It’s hot-town in mid-Manhattan but, deep in the shadows of a soaring office tower, the cover band is cool, resurrecting the Beatles note for note to the munching luncheon crowd. The faux fab four have reached The Ballad in their set, and the words, written by that famous immigrant to New York, echo over the concrete: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy … They’re gonna crucify me.” A funny/serious lyric, a bit of poetic licence taken with a religious text, a metaphor that turned tragically real.
High on the tower’s 21st floor, the offices are lined with books as mute as the office workers – an eerie silence pervades the agency of Andrew (The Jackal) Wylie. I am shown to a corner in the quiet, and there await the arrival of another famous immigrant to New York: the author of The Satanic Verses, a funny/serious novel, a bit of poetic licence taken with a religious text, a metaphor that turned bizarrely real.
During the near-decade of the fatwa pronounced upon him, from Valentine’s Day in 1989 to the fall of ’98, Salman Rushdie was the most prominent writer on the planet for reasons that no writer would ever want – his book universally known but rarely read, banished from the groves of literature and thrust into the tumult of politics. So he became as partitioned as any of the divided characters in his fiction.
Suddenly, an intrinsically sociable man retreated into enforced seclusion, visible in his celebrity yet invisible everywhere else, demonized by his haters and deified by his defenders but neither deserving nor wanting either label, a reluctant symbol in the fractured world of fact. And though the fatwa has ended, the demonizers linger.
“Fuck ’em. To hell with them. Actually, my life has been pretty much your average writer’s life for over a decade now. But I remember Martin Amis had this phrase back when it happened; he said that I had ‘vanished onto the front page.’ So I feel happy to have re-emerged onto the book pages and now the film pages.”
Yes, the voice is Rushdie’s. He has arrived – light grey suit, unbuttoned dress shirt, black boots, thinning hair, stumpy hands, a garrulous imp – to break, no shatter, the strange office silence. Some writers, certainly not all, are born talkers and, for over two hours, his conversation flows in tributaries, surging forth into passionate pronouncements, branching off into witty anecdotes, generous in its depth and ease. I can’t speak to his reputation as a party animal, or to that parade of four ex-wives on the domestic scene, yet this much is evident: The public Salman Rushdie is a gracious, charming and, apparently, unscarred fellow.
The river of talk opens with two “splashes,” a pair of his creative efforts come to fruition almost simultaneously. The first, set to unspool as a gala at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9, is the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, his most critically lauded novel, directed by Deepa Mehta and written for the screen by Rushdie himself. The second, slated for release a mere 9 days later, is Joseph Anton, his memoir of the fatwa period. The title refers to the pseudonym he employed then (think Conrad and Chekhov), and the contents, sight unseen, promise to be a publishing sensation. Indeed, the sight had damned well better stay unseen – the book is being treated like a state secret.
“I’ll get killed if I talk about it now. Commandos will come through the door.” Big hearty laugh. No doubt, in the memoir, words like “kill” and “commando” will be loaded. Here, they’re happily playful again, returned to their healthy place in the land of self-effacing humour.
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