Salman Rushdie has again instructed us in a profound lesson: great literature will always be a matter of life and death

·3 min read

This was always one’s worst fear for Salman Rushdie: the festival crowd, the vulnerable writer on stage, the buzz of audience anticipation, and then the horrifying irruption of senseless medieval fury.

Ever since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa placed him under sentence of death on Valentine’s day 1989, Rushdie has lived with the dread of violent Islamist retribution. But he has, over time, conducted himself with such courage and distinction that the literary world came to forget the murderous frenzy aroused by his novel The Satanic Verses.

As described in Josef Anton, Rushdie’s memoir of the fatwa, it became a destabilising experience that took the writer into hiding with a team of special branch officers armed with sub-machine guns. This episode combined terror, boredom and farce, Jack Higgins crossed with Tom Sharpe. On one occasion, his minders offered him a wig in which, he admitted, he looked ridiculous. This short-lived experiment came to an end after his first outing in his new disguise, on a London street. As he got out of the car, he once told me, there were stares and comments: “There’s Salman Rushdie in a wig.”

Rushdie had always been a gregarious metropolitan. Now he was in solitary confinement. “It’s an odd thing to have a price on your head,” he told one interviewer, fretting at his sequestration. “I’m tired of being hemmed in,” he said. There was, he argued, a difference between concealing someone and protecting them. For a while, he appeared to be suffering a life sentence. In this intolerable situation, his new-found courage manifested itself in the ironical disdain with which he would dismiss the threats to his life. Once he was able to settle in the US, he could return to an almost ordinary existence.

In mining the experience of his own life, he has always maintained that nothing is off-limits

Rushdie became president of PEN [a global association of writers] and fashioned a role as the champion of free thought and free speech. With a kind of dry stoicism, unblemished by self-pity, mixing English and Indian sang froid, he would say “I’m getting on with my life”, a characteristically defiant assertion of his right, as he sometimes puts it, “to say stuff”.

Ever since he was born, in Mumbai, in 1947, Rushdie has been saying stuff, with himself as the centre of the conversation. The coincidence of his birth and national independence gave rise to a family joke: forget Gandhi or Nehru, it was baby Salman who forced the British out.

Midnight’s Children, inspired by Indian independence, remains a masterpiece of magical realism, widely recognised as a turning point in the remaking of the English novel in the late 20th century. In mining the experience of his own life, he has always maintained that nothing is off limits.

Such courage comes at a cost which, on Friday, became horrifyingly plain. The threat that Rushdie’s heroic act of willpower seemed to have neutralised, broke the illusion of normality like a knife through silk.

When I heard the news of this dreadful attack, memories of the violence surrounding The Satanic Verses returned. The 12 people who died in a riot in Mumbai, and the six killed during a riot in Islamabad; the books burned, and the bookshops firebombed. In 1991, the novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death and its Italian translator badly wounded. In October 1993, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times outside his home in Oslo and seriously injured.

Once again, Salman Rushdie has instructed us in a profound lesson about life and art. For an age that’s monetised creative endeavour to the limit, there’s something archetypal in the recognition that great literature will always be a matter of life and death.

Robert McCrum is former associate editor and literary editor of the Observer