Salman Rushdie is on a mission. His new book is a memoir of his fatwa years and he is eager to talk-talk-talk about it, to the point of exhaustion, all round the world, in order to draw a line under it and never revisit it … Let’s just say he will be well and truly over it by the time he has finished.
We meet in the office of his long-time agent Andrew Wylie, and talk in the basement boardroom of the elegant Bloomsbury house. Rushdie is smartly dressed in a suit – with no tie – in preparation for the launch party of his book in South Kensington (he, famously, loves a party) after our interview, organised by the older of his two sons, Zafar, who runs a public relations company. He sucks perpetually on Polo mints – his voice is hoarse with all the talking – and dabs at his nostrils with a handkerchief. It is impossible not to be reminded of his brilliant creation in Midnight’s Children of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight coinciding with the birth of the independent nation of India, with his constantly dripping giant nose.
The last time we saw one another was in Manhattan in the summer of 2005. It was in a private club, the sun was blazing, and Rushdie was relaxed and cheerful in sandals and a loose, bright blue shirt, watching his infant son, Milan – who now, at 15, is almost his father’s height – dipping in and out of the rooftop swimming pool. It was also the month after the Islamist bombings in London, which killed 56 people, including four suicide bombers. There was a sense then, particularly because of 9/11, that we were all living under the fatwa now. As Rushdie says to me, “It’s easier for people to grasp what happened to me because it’s not just my story now, it’s everyone’s story. It’s the story of our time, rather than of an individual.”
Last year, in the aftermath of the Arab spring, it was possible to feel positive about change in the Arab world. Now it’s a rather different picture. We talk about the American-made, anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, which was posted on YouTube and sparked protests across the region. “The trouble is that what’s happened in those countries since the so-called Arab spring is the rise of this very organised extremist group, which is Salafi Islam, and the Salafists are so fanatical that they frighten most other Muslims,” Rushdie says. “They’re out there at the edge with the Wahhabis and they’re certainly much more extreme than, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood are not liberals.” A chuckle.
And what does he make of what he calls the “stupid video”? Isn’t the timing rather strange, in the same week as the launch of his book about his fatwa decade? (He dismissed the Ayatollah Hassan Saneii’s “reissuing” of the fatwa – by raising the bounty on his head to $3.3m on the back of the anti-US protests – shortly after our interview, as “essentially one priest in Iran looking for a headline”.) “Well, I don’t feel like being put in the same box as that piece of crap,” he says. “On the one hand, it’s clearly malevolent, you know, and intended to be abusive and insulting. But, the thing that’s awful is this thin-skinned paranoid response which thinks that because of a 14-second clip on YouTube in Arabic, you’re allowed to go and attack and murder people who have not even the most remote connection with the thing you’re upset about.
“So, really, what I’m saying is that it’s much more evident to us now that the thing that started with the attack on The Satanic Verses is quite common.”
The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s fourth novel, was published in 1988 and follows the adventures of two Indian actors, Gibreel and Saladin, who fall to earth in Britain when their Air India plane explodes. The book won the Whitbread Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – which Rushdie had won for Midnight’s Children in 1981 (he was also garlanded in 1993 for the Booker of Bookers and again as the Booker’s all-time prize winner in 2008).
The Satanic Verses featured a character based on the Prophet Mohammed, showing him in a human light, and drew outrage from Muslim leaders. The book was burnt in Bradford amid accusations of blasphemy against Islam and there were demonstrations by Islamist groups in Pakistan and India, in which numbers of people were killed. On February 14 1989 – “My Unfunny Valentine”, as Rushdie puts it ruefully in his book – the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini publicly condemned the book and issued a deathbed fatwa against the writer, with a bounty for anyone who executed him.
Then followed nine extraordinary years of round-the-clock protection from Special Branch officers. Rushdie was forced to move out of his house and rely on the generosity of friends who lent him their own homes, for weeks or sometimes months, always in the utmost secrecy, constantly moving, feeling both “shamed and ashamed” of hiding, as he writes in his book. There was the ending of two marriages; the start of a third with the birth of a second son, Milan, the end of that marriage and the start of another; the death of his father and his first wife. There was desperate depression that led him to lie that he was, in fact, a Muslim believer (which was his lowest moment and didn’t work anyway); the murder of the book’s Japanese translator and attempted murder of his Norwegian publisher (who immediately ordered a massive reprint); the bombing of libraries and bookshops. Then there was the fightback and the setting up of the Salman Rushdie defence campaign and support groups across Europe; the talking to world leaders (and the crucial difference of Clinton and Blair coming to power), leading to the eventual withdrawal of the fatwa in 1998; the move to New York, and the formal removal of his protection in the UK in 2002. All of this is covered in the 600-plus fascinating, moving and often surprisingly hilarious pages of Joseph Anton: A Memoir, published last week.
He describes it as a non-fiction novel, in the New Journalism vein of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which Rushdie considers as “a masterpiece of the form” in which you apply the novelist’s skill to real-life events. “I thought the only difference between all those books and this book is that none of those writers were telling their own story,” he tells me. “So then you think, ‘OK, I have the technique but how do you apply that to autobiography?’ His approach to character – the book is written in the third person – form and language is very much that of a novel except everything in it is true. “I started off writing it in the first person but I didn’t like it …” he continues. “That’s where writing in the third person helped me. As an experiment, I tried switching and it immediately felt better. I thought, ‘OK, yeah, I know how to do this.’”
Joseph Anton was Rushdie’s alias during his years of hiding (his protection officers called him “Joe”, which he loathed). It is an amalgam of the names of two of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. As he writes in the book: “Conrad ‘the trans-lingual creator … of voyagers into the heart of darkness’; Chekhov ‘the master of loneliness and melancholy … whose Three Sisters … yearned eternally for a Moscow to which they could not return.’” He took inspiration from Conrad’s sailor who – knowing that he is to die from tuberculosis – says: “[But] I must live until I die, mustn’t I?”
Rushdie certainly did believe that he would die, and sooner rather than later: “I thought it was quite likely that I would be killed. Yes, that’s what I thought.” How did you face that thought? “I don’t know – but somehow I did. I worried more about family and friends.”
It is hard to imagine what it must have felt like – having so many people around the world who had never met you, hate you, and bay for your blood. Knowing also that most of the haters will have not even read the book that has offended them. If they have, as its author says: “Don’t tell me that you spent your time reading a 600-page novel and then decide it offended you. You’ve done an enormous amount of work to be offended. And, you know, this odd idea that there is a right not to be offended is nonsense. None of us has that right. You know, if you’re offended, it’s your problem.”
He didn’t feel this robust in the beginning. It was the first two years that were the worst, when he felt that in a way he was a hostage to the hostages – Terry Waite, John McCarthy et al. The government’s desire was for Rushdie to keep a low profile so as not to jeopardise their being set free (which both were in 1991). “I had very deep depression, really something like despair, there’s no question of that,” he says. “But I had a lot to be depressed about! You know, it’s not paranoia when they’re trying to kill you.” A merry gust of laughter.
But what about sheer, naked fear? “The strange thing is I don’t remember exactly that feeling. At least, I never named it to myself as fear. I would say it was depression, bewilderment, disorientation, loneliness. When I was thrown into anonymous, hidden spaces and the government wouldn’t talk to me and nobody would talk to me and I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody else. That felt horrible.” These feelings were not helped by the stressful ending of his shortlived marriage to the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, who does not come out well, to make a considerable understatement, in her ex-husband’s account. She was the only ex-wife who was not consulted about her part in it. (Clarissa Luard, Zafar’s mother, had died of cancer; Elizabeth West, Milan’s mother, and his fourth and most recent wife, Padma Lakshmi, both gave their approval after asking for some lines to be removed.)
“To be as charitable as I can [to Wiggins], I think what happened is that something extreme happened to us which she never signed up for … and if I had been her, I would have wanted to find a way out, too,” he says. “In a way, it was quite nice of her to stick around for a bit – heh, heh, heh.
“My going-in position for this book was 1) tell the truth, 2) tell the truth, 3) be tougher on yourself, 4) try to be as compassionate about everyone else as you possibly can, even people you disagree with … try at least to see how it was in their shoes. There’s no way of telling the story of those early months without talking about what happened between Marianne and me because it would be difficult to explain to people why things happened as they did. There’d be a big piece missing.”
If the writer’s lowest point was his claim (his “Great Mistake”, as he puts it in the book), made in desperation on Christmas Eve 1990, that he was now of the Muslim faith – his sister, Sameen, phoned him up and asked him if he’d gone mad – it was also a moment that may have saved his sanity, a line from which he claimed back himself from being an ‘‘unperson”. Is he still embarrassed, however, by that declaration? “Well, I blame myself for it, you know, I think it was beyond stupid and all that, but I also think – and maybe that comes across in the book – that it was a kind of turning point in my life because, after having made that mistake, my resolve strengthened a great deal and I just thought, ‘No more appeasing of people or apologising to people.’”
This was a seismic psychological shift in him, from wanting to be accepted and loved by everybody to realising that – whatever he did – some people were just going to hate him: “And to realise that was fine,” he says, “because I’m not a fan of theirs either.”
One of the reasons that fear was kept at bay was Rushdie’s absolute confidence in his Special Branch protectors, a number of whom have become friends. “Yeah, they were very popular across literary London, actually!” Rushdie beams. “I’ve invited quite a few of them to the launch party. At least one of them got an Open University degree in postcolonial literature while he was protecting me.
“I think one of the reasons why the actual question of fear became secondary is that I thought my protectors, so to speak, were very good at it. They kept me alive and so, of course, I was very appreciative. I was told, right away, that because this protection was thought to be the most dangerous thing they were doing [Rushdie’s risk level was just below the Queen’s] at Scotland Yard, the protection officers were not simply ordered to look after me. So the fact is that everybody over the course of this decade who came to help look after me had volunteered for the job, you know. And I think that’s very impressive, too.”
Joseph Anton is as riveting for the small vignettes as the big, historical sweep. Rushdie is on the guest list of what he calls The Secret Policeman’s Ball, the annual party of protection officers and their charges, past and present, where he meets Margaret Thatcher, early on, who strokes and caresses his arm and calls him “dear”. Later, there is a special treat organised by the police for Rushdie to visit the thrillingly ghoulish Black Museum in Scotland Yard, containing every weapon that has killed a man or a woman. There are moments of great tenderness: his mother’s way of dealing with her husband’s drinking and mood swings with “a forgettery” rather than a memory; making his peace with his father, who lies dying, shaving him and tending to his indignities as his body fails him; the sweetness of the birth of Milan – the first ever Protection Baby – with the piercing simplicity of the line: “His father took off his shirt and held him against his chest.”
But the biggest surprise is the laughs: “Well, it’s one of the things that I said to people in those days, that if it weren’t for the fact that this isn’t funny at all, it would be quite funny,” he says, illustrating that the greatest defence against offence is humour. There is a terrific scene in the chapter “A Truckload of Dung”. Rushdie is driving through the Australian outback, on his way to spend a few days with the Australian novelist Rodney Hall, when he loses concentration for a moment, and has a car crash with an enormous articulated lorry, containing manure. “I do think the fact that the closest I came to being killed was when I was hit by a truckload of fertiliser … is…” We break up. “Just saying it is funny. And then I felt so sorry for the poor truck driver who got interrogated by the police – you know, was he involved with al-Qaeda? Poor Aussie truck driver,” he splutters, “who didn’t know anything about that stuff.”
He says that he is single at the moment and I wonder whether, after four marriages, he believes in the impossibility of love lasting or does he still trust in the possibility that it will? “I’m very optimistic in that area … in spite of all evidence to the contrary.” A big laugh. I tease him about becoming the much-married Elizabeth Taylor (the actress rather than the novelist) of literature, and he says: “I’ve said it myself! I said I can’t get married again otherwise it’s getting up there with Zsa Zsa Gabor, you know!”
He says that the late Norman Mailer (six wives) and Saul Bellow (five wives) are still ahead of him. I say that if he’s not remarried, it’s not for want of trying, is it? Some American tabloids have reported that last year he presented his still-married ex-girlfriend, Michelle Barish, with a “seven-carat emerald-cut diamond ring”, along with a proposal that was declined … Is this true? “Yes, it’s true,” he says, looking a bit sheepish. “Well, you know, it was a stupid thing to do.” I suppose it’s a redundant question to ask if you’re a romantic? He leans back and throws his arms open as though allowing all the love in the world to flood in and fill the gap.
“I think there are two kinds of women [in his life] … I’m lucky, and I think wise,” Rushdie says, with a hint of self-satisfaction, “in the choice of [the] people who were the mothers of my children, you know. In the sense that they were and are very serene, intellectual, sweet-natured, grounded, loving, constant people. And then … there’s the slightly more explosive, aha, volatile people.”
Do you need to have a partner to feel complete? “No, I think that’s a trap. One of the things I’ve learnt is not to depend on there being a woman in your life to make it work. I love my work, I love my children, I’ve got wonderful friends, you know, I have a nice life.” You don’t get lonely? “Yes, but only ordinarily lonely.”
In the book he describes the blissful state of losing himself in his writing again, after a period of being only able to cope with writing book reviews or a children’s book he had promised for his son Zafar, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. “Slowly, slowly, his old power returned. The world went away. Time stood still. He fell happily towards that deep place where unwritten books wait to be found, like lovers demanding proof of utter devotion before they appear. He was a writer again.” If his physical self was saved by Special Branch, and his emotional self by the love of his wives, children and friends, some other deeper self was saved by the fact that Rushdie never actually stopped writing altogether, even in those most challenging of circumstances.
I say that he makes the act of writing, the swooning loss of self as you enter the world of your creation, sound almost sexy, which makes him grin. “‘Almost sexy’ is probably what it is, actually.”
He quotes Martin Amis’s phrase that “what you hope to leave behind you is a shelf of books”, and says, for himself, “it’s a nice feeling to go into a bookshop and think, ‘from here to there, it’s me.’” Some writers don’t care about posterity but Rushdie is not one of them: “Even though I won’t be around to see it, you do try and build books that are built to last. Books that allow you to have the lived experience of another place, which help you to understand. Understanding is what we don’t have and what we need. And if you look at any book that has survived more than, say, 100 years – it’s not because of scandal or controversy, it’s because people love it. It’s the only reason. So you want to feel that your book will survive because people love it.”
I ask him how he feels about forgiveness and anger and bitterness. “I don’t feel at all forgiving,” he says calmly. “I think something was done to my life and to my family’s life which can’t be undone, and it destroyed my ordinary life for more than a decade and it therefore made it very difficult for me to raise my son. You know, it created an enormous deformation in my personal life and I don’t feel particularly forgiving of that.
“Having said that, it was very clear to me, almost from the beginning, that there were a couple of elephant traps that I really needed to avoid. One was fear – as a writer, to end up writing frightened, timid little books that say, ‘Please don’t be upset with me for doing this’. And therefore books that would probably be worthless and uninteresting for anyone to read. I thought, ‘Don’t go there’ – either in yourself or your work … And the other one was another trap of anger, bitterness and vengefulness, which would make me the creature of the event, and that I would have no reality other than my response to the event – and I thought that, as an artist, would be catastrophic. So I said to myself, ‘Be the writer you’ve always been’. I tried very hard to be that and to go on being the person that I am and not get turned into another person.”
Do you think you have succeeded? “Yes, to the extent that going back to revisit the material and write about it really did feel like ‘going back’ – and I do think that in that sense, I have left it behind me. It’s not what I think about every day. I think about lots of other things, like the next bit of work.”
Is he scarred by the fatwa years? “What would the truthful answer to that be?” he scratches his beard. “I’m sure I must be but, as I say, I have tried very hard in my life to avoid the kind of vengeful, embittered cast of mind.” And you are no longer fearful? “No,” he slices the air with his hand, “F*** ’em.”
And that goes for the fatwa itself. When this media blitz is over, the f-word will, apparently, be off-limits in any future interview. “Anybody who asks me about it I will hit over the head with a 600-page book and say ‘Read that! There’s nothing I can tell you that isn’t there.’ Because then, you know what? Enough already!”
Salman Rushdie’s book, ‘Joseph Anton: A Memoir’, is published by Jonathan Cape (£25)