Monday, 10 September 2012
I was nine years old when the Ayatollah Khomeini urged Muslims all over the world to find and kill Salman Rushdie. At that time I lived in a provincial town in Germany, read books about horses and had no idea what a Muslim was; but I remember the announcement of the fatwa as clearly as the other generation-defining event that year, the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989.
Rushdie learned of the fatwa on Valentine's Day in 1989. I suppose it took a few days for the news to become a major talking point in my home town of Marburg.
"If the newsreader were to look up now and ask people to read the book," I asked my parents one evening when we were watching TV, "Would Iran bomb the broadcasting company?"
The next day, when we were talking about Rushdie in school, something else occurred to me:
"If our library has a copy of the book, will it have to get rid of it? If it doesn't get rid of it, will Iran bomb our library?"
And would it be right for our library, housed in a beautiful old stucco building, the one public source of free books for children, to expose itself to such a threat? Then again, would it be right for a library not to stock a book just to please Iran?
The book was, of course, The Satanic Verses, or as I knew it then, Die Satanischen Verse. It might seem strange that a bunch of children in a small German town would have been so deeply fascinated by a death threat to a writer in London. None of us had ever heard of Rushdie before (let alone read any of his books). But we had already heard of other writers persecuted for their work: we had heard about book-burning under the Nazis, had read "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" by Judith Kerr.
Rushdie's own son was about the same age as me when his father was forced to go into hiding and take on a false name. He chose "Joseph Anton", a nod to Conrad and Chekhov. "Joseph Anton" is also the name of his soon-to-be-released book about those days. Judging from the extract on the New Yorker's website, it's a witty, brave and terribly sad book and I can't wait to read it:
"“Free People Write Books,” (the advertisement) said. “Free People Publish Books, Free People Sell Books, Free People Buy Books, Free People Read Books. In the spirit of America’s commitment to free expression we inform the public that this book will be available to readers at bookshops and libraries throughout the country.”
While all this and much more was happening, the author of “The Satanic Verses” was crouching in shame behind a kitchen counter to avoid being seen by a sheep farmer."
Rushdie describes his shame, fear, guilt, the crushing tedium of isolation. The pain of seeing his work treated as if it were not a novel but a mere insult, the literary equivalent of "Your Mom is Fat". There were some passages that made me want to reach through the text and tell him that it wasn't his fault, that he wasn't the one to blame; that it's always the same people who burn books, that history has not once judged a book-burner to be on the side of love and decency.
He became, in the media, a man whom nobody loved but many people hated. “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him,” Iqbal Sacranie, of the U.K. Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, said. “His mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness from Almighty Allah.” (In 2005, this same Sacranie was knighted at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.)
Once, he believes his son and first wife may have been taken as hostages, and tells one of the policemen that he would exchange himself for his son. The policeman replies:
“That thing about exchanging hostages, that only happens in the movies. In real life, I’m sorry to tell you, if this is a hostile intervention they are both probably dead already. The question you have to ask yourself is, Do you want to die as well?”
There are bright spots: loyal and courageous ex-wives, helpful friends, protection officers using their marksmanship to win a soft toy for Zafar at a fair ground shooting gallery. The most surprising aspect of the story is that Rushdie survived, that he neither was murdered like his Japanese translator, nor committed suicide. It's a reminder of how little it takes to break and silence a person. Over the past few years, there's been a constant stream of stories about Rushdie the party tiger, romancing women half his age, flirting over Twitter. Like a hungry little boy standing at a buffet and scooping up the mousse au chocolat with both hands. Well, who could begrudge him that.
Back in the days when I still thought Iran might bomb the Marburg library (there were individual attacks on other libraries, so the notion wasn't that far-fetched after all), I marvelled at the fact that a single book could have the power to cause such an uproar. Today, I wonder if it was, in a way, tragically powerless. "The Satanic Verses" was snatched from its rightful place as a novel and used as a political prop along with banners and burning flags. Both the novel and its author had no power at all to prevent this. Then again, it certainly influenced my view of what books were and should be: precious, big, important. It made me think that Rushdie must have really needed to write that book if he was willing to risk so much for it. And it's probably one of the reasons why I don't write books about horses.