PUBLISHING

Hide and speak

Salman Rushdie talks about his lonely life

DIANE TURBIDE February 19 1990
PUBLISHING

Hide and speak

Salman Rushdie talks about his lonely life

DIANE TURBIDE February 19 1990

Hide and speak

Salman Rushdie talks about his lonely life

PUBLISHING

He has outlived the man who accused him of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced him to death. One year later, Salman Rushdie, the British author of The Satanic Verses, is still in hiding— avoiding the religious edict, or fatwa, issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who died last June. But the voice of the Bombay, India-born writer reached millions last week as the anniversary of his forced solitude approached. In a 7,000word essay published in Britain’s The Independent on Sunday and in Newsweek magazine, Rushdie defended his book in an eloquent polemic. And on Feb. 6, BBC Television broadcast a lecture called Is Nothing Sacred?— written by Rushdie and delivered by his friend, playwright Harold Pinter—about literature, religion and freedom of expression. “It is an agony and a frustration not to be able to reenter my old life, not even for such a moment,” wrote Rushdie, 42, who moves frequently between safe houses provided by the government. A friend from that old life, novelist Julian Barnes, told Maclean’s that, despite the “unimaginable circumstances” of Rushdie’s life, “he seems to be bearing up surprisingly well— there’s a tremendous robustness there.” Rushdie will need that fortitude during the

coming months. There is no indication that Iran will suspend the fatwa, and new demonstrations by fundamentalists were planned for this week in Bradford, England, the site of much Moslem opposition last year. A disagreement between the author and his publisher, Viking Penguin, about whether to release a paperback edition of the contentious novel is still unresolved. And his solitude has increased since his wife, writer Marianne Wiggins, emerged from hiding last August, fuelling speculation that the couple’s marriage had foundered. Wiggins, currently touring Britain to promote the paperback edition of her novel John Dollar, insists the marriage is intact and that she corresponds regularly with her husband.

Recently, Rushdie gave his first interviews in more than a year, to Blake Morrison, the literary editor of the Sunday edition of The Independent, and to Newsweek staffers Sarah Crichton and Laura Shapiro. The novelist, who remains under 24-hour protection, revealed to the British publication that he spends a lot of time watching “junk television”—including Dynasty, Dallas and thirtysomething. He is rereading such 18th-century champions of free speech as Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, and favorite novels, including Moby Dick, Tristram

Shandy and Ulysses. And Rushdie continues to write: he has nearly completed a children’s book, is assembling a collection of essays and has produced an outline for his next novel.

A gregarious person who spent much time on the literary circuit before his incarceration, Rushdie told The Independent that he misses mundane things the most. “The things that are most difficult to take are not being able to walk down a street... browse in a bookshop... go to a movie—those trivial sorts of things that you take for granted until you don’t have them. What they add up to is life.” However, he is allowed to make telephone calls and occasionally permitted to attend small dinner parties. A Toronto-based writer who did not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals attended one of those gatherings last fall and says that it was cheerful but strained. “There was an effort to make everything seem as normal as possible,” he said. “It was a bit like a wake, where people talk about everything except the death itself.” In his essay, Rushdie paid tribute to his publisher and to bookstore owners who continue to stock the book. And he expressed grati| tude to friends who have continued to support s him publicly—a group that includes writers Harold Pinter, Fay Weldon and Martin Amis, and former Labour Party leader Michael Foot. But, according to some observers, there is a backlash even within the British intellectual community. Said Barnes, referring to recent pieces written by such prominent figures as novelist John le Carré and historian Hugh Trevor-Roper: “There have been a number of iniquitous articles implying that Salman ought to be taken out into a back alley and given a good hiding—that he ‘knew what he was doing’ from the beginning.” Added Barnes: “It’s a subtle kind of racism, actually. There’s a feeling that Salman, being one of them, ought to have known how they would react.”

That question of Moslem fundamentalist reaction figures largely in the decision over whether to issue a paperback version of The Satanic Verses. Viking Penguin has sold one million hard-cover copies for a profit of $3.3 million, yet it has also spent more than $4.4 million on security measures at its publishing offices and retail stores around the world. At the publisher’s headquarters in London’s Kensington district, visitors must place their bags on an X-ray machine and are frisked by security guards. During the past year, the company has received about 5,000 threatening letters and 25 bomb warnings in Britain, and police have found five explosive devices in Penguin shops. Despite that harassment, the company denies that staff are leaving or that it is having difficulty recruiting.

Meanwhile, Rushdie remains in a state of limbo. He told The Independent that he remains optimistic that one day he can resume a normal existence. Then, in his parting words to the publication, he said: “I can defend my novel’s shape, the images it uses, the language it develops. That’s comparatively easy. What’s hard is to have to defend my life.”

DIANE TURBIDE with IAN MATHER in London

IAN MATHER