Salman Rushdie wants to live in a bookcase forever

Salman Rushdie during a visit to Paris, 1995.Image Micheline Pelletier/Sygma via Getty Images

When he needed it most, after the attacks on devil verse, the author, publishers, translators and booksellers, he was hugely supported by the human rights organization PEN, which is committed to the people of the word (PEN stands for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists). When he moved to New York in 2000 and demanded freedom for himself, he wanted to “pay back” that support, writes Salman Rushdie in The language of truthby working for freedom of expression and for other writers.

In 2004, he became president of the American chapter of PEN and in 2005 co-founded the PEN World Voices Festival, which aims to bring the voices of persecuted writers heard around the world. “The voices, Arab, Afghan or Latin American or Russian, must be magnified so that they can be heard loud and clear,” Rushdie said in one of the texts he wrote for PEN, which is included in this collection of (revised) essays . from the period 2003-2020.


Rushdie as master – almost forgetting that he himself had been a persecuted writer since the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for blasphemy of Muhammad. A religious death sentence that forced him to hide for ten years, burdened by the ‘chains of safety’as he writes in his autobiography with his great penchant for alliteration about security Joseph Anton (the pseudonym he lived under, after the great writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov). He felt himself handcuffed.

A more moderate Iranian regime distanced itself from the fatwa, although hardliners kept the hatred alive. Rushdie began a new chapter of his life in New York. How relative that freedom was became clear when he was stabbed last month, aged 75, 33 years after the fatwa, before a lecture. By a 24-year-old man who admitted in a prison interview that he only had two sides of The Devil’s Verse read.

Then you read Rushdie’s new book, which comes out in Dutch translation less than a month after the attack (his new novel follows in January Victory City), but still different. The urgency of these PEN texts is all the greater. ‘Great art – or let’s put it more modestly: original art – is never made in the safe middle, but always on the edge,’ he writes. “Originality is dangerous, asks questions, undermines assumptions, questions ethical standards, has no respect for sacred cows or similar entities.”

He is adamant about, among other things, the mutilated political discourse in the age of fake news that permeated ‘his’ three countries: his native India narrow-minded under Prime Minister Modi, Britain where he studied and became a writer plunged into Brexit and Trumpistan was his self-chosen America has become.

The power of Orthodoxy, he concludes, has not diminished. But beyond being the political activist he reluctantly became, Rushdie is also, above all, the whirlwind writer he is in these seventeen years of texts.

The power of stories

He honors the power of narrative, from the animal fables and epics of his childhood to the texts of literary heroes such as Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth. He writes about his involvement with artists such as Kara Walker and Anish Kapoor, reports sarcastically about his corona infection (“You know all about lockdowns, so it must be familiar to you”) and recalls his friendship with actress Carrie Fisher (Star Wars) Princess Leia), who became like family. He links the novel character Oblomov to the supermodel Linda Evangelista and comments on the smallest number of deaths he has calculated in One thousand and one nights (only eleven of them men).

He recounts the happiest hours of his childhood in the bookstore in the Breach Candy district of non-religious Bombay, where he grew up, and how the Rushdies (Christmas Deniers) came to celebrate Christmas under the influence of his sons, daughter-in-law and nieces (Christmas Fundamentalists ) –’ Thank you, baby Jesus, for this evil mob.” only them Christmas pudding he does not please: little defiance.

In this way, Rushdie mainly portrays himself, and he does so in a more versatile way than in the anger-driven Joseph Anton from 2012, when he had to deal with a lot of injustice and powerlessness (and ex-wives).

As a final chord, he submits to Proust’s legendary questionnaire. ‘What do you consider your greatest achievement? that I moved on. What do you think is the most overrated virtue? Believe. Where would you like to live? In a bookcase, forever. How would you prefer to die? Rather not.’

I would rather not, and at least not like this.

The language of truth

Salman Rushdie
Translated by Bart Gravendaal
Atlas Contact, €32.50
360 p.

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