Books: The value of rage

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DURING THE portrait session, our interviewee eagerly recounts getting a postcard recently from the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson; he is as proud as a schoolkid at the unexpected honour. "I've had it framed," beams the bestselling, prize-heaped writer excitedly. When we are introduced, his first concern is to ask solicitously after a mutual acquaintance who lost his job recently. Salman Rushdie may be grand, but he is not absurdly grand. Nor, crucially, does Rushdie's world revolve only around Rushdie.

Still, the image of Salman Rushdie as Mr Difficult has taken a strong hold. He is widely seen as arrogant. Certainly, he thinks of himself as a fine writer (which seems fair enough, in the circumstances). But there is more than just self-belief. A meeting with him is not the exhausting encounter that meetings with Important People can sometimes be. Not a man to be crossed, and not a great forgiver of slights. But he enjoys things, and laughs more than you might expect. One acquaintance sums him up thus: "Not easy - but full of real warmth." Which - as we sit talking for hours in the expressionless territory of a Knightsbridge office block - is at least a good start.

Relaxed warmth has not been an easy characteristic for Rushdie to display in recent years. It was nine years this week - Valentine's Day 1989 - that the sky fell in on his world, thus parachuting a new word into the English dictionaries. Within hours of Ayatollah Khomeini declaring a fatwa death sentence on him, he had vanished from public view. From that day, he has had no permanent home.

He has partly re-entered the public arena. He turns up to book signings and drinks parties and award ceremonies. His level of daily protection is, in his words, the "same as for Jack Straw". He can go shopping, to the movies, to restaurants - always accompanied by someone who sits discreetly at the next table.

He insists that never during all these years has he used a disguise. Well, hardly ever. He was once persuaded to have a wig made. He remembers with relish the moment when he decided that the absurdity just wasn't worth it. "It cost a fucking fortune. The hairpiece cost something like pounds 1,200. A very high-quality toupee. But when I got out of the car, in Knightsbridge, people in the street just burst out laughing. 'Hey, it's that Rushdie in a wig!' It just felt so foolish." He giggles. "I felt like an idiot. I took it off and never wore it again."

The first weekend in hiding, when the country's media were all after him, he spent at the fabulously expensive Lygon Arms in Worcestershire, where Oliver Cromwell and Charles I were previous guests ("I'd always wanted to go there," says Rushdie). Rushdie was both visible and invisible. "Fleet Street didn't twig, although we were walking around the town. A Mirror journalist was staying in the room next door to mine, so the hotel management suggested that I should keep out of his way - and he never knew that he was sitting next to the hottest story in town."

Since the imposition of the fatwa, "I have lived in a large number of parts of England and Scotland and Wales." Rented properties were booked in the ordinary way through estate agents. Twice, he had to move on because "levels of suspicion were so high" that it became too dangerous to stay. He denies suggestions, however, that he has ever stayed in stately piles. "Although I did once at enormous expense rent a Queen Anne place with a large number of acres around it, in Essex. The area seemed almost entirely populated by retired criminals. But it was a very beautiful house."

He was never confined to barracks. "If I wanted to go for a walk, I would drive a few miles away and go for a walk." So he met people? "All the time. All the time I was recognised. The general public was incredibly friendly. People would go up to the policemen I was with and say: 'Look after him.' An incredible solicitousness - even if we leave aside people who liked my books. When there has been media bitching about me, that experience is one of the things that has helped me."

He has used public transport - trains, buses, planes. And he has lived both in the city and in the countryside. "In the city, you get the problem of houses being close together. In the countryside, the problem is that people are very nosey. People in the village know everything that happens." It is necessary somehow to explain the armoured car with darkened glass that glides along local lanes. "You have to invent stories that people will believe. Twice, the levels of suspicion have been so high, that effectively people knew." And he was moved on, smartish.

In the city, twitching net curtains are less of a problem. Instead, getting in and out of the house unobserved requires his minders' various talents. "It's very hard to do it. It requires a great deal of skill. I might be living next door to you, and you would never know," Rushdie claims with his best twinkle. He has achieved stability of a kind - he now lives "a much more settled life" than before, moving house less often.

Perceptions of Rushdie-on-the-run have partly been coloured by the comments of his former wife, the American writer Marianne Wiggins, who left him just a few months after the declaration of the fatwa in 1989. She talked contemptuously of the fact that "he would do anything to save his life." (Yes? So?) The bitterness of the break-up was so deep that Rushdie's complex security arrangements for several months ahead had to be changed when she walked out. Now, Rushdie is keen not to reopen those old wounds. Instead, he basks in his relationship with Elizabeth West, co-editor with Rushdie of an anthology of Indian writing published last year. They met seven years ago - two years into the fatwa - and married in upstate New York last summer. His youngest son, Milan, is eight months old. That much, he will talk about. But this side of his life remains intensely private. "I'm in the circus. I will perform. But I want to keep them away from the circus, out of the spotlight."

From the earliest days of the fatwa, "dry-cleaning" was the key to his contact with the outside world. This has nothing to do with visits to Sketchley, but is the le Carre-style jargon for checking out Rushdie's visitors, enabling his family to enter and exit his world free of unwanted attachments. At a pre-arranged rendezvous, watchers check that the visitor is not being followed, before accompanying him or her through into the sterile zone.

But is there really still a need for all the continued protection? Is this just another form of paranoia combined with self-aggrandisement - like the would-be subversives who have traditionally boasted that their telephones are bugged by MI5, with no evidence except vanity to support the claim? Rushdie insists not.

"Put simply, the reason why the government maintains the protection is that Iranian agents are still trying to execute the fatwa. The person who constantly asks about the end of the protection is me. I say: 'Isn't it all right now?' But [the security services] don't believe that the Iranians have called the dogs off - whatever the rhetoric is." The latest warning came just a few weeks ago.

On one occasion in 1991, there was a specific warning that he was ready to be bumped off within the next 100 days. "The government had information of a contract, and money had been paid. I don't know what happened - but I'm still here." None the less, the effect was dramatic. "We had to behave as though the arrangements had been compromised, even though we had no reason to believe that they had."

He appears to enjoy good relations with his minders. He himself insists: "Now, the attitude in the Special Branch is: they're very proud. This [his survival] is a matter of great professional pride." Things were not always so easy. In earlier years, senior officers were "very hostile". On one occasion, he was told at the last moment that a planned public appearance at Waterstone's bookshop in Hampstead must be cancelled. He gleefully recounts the stand-off: "It was clear that the diktat had come from above. One of the things I have learnt - I use this very sparingly - is the value of nuclear rage." Rushdie threatened to call a press conference and denounce the ban, if the appearance at Waterstone's did not go ahead. The senior commander - "a corner office at Scotland Yard, fabulous views, all of that" - finally backed down. "I later discovered that they weren't worried about assassins. They were worried about public order, about demonstrations. " In the event, there were none.

Most importantly, Rushdie insists that the danger has nothing to do with ordinary Muslims, and everything to do with politicians. He has had support from all sorts of unlikely quarters. A senior Saudi journalist came up to congratulate him, and even expressed envy, telling him: "Mr Rushdie, I just want to shake your hand - because you, sir, are a free man." More recently, a young British Asian approached Rushdie, declaring himself as a great fan. "That was very nice. But then his girlfriend said: you've got to come clean. 'I've got to tell him, have I?' 'Yes, you've got to tell him.' 'In 1989, I was the convenor of west Midlands demonstrations against The Satanic Verses.'"

And what made him change his mind? "He said: 'And then I read The Satanic Verses - and I couldn't see what the fuss was about." Rushdie tells the story with triumphant, deadpan timing. "He was a very sweet man. I said: 'Never mind, we're all still here. Your punishment is to buy lots of copies of The Satanic Verses and give it to all your friends, and make them read it.'"

It should be no surprise to find that those who demanded a death sentence for Rushdie had never read the offending text. None the less, the encounter provides a vivid reminder of the absurdity of the fatwa - and the equal absurdity of those British politicians who criticised publication. The irony is that The Satanic Verses is all about the fact that there is no single way of looking at things. Rushdie sums it up: "It's a book about the nature of storytelling, and about metamorphosis. About people coming from one part of a world to another part of the world, and going through a very radical change. Everything goes through a process of radical questions. And the book itself goes through radical acts of metamorphosis."

For obvious reasons, the idea of free speech remains a crucial theme in Rushdie's writing. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the children's and adult's story that Rushdie wrote in the period immediately after the issue of the fatwa, remains a moving argument against the proclamation of a death sentence on a writer. Less trumpeted than Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses, or the more recent The Moor's Last Sigh, it is a work of remarkable power and humanity. The main theme: let people speak.

One of the most resonant phrases in the book - "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" - came to Rushdie well into the writing of the book. "They were the open sesames, the magic sentences - after months and months of not being able to get it right." A story-teller is silenced because the forces of evil have poisoned the Sea of Stories. Those forces prefer silence to speech, and do not understand (or understand too well) the beauty and impact of stories. The storyteller's son Haroun helps to save the source of stories from being poisoned for all time. This, in turn, enables his father, the Ocean of Notions, "as stuffed with cheery stories as the sea was full of glumfish", to tell magical stories once more, thus helping to bring new life to Haroun's home town where all seemed lost. ("There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.")

Despite the obvious echoes of the fatwa, one of Haroun's core ideas - the battle between those who love language and those who love silence - stemmed from an earlier story, which Rushdie had put away in a drawer for several years. Thus, even before the fatwa, Rushdie was fascinated by the idea of silence as an evil force. In that sense, there is pure continuity: there could be no better spokesman against artistic censorship. Now, Rushdie is clearly excited that the National Theatre is hoping to stage an adaptation of Haroun later this year: "Haroun's life is not over."

Rushdie's current energies are devoted to his latest work in progress. "I've got a novel to finish. I'm just slogging away. I'm almost two-thirds of the way through. The simplest way of describing it is that it is about a woman who is a singer and who dies in an earthquake - so it's about love, rock and roll, and earthquakes." He hopes to finish the book "Septemberish, in order to be out by next spring". Meanwhile, a proposed BBC filming of Midnight's Children in Sri Lanka has been definitively canned, to Rushdie's obvious fury and dismay. The agreement was revoked, just days before filming was due to begin. He claims that the protests were artificially stirred up; the Sri Lankan government had initially been sympathetic, and had provided written agreement.

Certainly, politics remain powerful in determining what literature is or is not permissible. The Iranian authorities have produced some confused statements in recent months which suggest a desire by the new president, Mohamed Khatami, to half-open up to the West. But the Iranians still insist that a fatwa cannot, by its very nature, be overturned - a view which is highly disputed, and which Rushdie regards only as an excuse. According to him, the talk of reform is, for the moment at least, "all mouth and no trousers". The Iranian government has made no move to criticise the fatwa. Meanwhile, the Europeans seem reluctant even now to play hardball.

This can be seen as a whinge on behalf of one very well-paid writer, who has lots of friends, lots of money, and lots of party invitations. Or it can be seen as a basic matter: murder, it is fair to say, is not usually considered a Good Thing. As part of an ethical foreign policy, that message is worth broadcasting loud and clear. Theoretically, the British government is sympathetic to Rushdie's situation (as was the last government, at least under John Major). But the Labour government has until now been reluctant to consort publicly with the condemned man.

Cosy meetings behind closed doors are comforting, but do not send the high-profile diplomatic messages that are an essential part of the game. Early last month, Rushdie wrote to Tony Blair and Robin Cook, asking for a meeting accompanied by a public handshake that would be seen and noted in Tehran. Rushdie still sounds hopeful that something will be achieved - surely Labour's friendly noises cannot all just be hot air? But he notes that these are the crucial six months, while Britain holds the high-profile presidency of the European Union. If no meeting has taken place before Britain hands on the presidential baton at the end of June, he suggests, then the whole exercise will have been worthless. "If the presidency ends without a major British show of initiative, it's empty. They had their chance. I very much hope they will take it."

Meanwhile, for a man who himself has the reputation of a glumfish, Rushdie is almost upbeat. "I'm optimistic about what I can do. I can show this hasn't defeated me. I'm happily married, I've got wonderful kids, I'm increasingly able to meet the people who read my books. A great deal has been done for me by other writers. But what I can't do is solve the problem. Britain must take the lead."