February 17, 2019

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

“ON VALENTINE’S DAY 1989, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared a death sentence on British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, along with any who helped its release: “I ask all Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.” The Ayatollah accused Rushdie of blasphemy, of sullying Islam and its prophet Muhammad, though many saw it as a desperate cry for popular support after a humiliating decade of war with Iraq. There followed riots, demonstrations, and book burnings across Europe and the Middle East. Death threats poured in. Viking Penguin, Rushdie’s UK publisher, was threatened with bombings. The author himself was forced into hiding under the pseudonym “Joseph Anton,” a mash-up of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov and the title of Rushdie’s 2012 memoir of the controversy. The media and public still remember it as “The Rushdie Affair,” though most people born after the 1980s have never heard of it.

Unlike the recent attack on lampoon magazine Charlie Hebdo or the threats against Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, the creative text behind the Rushdie Affair was renowned as high art. It netted the 1988 Whitbread Award and was named a Booker Prize finalist (Rushdie had already won a Booker for his second novel, Midnight’s Children). It was lauded by the Who’s Who of 20th-century literature: Norman Mailer, Bruce Chatwin, Marina Warner, Joan Didion, Martin Amis, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Carey, David Lodge. Its author was forever crowned “godfather of Indian fiction” alongside Rabindranath Tagore, Amitav Ghosh, V. S. Naipaul, and Amrita Pritam. Yet recent coverage of the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the Affair focuses on everything but the novel itself, whether international politics, reflections by friends, or the author’s storied sex life. How many gems go unnoticed without a look at the writing? How are readers any different from fanatics like Khomeini if they remain content with contextless snippets and watercooler talk?

Rushdie writes in his memoir that when friends asked how they could help, he told them, “Defend the text.” While this reviewer’s goal is not to defend per se, it is to take the text on its own terms. The Satanic Verses does talk about Islam, though not as a whipping boy. Instead, the youngest Abrahamic religion stands as case of something new, of something unverified and unstable, keeping company with other new and unstable things — the India-Pakistan partition, reincarnation and rebirth, rock ’n’ roll, marital infidelity — in the book that make up one long rumination on the newness of being an immigrant, the novel’s master theme. In this way, Rushdie is also reflecting on himself, is “naming” himself, as a migrant to Britain from India, with resonances that echo the recent refugee crisis in Europe. He appeals to the patron saint of migrants, “of all exiles, all unhoused people” — namely Satan, the first castaway, whose revelations, the titular Satanic verses, supposedly slipped into the Qur’an along with God’s. But with the bitter irony of art imitating life, Rushdie’s Faustian contract turned on its framer in a way he didn’t imagine, reflecting the very theme of change at the novel’s core.”

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