The last word will be Rushdie

As the paperback of `The Satanic Verses' is published, Australian interviewer Susan Chenery, soon to join the `Independent on Sunday', finds its author in defiant mood

HE LOPES into the room, this man who needs no introduction. Lopes with a stoop as if the burden of all his troubles, all the troubles of the world, have been carried on these sighing shoulders too long and too heavy. The stooped back is silent heroic eloquence. It has been six years since Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini for defaming "Islam, the Prophet and the Koran". Six invisible years since he vanished into front pages all over the world. Six years since he precipitously assumed his drastic place in history.

And here he is still, ladies and gentlemen, coming down the corridor in billowing white shirt and trousers; manifestly alive, unrepentant - "they were worth upsetting" - and utterly ordinary. But not free. Never, ever free again.

He couldn't have put it better himself, really, when he began Midnight's Children with these words: `I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history.'

And so it would come to pass. As so much of that first fabulist novel would come to pass. He realised even then that his words had a strange supernatural power. He should have ducked for cover then. Taken up quilting as a creative outlet. "It was spooky the way that novel prefigured what happened." But by then it was already too late.

The Satanic Verses was, of course, even more terribly prophetic. "It is all in there. It is terrifying, even for its author, to find out how much that book knew. It is one thing to sit in a room and dream up what religious fanaticism might be like. It is quite another to discover just how accurate the book was." It angers him, this "thing" that keeps happening. He is sick, sick, sick of it. Martyrdom sucks. Even though he has turned out to have a flair for it.

"I think if I were to examine it I would be very, very pissed off. I am bored with it. I would like to leave it alone for another 10 years. It is characteristic of such an event that a kind of false self gets invented by other people and projected onto a very big screen. You think, `Who is that guy? That is not me. Who is that guy with my name?'."

The guy who subsides cross-legged into a wing-chair in his publisher's office is a small, rotund, balding intellectual with a greying beard and rosy cheeks. But the scourge of Islam looks, alarmingly, as if he might be about to drop off to sleep. So heavy-lidded is he, behind the professorial glasses, that he gives the impression of sleepwalking. It is hard to imagine anyone less dangerous to East or West, less satanic, than Salman; than this apparently mild, talkative man holding a paper cup in lily-white hands.

"If you had asked me six and a half years ago, if you had described to me what was going to happen and asked me how I was going to stand up to it, I would not have expected to be here in one piece. I haven't been calm or wonderfully strong all along. I have had very bad passages. I have made mistakes. The early period was by far the worst. We had no idea what was happening. There was no way to judge what was coming at you. I was quite off-balance for a while. It has been very hard." He says this so mildly, however, this man whose bounty is $3m, and with such understatement, that he might be asking you the time.

These are merely the facts of his distorted life. Death squads, armoured vans, policemen carrying 9mm carbines, surreal, high-security, covert operations; days in the life of a moving target. Get used to it. It is hard to vanish when you are as recognisable as he. Plastered over the papers like a giant arrow pointed at his head.

Out of the question, still, are the small kindnesses given and received, the daily cruelties, the ordinary nuances of everyday human interaction that layer our lives. "You miss the small freedoms a lot when they are taken away. I found it so humiliating to have to ask friends to buy clothes for me." Like a recalcitrant child, he has rebelled against his guardians. "I think what I did from the first moment was try to get my freedom back. That has been an invisible fight that nobody knows about, what I have had to do to get that stuff back. The ability to come here and talk to you, for instance; three or four years ago we wouldn't have been able to do this" - his hand flails.

Indeed, today, the posse of policemen who elaborately orchestrate his every outing, much to the mirth of London literary society, is disappointingly stationed out of sight. I was rather hoping to be frisked. He said recently that groups of assassins had been routinely dispatched to kill him and that he had changed residence some 30 times since 1989. But in this interview he smiles mysteriously.

"There is an awful lot of exaggeration, and mistakes about how it is done, fortunately. I am quite happy for people not to know how I am protected. Almost everything that has ever been said about it is wrong." He contributes large sums of money to his protection, which, when he goes to America, is "what Arafat gets".

There are flashes of the underlying, percolating, festering anger, the monumental outrage at the injustices of his life, that simmer within Salman Rushdie. There are bursts of the petulance that has hardened public opinion, a glimmer of the guts, the refusal to roll over and play the victim that has been interpreted as super-egotism, but which may have saved him.

"I don't want to talk about it," he says, abruptly snapping off the charm, when asked about his announced conversion to Islam in 1990 as a plea for clemency at a time when there were still British hostages in Iran. "It was a mistake. It was done at my lowest point, I shouldn't have done it. Full stop."

Most of the time during our long conversation there is the calm, the knowing acceptance of the survivor, the resigned at-least-I-am-alive stoicism of the trauma victim who has walked through the shadow of the valley of death and who, profoundly changed, is beyond fear. "I am not afraid," he says of the real possibility of eradication.

We will never know, most of us, what we are truly made of. Salman does. Salman has been persecuted. Salman knows now that he is a fighter. To the death. "I guess I have learned that I am quite stubborn and not easily shut out. A lot of people have committed crimes against me and against people I care about and that makes me want to fight. But this is a fight one has to win because the consequences of losing it are not conceivable. At least it is the right fight; it is a fight about the art of the novel and free speech and the right of the ordinary person to say what they like and not have your word defined for you by fanatical purists. I guess what I thought was that, insofar as these guys ever read 500-page literary novels, they wouldn't like it. No doubt several of them would say so. One or two might fulminate and I would fulminate back and that would be it. It was basically a comic spectacle with an irreverent voice. On the whole I thought The Satanic Verses was a story about somebody who does not weaken in the face of persecution and is merciful at the moment of victory" - dramatic pause to make sure the interviewer understands the parallels - "I don't wish I hadn't done it. I don't propose to be told when to shut up by a priest. I am right and they are wrong. There is strength in that. I don't want to lose."

The attacks on Rushdie's translators in Italy, Turkey and Norway, and the murder of his Japanese translator, were, he says, "completely obscene. The Japanese man was a completely innocent bystander, the last person in the world who had any right to feel endangered. It made me a thousand per cent more determined to fight even harder. I felt it was about things that were bigger than me, my work or my book."

He has spent six years as an ambassador for his own life, travelling across the Western world, speaking to world leaders to demand stronger sanctions against Iran. "The degree of inertia from the world's politicians was quite stunning. I still think that if there had been any genuine political energy to solve this case it would have been solved years ago."

He used to find it difficult to get an appointment with the British Government, but he is quite close to them now. The Clinton administration has been helpful too. "I think that the very strong line they have adopted towards the Iranians is the only way to do it. These guys don't get appeased; they respond to strength and weakness."

And if by the seemingly awesome consequences of his own words, with which he had the impudence to challenge the sacred texts, he has become the cause celebre of the century, despite other dissidents and other fatwahs in other places, then Rushdie, by that same power, may have delivered a triumph of the human spirit with his book The Moor's Last Sigh. A series of stories, East, West, was published in 1995 and a defiant children's parable, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was written for his son in 1991. "Not being able to see him is one of my greatest regrets."

He has not been silenced. He has turned the nightmare into the dreamlike quality of his writing. Anxiety, as any writer knows, is not the place from which great writing springs. Nor is anger. Or hate. Rushdie has transcended the ugliness, found love where there was hate, strength where there was suffering, beauty where there was none, light where there was dark. And that is his victory. "If people are hurling hatred at you, write about love. If people try to silence you, speak and do it with force."

He has not been defeated. "There were times when I thought I wouldn't write again. I was sucked into a campaign where I lost a couple of years talking to politicians. Then I began to feel that if this thing stops me from writing then that is a victory I am not going to permit them to have. I felt that the best way to fight was to be the writer that I am and not turn into this kind of cowering politician. At least writing a novel is a thing you can do in a room by yourself. I do have a great deal of anger about what has happened but I did not want to write out of that, I wanted to write out of its opposite, which is love."

And if words are his weapons, he will have the best revenge: the last word. "Everybody will be dead and my book will still be there." So there.

Taken from Susan Chenery's book, Talking Dirty, published in Australia in 1997

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