during those early days was the disappointment I felt over my work. Given the size of the storm and the loudness of the voices that were raised, I felt that The Satanic Verses as a novel really didn't have a chance to be judged properly I was very anxious it should have that chance. The only way one could ensure that it did was to ensure that I remained around. One hopes that scandals don't last long and literature does. I felt that it would be important to make sure my book outlasted the scandal so it could have the proper judgment. Some people might like it a lot, some might dislike it a bit, and others a lot, but they should make that judgment in a calm and ordinary literary atmosphere.

Then I began to entertain a thought which I never entertained--that I no longer wished to be a writer. This wasn't to do with fear; it was to do with the disappointment about the response. You work and do something for five years and that's what happens. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the children's book I wrote, rescued me from that attitude. I discovered through writing that I enjoyed doing it and wished to go on doing it, but it was very hard.

There is no doubt that the fatwah was a very bad advertisement for Islam. On the other hand, Muslim writers and intellectuals--so many of them, with immense courage--stood up against it. It was much harder for them than for me because they were living in countries where writers were being killed every day: Algeria, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. I must say that I've got an enormous number of Muslim readers, and I'm very happy to have them. Many Muslim intellectuals and writers--actually 120 of them--published a book two years ago of essays in my defense, which were not just essays of principle and free speech, but in many cases were detailed literary defenses of the book.

One of the consequences of the fatwah was to turn all Muslims into potential terrorists and executors of the fatwah. I think that's sad and indeed I have spent an enormous amount of time in these years trying to tell people that that's not my view and that should not be their view. That the number of violent people inside the Muslim community does not exceed the number of violent people inside the community in general and that they should not be so labeled.

Q: To more agreeable topics. You startled me again earlier today, reminding me that English is not your mother tongue.

Rushdie: That's true. Or father tongue.

Q: Or father tongue.

Rushdie: I didn't really speak it until I was five. What happens in India is if you come from a well-off, middle-class background, you get sent to private schools, which all use English as the language of instruction. They are what's called English Medium Schools. And so, from the age of five, I began to be educated in English, and my parents started making a bit of an effort to begin speaking it at home. My mother always says that, although she could speak it perfectly well, she doesn't like to because, as she puts it, "it makes her tongue feel tired."

Q: But you still learned it earlier than Joseph Conrad.

Rushdie: I did learn it much earlier than Joseph Conrad.

Q: There's a delicious element in this, is there not, that you, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Partition, and simultaneously the independence of India, should have annexed from the English the thing of which they are most autonomously proud, and perhaps most justly. Namely, you own their language now.

Rushdie: I think that there's enough of it to go around.

Q: Well, I think it's rather decent of you to put it like that.

Rushdie: No, I mean I'll have it all if you're offering it. But it's only what American writers and Irish writers did before. The subdivision of English literature into the world's literature is an extraordinary and beautiful phenomenon. Nobody would argue by now with the fact that Irish-English and American-English, and indeed increasingly Caribbean-English, are powerful branches of the tree. And there's a lot of us emerging from India, misbehaving with the language as well.

Q: You've done something about the fiftieth anniversary of the Partition, which is also an anniversary for Midnight's Children--both your book of that name and the generation of 1947.

Rushdie: Yes, it occurred to me that the problem with having written a book about independence is that when the fiftieth anniversary comes around, you get approximately one million requests to write the definitive article about the fiftieth anniversary. I took the view that my answer to all these would be no. What I did, instead, which I thought would be more valuable, is to edit an anthology about the literature of this half-century, to try and take stock of half a century of independent Indian literature. I read not just what's available, not just what's originally written in English, but now the very large amount of stuff that's translated, and came to a conclusion I'd not been expecting to come to. If you look at the fifty years before the independence of India, you find the greatest writers in the subcontinent working in the sixteen vernacular languages of India. In the fifty years after Partition, paradoxically, there are no major writers working in those languages to compare with the writers working in English.

Here is something I've said which will get me into considerable trouble because it's very politically incorrect. It is not supposed to be true, and therefore there are powerful voices saying that it is not true. But in fact, it simply is the case that, by an extraordinary paradox, the major literature of India in the last half century has been written in English. In my view, instead of seeing that as a problem, one could see that as an enormous achievement. India has finally managed to break through into world literature, into the world's language, and to create this great province inside it.

The besetting sin of the vernacular language is parochialism. It's as if the twentieth century hasn't arrived in many of these languages and the range of subjects and the manner of the treatment of them is depressingly familiar: village life is hard, women are badly treated and often commit suicide, landowners are corrupt, peasants are heroic and sometimes feckless, disillusioned, and defeated. The language is a kind of Indian equivalent of what, in the Soviet Union, was called "Tractor Art." When the attempts are made to take notice of some of the developments in the rest of the world, the clumsiness is sometimes embarrassing.

This may change in the next fifty years and be different. India is a country of a billion people and it has sixteen extremely important languages and many with great literary traditions. It would be surprising if they did not once again regain their energy.

Q: This is a bit of a try-on, but as I was watching you tonight, sort of romping and tumbling in this amazing waterfall of English, and I don't know if you know you do this, but you sort of wriggle a bit. Wonderful. Into my head came the image of Allen Ginsberg reading in public. I had another pang about the loss of Allen. And I just wondered if by free association that made you think of anything.

Rushdie: Yes, yes, it would be nice to say a word or two about Allen, whom I didn't know well, but I did know him a little. One of the things that has been very moving since he died is the way people have been recounting their favorite Allen Ginsberg stories. I talked, for instance, to the writer John Avedon, who said that as a teenager he had been taken by his father, the photographer Richard Avedon, and by Allen to the performance in the 1960s of the then very trendy theater group called The Living Theater, whose actors were rather prone to remove their garments. Within about thirty seconds of the show beginning, The Living Theater cast was sure enough stark naked on stage, at which point Allen leapt up in the auditorium and stripped. But of course he left his underpants on. That was the moment that John said he began to take notice of Allen Ginsberg.

I think it would be all right to share with you the letter that Allen Ginsberg wrote to President Clinton. The letter has now I believe been sent by our mutual literary agent. This was the letter written the day after he received the death sentence from his doctor. I'll remember it as well as I can. It goes: "Dear President Clinton, I thought you might wish to know that I'm dying. The doctors say that I've got three months to live, but actually in my view I don't think I have nearly as long. If there happen to be any honors or medals or awards that you feel like sending along, could you please do so as soon as possible? On the other hand, you may not wish to be associated with me, because if you are, you will get into trouble with the religious right, and you know you've got enough trouble already, so, on second thought, it's OK, it's fine. Don't worry about it. Do well. Have a great life. Much love to Hillary and insert name of daughter."

I once found myself in a midtown hotel on the sixteenth floor entirely taken over by the Secret Service, who had put bulletproof mattresses over the windows. There was just the most extraordinary number of very large men with sort of Terminator-sized weaponry. In the middle of this, me and my agent Andrew Wylie were looking rather bemused. We'd managed to arrange that a very small number of friends were going to be allowed to come up through this war zone to see me for a brief passage of time. The first one to do so was Allen, who arrived sandal-footed, rucksack-carrying, mantra-chanting, and found himself in this sort of science-fiction movie. He immediately went toward all the sofas in the suite, pulled all the cushions off, put them on the floor, and said, "OK, we're going to meditate." And I said, "Allen, you know, I don't really do that." And he said, "No, no, it's necessary." And I said, "Well, I'm not doing it if Andrew Wylie doesn't do it."

So all three of us took off our shoes and sat cross-legged on the cushions on the floor surrounded by Arnold Schwarzenegger and company, and Allen with little finger cymbals, you know, ching ching, began to teach us various chants. I thought, of all the surrealist moments in my life, here am I, a boy from India, sitting on the sixteenth floor of this Fort Knox in New York, and being taught Indian mysticism by a New York Jew.

Q: The same New York Jew who tried to grab an audience with the late James Dickey, poet of the South and author of Deliverance, to tell him that, in that film, "you got anal sex all wrong."

Rushdie: I must say I had one extraordinary and supernatural moment on the day after Allen's death. In a New York hotel room--this time without bullet-proof stuff on the windows--I had gone to bed without setting an alarm or fiddling with the clock radio. At 7:30 in the morning the radio switched itself on, completely of its own volition. And what came out of it was the voice of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl. It was just at the beginning. And it was as if the radio had switched on just so Allen could say hello, or maybe goodbye. Anyway, goodbye Allen. Farewell.

Q: There are some people who opt for internal exile. J.D. Salinger is a very well-known one. Thomas Pynchon is another. I remember you reviewing one of his novels in The New York Times, and he spoke about what it is to never be in contact with anybody else. Your brief comment on this fiction was, "Well, he should try the real thing some time."

Rushdie: Yeah, well, he should try it, but it's not something you choose.

Q: Was it this that led you to finally meet him?

Rushdie: Yes. Gasp. Shock. Horror. I met Thomas Pynchon. Yes, it's true. Yes, it's because I reviewed Vineland, and he liked the review. And before that, he sent me a very nice message of solidarity, of support. But after the review of Vineland appeared in The New York Times, he sort of made contact and intimated that, should I be in New York, he would be available for a meeting. So we had one. And I must say, the thing that was deeply pleasurable and comforting was that he was exactly like Thomas Pynchon. You know what I mean? You have a picture in your head of Thomas Pynchon, and then this other guy shows up and says, "Hi, I'm Thomas Pynchon." And you're wrong. Well, this did not happen. He showed up and looked exactly like the Thomas Pynchon I'd always known.

He began shy and ended up fantastically talkative about three o'clock in the morning, when I was kind of propping my eyelids open with matchsticks, thinking, "It's Thomas Pynchon, stay awake." And he was saying, "Gee, I guess you want to go to bed now?" I said, "No, no, not at all." And so he went on and on and we had a great time. It satisfied.

I'm just a huge Thomas Pynchon fan. It had occurred to me when I was reviewing Vineland that my entire career as a published writer had taken place between the publication of Gravity's Rainbow and the publication of Vineland. And that when Gravity's Rainbow came out, I had been like any young reader rushing out to the shop to buy it. In those days, you couldn't even buy Pynchon in England in an English edition because he didn't have a publisher. You had to rely on import editions. There was only one shop in London that I knew imported American books. I went rushing up there and found my copy of Gravity's Rainbow and took it back and went into that wonderful thing, "screaming comes across the sky," all that. And the next time he publishes a book, I get to review it in The New York Times--that seems very odd.

Q: Perhaps that's the harmonic convergence. Rushdie: I think it's just a fan's notes.

Q: I know that you've spent a lot of your time on the plight of other writers and dissidents. While I've been in western Pennsylvania, I've become very interested in a case that I know you have read about and spoken about, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, now on death row for more than a decade. And I know you signed a PEN petition about it. Can you say briefly what made you add your signature?

Rushdie: I have no idea whether Mumia Abu-Jamal is innocent or guilty. What I know is that the process by which he was found guilty is deeply flawed. I'm a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, anyway. Speaking as somebody with some experience of death penalties now, it seems possible to say, with some degree of authority, that they can often be misguided. And that they can often turn out to be, let's say, unjust. But once applied, they're difficult to reverse. It seems to me that when the state commits murder, it's no different than when an individual does. The fact that it's a legalized murder doesn't make it less murder. It actually makes it worse because it's easier since you've got the law on your side. I gather that the matter is still fairly urgent and the danger of the sentence being carried out is fairly great, and all I could do is urge the reconsideration it requires.

Q: What are the least favorite questions that you are asked by audiences of readers and admirers in the public?

Rushdie: "Is it autobiographical?" "Did you do it on purpose?" To which the answer is, imagine what writer would not do something on purpose. Imagine writing a book by accident!

Q: What do you do in your spare time?

Rushdie: What can I tell you? I like movies. I read a lot. Occasionally I've been known to drink alcohol.

Q: Flesh of the pig?

Rushdie: I even have to confess to that. Yes, it's true. Sorry, Mum. People feel that I'm locked away all the time. But actually, just because you don't know what I'm doing, don't assume I'm not doing it.
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Author:Hitchens, Christopher
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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