Salman Rushdie tells stories of oppression, freedom and the fatwa

Mae Ryan / Stanford Daily Rushdie

Salman Rushdie spoke last week on campus. “The spectrum of what’s acceptable to say is getting narrower,” cut off by the religious right on one side and the “curious appeasement” of militant Islam on the left, he said.

Some speculated Sir Salman Rushdie wouldn't mention his notorious fatwa at all—he had, after all, expressed a wish to leave behind a life he likened to being "stuck in a bad novel." The shoemaker might stick to his last, discussing, perhaps, the fate of the novel, rather than delving into his own life-in-hiding following the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 bounty for his murder.

He surprised them. He discussed both in a witty, wide-ranging and affable address to a packed Kresge Auditorium May 5. He didn't shy away from the "bigotry, fanaticism and ugliness" that had resulted in the murder of his Japanese translator and the "near-murder" of two others following the publication of The Satanic Verses. But he enclosed this discussion within the context of a literary world where "the distance between public life and private life is shrinking."

During the talk, sponsored by the ASSU Speakers Bureau, Rushdie recalled that an early version of his Midnight's Children opened with the sentence: "Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence."

He later dropped the line as too Tolstovian, but added, "We live in a time in which actions occurring in places we are not 'at,' and decisions made in rooms whose existence we don't suspect, directly affect our daily lives."

"We have to take into account other decisions, other rooms, other absences," he said.

The collapse of the private and public spheres, he said, poses difficulties for the novel. Citing Heraclitus' oft-quoted observation that "man's character is his fate," he said: "The novel grows out of that.

"There's something in the novel that wants to be parochial, that wants to be small, to be intimate, and never lose sight of the human scale." But, he said, "the novel can no longer be parochial, our lives are large and international."

With this collapse, our lives, our stories and our memories collide with the world at large.

"How do you tell the story of your life? We all live in stories. We all constantly retell our stories," Rushdie said. "We live by and with and through stories. It's not just a literary question—it's an existential question. It goes to the root of what we are."

Collectively, these stories are revised—as when slavery ended, or women were granted suffrage. The kaleidoscope of stories is "one description of freedom."

In tyrannies, however, people are "imprisoned within someone else's story." Such regimes insist, "You can't tell your story. We tell the story. And the story can only be told in this way and it means this. And if you try to change it, we'll come after you."

He recalled a specific example during the 1971 Pakistan war opposing the secession of Bangladesh, which he recounted in Midnight's Children: the "astounding, genocidal brutality" days before the Pakistani army surrendered to the Indian military. The Pakistani army systematically executed nearly a thousand intellectuals and prominent citizens. They were, said Rushdie, machine-gunned and buried in shallow graves.

"This is not simply a thing I am saying to you," said Rushdie. "It's well documented" with photographs and eyewitnesses. However, no Pakistani government, "from that day to this," has acknowledged the massacre, insisting it is only rumor-mongering among "Indian stooges."

"Even the simple act of remembering can be political if official truth tries to deny the truth of what you remember," he said. This episode is a case, he said, where "the official version of history is at odds with the remembered version of history."

The tension between private truths and public lies has created great art in the past, said Rushdie. He cited the "extraordinary literature" produced in Eastern Europe during the Soviet regime.

"It's one of the deep ironies that Russian literature has been impoverished by the end of the Soviet Union," he said. "Under the crippling power of freedom, the books have just fallen apart," he said.

"It's an axiom that writers will sometimes say to each other: 'The worse it is, the better it is.' Literature needs an enemy."

In today's world, Rushdie saw culture as threatened by forces on the right and left; both have access to the technology to magnify their impact. In the case of Khomeini's fatwa, "The global coordination of the attack was extremely impressive," he said. He added that modern terror is the creature of technology: "Without the Internet café, we would not have global terrorism."

Although he decried misguided liberal tolerance for Islamic radicalism, Rushdie remained a radical advocate for freedom of speech. He said that he himself refused to stop the British debut of a clearly defamatory movie.

In the film, International Guerillas, he was portrayed in hiding in "what looked very like a palace in the Philippines," guarded by "what looked very like the Israeli Secret Service." Rushdie recalled that he had a bottle of bourbon in his left hand and, in his right, "sometimes a whip, sometimes a scimitar." He spent his days "idly, lazily torturing people—because that's the kind of guy I am." In the narrative, he is presented with a prisoner—"tied up between palm trees"—"for me to have my way with him."

In the movie, Rushdie devised the worst torture of all for the prisoner: He instructed the guard, "Take him away and read to him from The Satanic Verses all night." In the end, Rushdie was "killed by God" in the form of a whirling Quran in the sky that unleashes thunderbolts.

The film was "19 ways defamatory," but Rushdie waived the right to sue. As a result, he said, organizers "booked the biggest theater in the city and nobody came."

"I know why. It was a terrible movie," he said. "It was irrelevant what they thought about me. Nobody wants to spend 10 bucks on a bad movie." Had he succeeded in banning it, "it would have been the hottest video in town."

In such cases, he compared the effect of free speech to sunlight on vampires.

In modern society, however, "the spectrum of what's acceptable to say is getting narrower," cut off by the religious right on one side and the "curious appeasement" of militant Islam on the left. Culture, he said, is what's caught in the middle.

He said the role of art is to open up the world to new perspectives and new understandings. "The greater the art, the greater the success," he said.

"But the trouble with going to the edge is that there are all kinds of forces that don't want the universe opened more."

When asked about the long-term effect of the fatwa on his life, he said he recalled most the "noble, selfless" acts of ordinary readers and bookstore staff. "I remember that more than the ugliness of the attack."