Opening the book on dissent

April 20, 2001

Despite living under a threat of death for over a decade, Salman Rushdie believes taking offence is all part of living in a free world. Nick Holdsworth reports from the 11th Prague Writers' Festival.

Outside the Ypsilon Theatre on Prague's Narodni Trida - National Avenue - a small group of Islamic militants hold placards bearing crudely blunt messages.

In the spring sunshine, passers-by barely give the slogans a glance. Inside the theatre, where the object of the protesters vitriol is preparing for a gala evening with a small audience of literature lovers, their presence is unfelt.

Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses provoked the fury of the Islamic world 13 years ago and led to an effective death sentence against him by Ayatollah Khomeini, seems a world away from the demon invoked by the demonstrators.

"Salman! Your glory is based on lies and insults. Confess!" reads one placard. Another, borrowing ironically from the title of Primo Levi's autobiography of the Nazi era, states: "Apologise for the **** things that you wrote. If not now, when?" The men, who say they are Czech Muslims, are to be expected at Rushdie's appearance at the 11th Prague Writers' Festival.

The festival - dedicated to Primo Levi under the theme "The fall of humanism" - has been all over the Czech press, and much has been made of Rushdie's notoriety and the years that he spent living under police protection. The gulf between the perception of Rushdie held by the media and that of the protestors is apparent at a small press conference that the author gives before his gala evening. Czech security men - large, shaven-skulled and with tell-tale coiled-wire devices sprouting from their left ears - stand out like two-dimensional caricatures among an audience of largely left-leaning local journalists who are more interested in Rushdie's reflections on his bizarre life and future projects.

"We have a culture of offence," Rushdie says when he is asked what insults him. "Sometimes I think people seem to be very proud of being able to be offended. One of the characteristics of free speech is that if people are outspoken there are always going to be people who don't like it.

"Democracy is not a peaceful thing, it's a turbulent thing. Where only one voice can be heard and all others are silent there is no freedom. It's in the nature of a free society that people will strongly disagree and express opinions that people strongly take exception to and that has to be all right because, if it's not all right, then you are simply not living in a free society," he says.

Those who claim to be offended by a book are those who have chosen to be offended - by reading on instead of simply closing the book, Rushdie argues. Writing as an occupation is about giving readers choice, and if a writer always strove to avoid offending people literature would die a rapid death, he says. He cites Voltaire - who recommended living close to a country's borders to facilitate a hasty exit from angry authorities if necessary - and Soviet writers Mikhail Bulgakov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose works exemplify dissident writing.

He develops his theme a little later when asked about the presence of evil in the world. He believes that evil does exist, but says that so often today complex situations and characters are reduced to good/evil stereotypes.

"Stereotyping happens so much because it is so easy to do; it is harder to have a complex view of a situation than a simple one, and, therefore, the world being what it is, the simple view prevails," he says.

His "experience of being demonised" is a classic example of how the process works. He recalls that "it was very shocking to find a version of myself in newspapers that seemed to have absolutely no relationship to me and a version of my work existing very potently, which perhaps had more of an effect than my actual work could. The Satanic Verses that people argued about seemed to me to have almost no relationship to the book that was actually available for you to read and yet that Satanic Verses was much discussed, almost always by people who had not read it."

The media reaction and the "politicised Islamic religious" backlash against this version of his book, which provoked the fatwa or religious order that led to the effective death sentence against him, changed his life overnight. At the age of 41 he was forced into hiding after heeding advice to take the death threats seriously. Security arrangements constrained his freedom for the best part of a decade, before a gradual easing emerged following a change of political and religious leadership in Iran and the downplaying of the fatwa .

Although Rushdie is keen to move on from the associations with the fatwa , the fundamental changes wrought in his life by that single announcement of religious wrath cannot be ignored in the shaping of the man he is today. He concedes, however, that it is impossible for him to disentangle the natural changes that occur in a man between his early 40s and 50s from those associated with his peculiar situation.

His sense of humour and joy in quick-witted repartee is undimmed and, apart from the obvious signs of maturity that he playfully highlights - his receding hair and greying beard - the Rushdie of 2001 is a more thoughtful, less acerbic and perhaps less arrogant man than the hounded artist of the late 1980s. He says:"If, as a writer, you are satirically inclined, then when you start out it is clearer to you what you are for, than against - that's the nature of satire. One of the things that I felt happened to me during these years was that I had to be clearer about what I was for, and I am clearer and that is helpful to me as a writer."

Rushdie is famous for the length and richness of his novels and he says this inspiration is drawn from his Indian roots. However, he is determined to write shorter books in the future. His most recent book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet - just out in paperback - is nearly three times longer than his next (260-page) work Fury . The title is a dead giveaway for the subject of the novel, but this time Rushdie's sights are set on a people more used to criticism - if no more immune to its barbs - the Americans.

Rushdie, who lives in Los Angeles but is planning to move to New York, says the book is set "right now and right here" and it is "an attempt to present a vision of what is going on at this moment in the most powerful and wealthy country in the world". His concern with shorter novels is partly a reaction against his earlier style of work - long and written at a desperate pace because he was "terrified of boring readers" - and partly a response to a desire to "present reflection as interestingly as action, to allow thinking to have the quality of doing".

"The day that I finished The Ground Beneath Her Feet I got up in a sort of daze and made myself a promise: shorter books, more often, and I feel really happy about that - so that's the new direction: short!" he says to laughter.

If Rushdie's critics a dozen years ago hoped to silence him through fear, it is obvious that they have failed. In a world where intolerance remains perpetually in fashion his work remains as important as ever.

Fury is published in September by Jonathan Cape, £15.99

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