Under an unknown picture somewhere in India there is hidden a portrait of Salman Rushdie’s mother. The story goes like this. An artist, hired by Rushdie’s father to paint Disney animals on the walls of the child Salman’s nursery, went on to do a portrait of Mrs. Rushdie. When the painting was finished, Rushdie père did not like it. The artist stored the picture in the studio of a friend of his, another artist, who, running out of canvases one day, painted a picture of his own over it. Afterward, when both had become famous artists, the friend could not remember which picture he had painted over the other’s canvas, or to whom he had sold it.
When Rushdie told me the story recently when I was interviewing him for the Irish Times it struck me as peculiarly apt, given both the kind of artist Salman Rushdie is (the painted mother, the harsh father, the Disney creatures poking their anthropomorphic noses through the backdrop) and his present circumstances. He too has disappeared behind a work of art.
We met in the stillness of a post-Christmas bank holiday afternoon. I had not seen him for ten years. He had changed. How would he not? Yet the differences in him were a surprise. I had expected that he would be angry, tense, volubly outraged. However, what I sensed most strongly in him was an immense and somehow sustaining sadness. The confident, exuberant, funny thirty-five-year-old I met ten years ago had taken on a gravitas that was at once moving and impressive.
On February 14 Rushdie will have been in hiding for four years. The fatwa, or death sentence, imposed on him by Ayatollah Khomeini in retribution for his “blasphemous” novel The Satanic Verses, is still in force, backed up by the offer of $2 million in blood money to anyone who should be successful in murdering him. Over the years the world has accommodated itself to this extraordinary situation, but nevertheless it is, as Rushdie himself insists, a scandal.
I began by asking if he could discern any shift in the political situation in Iran that would give him hope that the fatwa might be lifted.
“I used to spend a lot of my time trying to keep up with the internal struggles there, but then I thought, to hell with that. It’s not my business to understand the internal politics of Iran. The banning of my book and the imposition of the fatwa is a terrorist act by the state of Iran, and my business is simply to make sure that the Iranian state is dealt with on that basis, and is obliged to alter its position.”
Does he have any contact with people in Iran—people in power? “There have been occasions when so-called intermediaries have popped up out of the woodwork, claiming to have great contacts in Iran. What tends to happen is that I talk to them for a couple of weeks and then they disappear and I never hear from them again.
“The question all these people ask is, What reparations would I be prepared to make? But my view is, who is injuring whom here? It’s not for me to say I will withdraw The Satanic Verses. The whole issue is that a crime has been committed against the book.”
How did the book come to the attention of the mullahs in the first place?
“Well, I think…” A hesitation, and a low chuckle; his delight in the rich absurdity of human affairs is one thing that has not changed over the years. “…I think it started in Leicester.”
So I have my headline: It Started in Leicester.
“It does seem the first rumblings against the book started in a mosque or council of mosques there. They circulated selected lines and passages from the book to show how terrible it was. From there, it spread around Britain and out to India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, where there were riots and people were killed.” There are a number of legends about how the book came to Khomeini’s attention. There is a passage in the novel about an Imam in exile who is not unlike Khomeini, and there is a view that he took exception to it. “I don’t find that very convincing because the book did not exist in a Farsi edition, and there were no copies of the book available in Iran at that time anyway. It’s since been admitted by quite high-ranking Iranian officials that Khomeini never saw a copy of the book; whatever he did he did on the basis of hearsay.”
I ask the only question I have come prepared with: Does he feel the affair has made him into a purely political phenomenon?
“One of the oddest things for me about the business is that while Mid-night’s Children and Shame were in some ways quite directly political, or at least they used history as part of their architecture, I thought The Satanic Verses was the least political novel I had ever written, a novel whose engine was not public affairs but other kinds of more personal and cultural crises. It was a book written really to make sense of what had happened to me, which was the move from one part of the world to another and what that does to the various aspects of one’s being-in-the-world. But there I am thinking I’m writing my most personal novel and I end up writing this political bombshell!
“Certainly it is a big problem that people by and large don’t talk to me about my writing. Even the novel I wrote after The Satanic Verses [Haroun and the Sea of Stories], which was a great pleasure for me, and which individual readers responded to warmly, was received on the public level as if it were something to be decoded, an allegory of my predicament. But it’s not an allegory; it’s a novel.
“All the same I can’t avoid the situation; while I don’t see myself as this entity that has been constructed with my name on it, at the same time I can’t deny my life: this is what has happened to me. It will of course to some extent affect my writing, not directly perhaps but yet in profound ways. I have always to some extent felt unhoused. I feel very much more so now.”
Is this not a good, a necessary way for an artist to feel?
“We are all in some manner alone on the planet, beyond the community or the language or whatever; we are poor, bare creatures; it’s no bad thing to be forced to recognize these things.”
An irony of the affair not much remarked on is that The Satanic Verses is very sympathetic and tender toward the unhoused, the dispossessed, the deracinated—the very people, in fact, who rioted in the streets and publicly burned what they had been told was a blasphemous book. He nods, smiling, in a kind of hopeless misery. It is deeply painful for him that the people whom he has made his subject, and for whom he has a deep fondness, are the ones who hate him most, or hate at least that image of him fostered by fanatics in the Muslim world.
He is adamant that what is most important here is the integrity of the text. “When at the start of the affair I was able to contact friends and allies and they asked me what I wanted them to do, I said, Defend the text. Simply to make a general defense of free speech doesn’t answer the attack; the attack is particularized. If you answer a particularized attack with only a general defense then to some extent you are conceding a point, you’re saying, Oh yes, we recognize that it may be an evil book, but even an evil book must be allowed to exist. But it is not an evil book. So I have always been most grateful when people have tried to defend the text, for that’s at least as important to me as the defense of my life.”
What interests me in Rushdie’s fiction—in anyone’s fiction—is not its public, political aspect, but the way in which in it the objective world is reordered under the pressure of a subjective sensibility. It struck me, re-reading The Satanic Verses in preparation for this meeting, that the final section, a (relatively) realistic account of a father’s death, is perhaps the most significant—and certainly the most moving—passage in the book, the moment toward which the whole work moves, no matter how fantastical what went before. Was this section grounded in personal experience?
“Very much. My father died of the same cancer that killed the character in the book. I was there when he died. He and I had always had a somewhat difficult relationship, and it was important for us to have some time together before the end. I felt a great moral ambiguity about using my father’s death in that way, especially as it was so recent, but in the end I thought I would do it because it would be an act of respect. I was afraid that it might appear a stuck-on ending, but as it turned out it seemed to be just what the book needed, had been demanding.”
He believes that one of the most important themes in the novel is loss: of parents, country, self, things which to a greater or lesser degree Rushdie himself has lost. Does he feel abandoned by those in the Muslim world who he might have thought would support him?
“Intellectuals in the Muslim community know the size of the crime that has been committed against the book. A few months ago a declaration of unequivocal support for me was signed by seventy or so leading Iranian intellectuals in exile, which was wonderfully courageous; after all, they are not receiving government protection, and in some cases, as a result of their support for me, their lives have been threatened by the Iranians.*
“An important part of their statement was that blasphemy cannot be used as a limiting point on thought. If we go back to a world in which religious authorities can set the limits of what it is permissible to say and think, then we shall have reinvented the Inquisition and de-invented the whole modern idea of freedom of speech, which was invented as a struggle against the Church.”
We turn to the subject of the book he is working on. “It’s about someone who is thrown out of his family because of an unfortunate love affair. It begins with this expulsion from the family, and goes on to recount how he is forced to remake his life from scratch.” We are back to the feeling of homelessness that weighs so heavily upon him.
"A Declaration of Iranian Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Salman Rushdie," printed in The New York Review, May 14, 1992, p. 31.↩
“A Declaration of Iranian Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Salman Rushdie,” printed in The New York Review, May 14, 1992, p. 31.↩