Rushdie after the ban, before the fatwa

In October 1988, after the Indian government banned The Satanic Verses, but before Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie, I interviewed the author in Toronto. He almost cancelled on me because suddenly he was mired in politics. But on the phone, before we met, I told him the truth: that as a mad-Joycean, I wanted to talk with him mainly about the influence of James Joyce on his latest novel (which I recognized as a stunning masterpiece). And so, after he appeared on a panel, we two sat

Salman Rushie with The Satanic Verses

down and talked. On October 19, I published the following in the Calgary Herald. Years later, when I visited the Dublin Writers Museum, I got talking about Joyce with the curator. I mentioned Rushdie and he said, yes, the novelist had visited and chatted with him about The Master.

TORONTO — Award-winning novelist Salman Rushdie is at war with the government of his native India.

Rushdie, who won the prestigious Booker Award in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, is fighting the banning in that country of his new novel The Satanic Verses.

“The one thing that unites those who support the ban is their refusal to read the book,” Rushdie said at the Wang International Festival of Authors (as the Toronto festival was then known).

“They admit they haven’t read it,” Rushdie said during a panel discussion, “yet they feel able to say that it’s not a work of art, that it’s ‘abusive filth,’ that it’s the product of a diseased mind — mine.”

The Satanic Verses, a stylistic tour-de-force that mixes myth and reality in ways reminiscent of James Joyce, has been short-listed for this year’s Booker Award.

It was banned recently by Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi after complaints by a handful of Muslim politicians, who claimed visionary sequences depicting a fictional prophet maligned Mohammed, founder of Islam.

Rushdie, himself of Muslim heritage, wrote a 1,000-word open letter to Gandhi denouncing the ban as a flagrant attempt to buy the votes of India’s 100 million Muslims. It was published in newspapers throughout India.

That letter, Rushdie said in an interview, is being republished today in The New York Times.

But what concerns Rushdie most is that the controversy will create the impression Satanic Verses is “abstruse, very heavy.”

The novel is “at least partially comic,” Rushdie noted. “It’s a book about migration, metamorphosis, London, Bombay, coming to terms with death, learning how to love — all sorts of things politicians are not interested in.” And only 70 of its 647 pages relate to Islam.

Even in the company of world-class authors. Rushdie stands out as formidably erudite, remarkably eloquent.

Born in Bombay in 1947, Rushdie was educated in England. He graduated from Cambridge University in 1968, and since then has lived mostly in London. Until 1981, when the success of his second novel, Midnight’s Children, enabled him to write full time, Rushdie worked as an advertising copywriter and an actor.

The Satanic Verses, which quietly displays extensive knowledge of the literatures of both East and West, is most influenced by the work of Joyce, notably Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

“I think Joyce is the greatest English-language writer of the century,” Rushdie said. “He was always the master for me.”

Satanic Verses originated, Rushdie said, with “an image I had of two men falling out of an exploded airplane and surviving. That wasn’t just a Finnegan-like fall, but the most dramatic act of emigration I could think of.”

The two men, Indian movie star Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, Anglophile supreme, are magically transformed. While remaining themselves, they also become the arch-angel Gabriel and Satan himself, locked in an everlasting struggle that cuts from England to India and back again.

“The question is,” Rushdie said, “which is good and which is evil? The tiniest shifts cause a reversal in the moral judgments one makes.”

Rushdie paints, among other things, a devastating portrait of Margaret Thatcher’s England.

“The deterioration has been spiritual rather than material,” he said. “The anger and stress are much closer to the surface. The place feels like an explosion waiting to happen.”

Rushdie, who last year married American novelist Marianne Wiggins, said he is “toying with the idea of crossing the Atlantic.”

North America offers “a culture of migrants,” he said. “Here there are lots of people like me. Everybody is three or four things at once.”

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