ON February 14 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini (former Iran president) issued a fatwa (a legal opinion or ruling issued by an Islamic scholar) condemning Salman Rushdie to death for his authorship of Satanic Verses.
Rushdie appeared on British television the following day and announced that he wished his book had been more critical of Islam. In his retrospective account, he describes himself as bookish innocent, bewildered by the world’s coarse intrusion into the literary sphere.
By this point in his career, Rushdie had already been sued by Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandhi for his libelous statements in Midnight’s Children and had already seen his third novel banned in Pakistan.
It is a wonder how Rushdie seems unqualified to appreciate literature’s capacity for eliciting hostile, non-literary responses.
In his 2015 interview with the Paris Review, he recalled: “I knew my work did not appeal to the likes of radical mullahs. There were one or two early readers, including Edward Said, who noticed that I had taken these guys on and asked whether I was concerned about it and in those innocent days, I said no.
The idea that it would often float across their field of vision seemed improbable and I truthfully didn’t care. Why shouldn’t literature provoke? It always has.”
One of the great sorrows of the fatwa years for Rushdie, more personally agitating to him, he has claimed, than the assault on his freedom of speech or even his life, was the discovery that large numbers of people were incapable or unwilling to engage with his “serious artistic intent”.
He feels that his mission is to rescue literature, that beautiful ancient art of which he is privileged to be a practitioner, from cynical traducement and ignorant misprision.
During the early years of the fatwa, the British government was not entirely valiant in its defence of Rushdie.
Nevertheless, they recognised their duty to protect the free speech of a British citizen even one they did not like, against death threats of a foreign cleric.
In 2012, Rushdie wrote a memoir: Joseph Anton, where he claims kinship with a number of great literary men who like him suffered for their genius, but whose fame was destined to outlast that of their oppressors.
Although he might be excused for occasionally characterising his plight in grandiloquent terms (living under death threat for nine years), however, one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast.
An unembarrassed sense of what he is owned as an embattled, literary immortal in waiting pervades his book.
He wants us to sympathise with the irritation he felt when the men in his protection team abbreviated his grand, Conradian Chekhoyian alias to “JOE”. He wants us to appreciate his outrage at being given orders by jumped-up Scotland Yard officers.
He wants us to understand the affront he felt when diplomatic efforts on his behalf were help up by negotiations to bring back British hostages from Iran “Terry Waite’s human rights had to be given precedence over his own”.
Above all, he wants us to share his aggrieved sense that he was a prophet without nearly enough honour in his own country. Rushdie has said that one of his aims in writing Joseph Anoton was to be tougher on himself than on anybody else.
This is a steep ambition for any memoirist and quite possibly an unrealistic one for a man as tenacious in his grudges as Rushdie.
When faced with a choice between exercising magnanimity and exacting long-awaited revenge Rushdie almost invariability opts for the latter.
Readers have differed in their opinions of whether the free speech represented by Satanic Verses was worth upholding at any cost.
However, those who take Rushdie’s side on this are hard pressed to match his scorn for the opposing point of view.
By the time the Rushdie saga was over, it had resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people. Oddly enough, when Rushdie recounts the unhappy episode of 1990 in which we met with Muslim leaders and agreed not only to withdraw the book, but to proclaim his faith in Islam, he berates those who failed to show compassion for his “mistake”.
Of all the retrenchments and narrowings of viewpoint that are on display in his memoir, the saddest, perhaps in his altered attitude toward Islam. Throughout the fatwa, Rushdie carefully resisted the temptation to make Islam itself the enemy.
He remarked in a 1995 interview: “The thing called Islamism is not the same thing as Islam. This political things which we call fundamentalism, everybody is scared stiff of it. It is not a religion movement, it’s a political movement which happens to be using a certain kind of religious language.”
However, his tolerance for this sort of distinction has since waned. Now he regards any efforts to separate reactionary forms of Islam from Islam itself as dishonest and wrong.
How are we to reconcile these sentiments with the gratitude that Rushdie expresses elsewhere in the book for Muslim writers who supported him during the fatwa?
Or with his belief in the artiste’s role as a promoter of human tolerance? The job of literature, he instructs us in the final pages of this memoir is to encourage “understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself to make the world feel larger, wider than before”.