Following the vicious attack on Salman Rushdie last August in Chautauqua, New York, following the news that the writer had been stabbed at least ten times and lost the use of a hand and sight in one eye, following the requisite denunciations of his assailant, there began a hagiography. In The Atlantic, Bernard-Henri Lévy lauded “The Immortal Salman Rushdie.” The New Yorker’s David Remnick argued that Rushdie should win the Nobel, in part due to his “role as an uncompromising defender of freedom and a symbol of resiliency.” The French parliamentarian Benjamin Haddad called Rushdie a “symbol of freedom of expression and intellectual courage in the face of Islamist fanaticism.” He was heralded as a paragon of Western liberalism, a martyr for civil liberty. But the Rushdie I admire, a bellicose writer who once rejoiced in contradiction and multiplicity, might be made uncomfortable by his sudden prophethood; he might go so far as to find it ironic, considering. Yet after a death sentence, a decade of exile during which he relied on the former colonial powers he once derided, and decades more of international celebrity, Rushdie has become a willing abstraction of his former self. His new novel, the warmed-over and didactic Victory City, suggests that he is uninterested in a reclamation.
Victory City is, in many and the worst ways, classic Rushdie. Goddesses whisper to vainglorious men while they sleep, a mad king raves at ghosts, and characters speak entirely in aphorisms. Readers are deposited in the fourteenth century, in a reimagined version of the Indian kingdom of Vijayanagara (renamed Bisnaga through a droll subplot), where a girl named Pampa Kampana is possessed by the goddess Parvati, who enjoins her “to fight for a world in which men would start considering women in new ways.” This, Rushdie writes, “would be the most powerful novelty of all.” It is difficult not to read Victory City as a rehabilitative feminist fable, especially coming from a writer whose women have been criticized as reductions: sexless ice queens, villainous crones, fast-talking trollops. The women of Bisnaga are differently flat. To call them people would imply personality, but these are flawless creatures imbued with superpowers — soothsaying, flying, shapeshifting — used primarily to finger-wag at the men of premodern India. The author has a well-chronicled penchant for comic books, which is perhaps why he employs the Wonder Woman solution to misogyny.
Rushdie’s authorial vices — his moralizing tone, his love of trivia, his chintzy exoticism — have rendered many of his recent novels unreadable. But at his best, Rushdie writes from a perspective between cultural and religious identity, synthesizing the migrant sensibility into a searing, protean critique of the Anglo-imperial world. His finest work is moored to subjects and settings he knows well; it is often about India. My hope was that Victory City, an Indian novel through and through, would mark the return of Rushdie’s critical and creative faculties. No such luck. He has forgone the potent nebulousness of colonialism, displacement, and exile for mannerist expressions of his own prosaic wisdom.
Salman Rushdie was born in 1947 to an affluent, secular Kashmiri family in Bombay. According to Rushdie, his mother was a “gossip of world class” who could not give up the hobby of hearsay any easier than his father “could give up drink.” Rushdie was never forced to attend religious services, pray, or learn Arabic; he has called his father “a godless man” who “was fascinated by God.” At thirteen, buoyed by his father’s support and against his mother’s wishes, he decided to attend Rugby, a boarding school in England. There, as he later wrote in his third-person memoir Joseph Anton, “the sin of foreignness was the first thing that was made plain to him.” He returned to his room to find his essays torn up; one time, the racist slogan “WOGS GO HOME” was scrawled on his wall. The incidents seem to have politicized Rushdie. When the school insisted that all boys enroll in the Combined Cadet Force, he refused: “Sir, my parents’ generation have only recently fought a war of liberation against the British Empire,” he said, “and therefore I cannot possibly agree to join its armed forces.”
Rushdie went on to win a small scholarship to read history at his father’s alma mater, King’s College, Cambridge, where he would “meet E.M. Forster and discover sex, though not at the same time.” At Cambridge, he suffered mostly minor indignities, like being falsely accused of hurling gravy and onions onto the walls and furniture of his dorm room — and then being forced to pay for the damages. When he graduated, he participated in the tradition of kneeling before the vice chancellor and “begging” for his rightfully earned degree in Latin. Years later, in a commencement address at Bard College, he told graduates, “Kneel before no man. Stand up for your rights.”
After university, Rushdie lived in an attic room in London “pretending to write.” He later concluded that he was confused about what he was doing “because he didn’t know who he was.” He was suffering from “a bewilderment about what he had become after being uprooted from Bombay.” He envied the careers of contemporaries like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. He took a role in an anti-Vietnam agitprop show, Vietrock. Within a year of graduating from Cambridge, Rushdie was on the dole.
In 1975, during a stint as an advertising copywriter, he finally published his first novel, Grimus. A work of science fiction, it is told from the perspective of a young and immortal Native American man who journeys to a mystical island in a parallel universe in search of his sister. In Grimus, it is easy to see the filament that would later illuminate Rushdie’s more successful novels — the conflicting allegiances to Islam, Sufism, Hinduism, and atheism; to India and England; to humaneness and pure rage. The work brims with Joycean narrative experiments and all manner of myth and allusion, but the postcolonial critiques that would later define his writing are entirely implicit, lacking a geopolitical rudder. The novel didn’t fare particularly well, met with bad reviews that by Rushdie’s own account “shook him profoundly.” He realized that he would have to return to where his journey had begun to understand his purpose as a writer. “Migration tore up all the traditional roots of the self,” he later reflected. Now, he would have to figure out how “not to suffer from a loss of roots but to benefit from an excess of them.”
Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, won the Booker Prize in 1981, and then, in 1993 and again in 2008, the “Best of the Bookers.” It is one of the twentieth century’s defining works. Rushdie anchored the surreal atmosphere and formal playfulness of Grimus to a florid reimagining of the India of his youth. Midnight’s Children follows the lives of children born between midnight and 1 a.m. on the day of Partition. (Rushdie is exactly two months older than his “children of midnight.” His father would joke: “Salman was born and eight weeks later the British ran away.”) Each of the central characters in Midnight’s Children is afforded a different miraculous ability: one can time travel; another can change genders at will. Still, all are bound by the political realities of a split state, which Rushdie draws with crushing specificity. Antic but never foolish, the novel contours the internal derangements of those who exist between the East and West. It is also a Menippean satire of Indira Gandhi’s militant nationalism, but that is not where its gravity lies. “I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning — yes, meaning — something,” the narrator, Saleem Sinai, explains in the opening passage. “I admit it: above all things, I fear absurdity.” Yet Rushdie’s tale is patently absurd, and brilliant for it. Rushdie had found a way to transmute his own experience of being caught between cultures — one of which had torn the other apart — into an ecstatic, exaggerated literary form that captured the absurdity he knew to exist. At once Indian and English, Rushdie was condemned to a lifetime of cognitive dissonance. What didacticism was available to him? How to write his story of postcolonial India without absurdity?
Shame (1983), Rushdie’s next novel, attends to the other country born of Partition. The book satirizes Pakistan’s popular prime minister, Z.A. Bhutto, his reign of Bonapartist populism, the military coup that deposed him, and his subsequent execution by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. The novel’s nameless narrator tells the story of Omar Khayyam, a renowned U.K.-based immunologist who returns to an opulent but rotting house — entered only by way of a dumbwaiter, with windows that look between rooms but not onto the outside world — on the border between fictionalized versions of Pakistan and Afghanistan shortly after the Russian invasion. The narrator seems to share Omar’s sense of uprootedness. “I, too, am a translated man,” he explains. “I have been borne across.” The narrator clarifies Rushdie’s prevailing literary strategy: life must be warped and transformed into artifice to reflect the fractious effects of displacement on identity. “My story, my fictional country, exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality,” he writes. “I have found this off-centering to be necessary.”
In Shame, Rushdie is an equal-opportunity antagonist. He derides Pakistanis for their newfound “love of Coca-Cola” and scorns the English for their complicity in the senselessness of the Pakistani state. When the narrator is in London, he meets with a senior British diplomat who says it’s “quite proper, ‘post-Afghanistan,’ for the West to support the dictatorship of President Zia ul-Haq.” The diplomat’s wife proposes that, instead, the Pakistanis “get rid of Zia in, you know, the usual way,” at which point the narrator loses his temper.
Likewise, the Rushdie of the early ’80s readily expressed his hostility toward British and American interference in the postcolonial world. The year before Shame was published, he said on Channel 4 that “British thought, British society, has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism.” The following year, he wrote an essay in The Guardian decrying “nanny-Britain, straight-laced Victoria-reborn Britain, class-ridden know-your-place Britain, thin-lipped jingoist Britain.” After a trip to Nicaragua, he took on the U.S. empire, too, penning The Jaguar Smile (1987), a nonfiction portrait of the country during the clandestine American war against the Sandinistas. Rushdie described an affinity among “those of us who did not have our origins in the mighty West, or North.” To be from the Global South was to have “some awareness of the view from underneath, and of how it felt to be there, on the bottom, looking up at the descending heel.” Ever skeptical, even of the victims of colonialism, Rushdie didn’t romanticize the Sandinistas — he recounted their various corruptions and abuses of power — but “one didn’t have to like people to believe in their right not to be squashed by the United States.”
Then came The Satanic Verses. By 1988, Rushdie had established himself as both a novelist and a provocateur. He’d been married once, divorced once, married again — nothing excessive. He was famous in literary circles, but not a household name. Unafraid of castigating religious fanatics and imperialists alike, he could not have predicted that he would soon have to choose between the two.
The Satanic Verses is remembered as the heretical work that inspired the ayatollah’s furor, but at its core, it is a protest novel against both religious extremism and British austerity. Rushdie had shifted his gaze to his adopted home, with most of the novel set in a hostile, carceral London. Rushdie follows two Indian actors, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, as they struggle against racial subordination, in scenes perhaps informed by Rushdie’s anti-racist work with the Camden Committee for Community Relations. “Stay hot,” a black man shouts at a gathering of protestors, after his brother, wrongfully accused of a series of murders, dies in police custody. “Don’t anybody cool off. Maintain your rage.” One of the other characters refers to Margaret Thatcher as “Mrs. Torture.”
Harold Bloom may have hailed The Satanic Verses as “Rushdie’s largest aesthetic achievement,” but its plot is hokey and strained: when Chamcha and Farishta travel to England, they are magically saved from a hijacked plane as it is about to explode. Chamcha becomes host to a demon, while Farishta is inhabited by the Archangel Gabriel and begins to suffer from psychotic visions whose absurdly referential minutiae the reader has to endure for pages at a time. In one dream sequence, the Prophet Muhammad is duped by the devil into exalting three pagan goddesses. Today, the passage reads like a minor dig at the censoriousness and hypocrisy of absolutist belief systems, but at the time it was read — along with another passage in which sex workers impersonate the wives of the Prophet — as a blasphemous parody. Before publication, Rushdie showed the manuscript to his friend Edward Said, who told him, “Well, Salman, the mullahs aren’t gonna like it.” Rushdie replied, “Yeah, but they never liked anything else I wrote.”
He may have miscalculated. When the book was published, there were demonstrations in front of British embassies and a deadly protest outside a U.S. government building in Islamabad; “Rushdie, you are dead,” the demonstrators shouted. The novel was banned in nearly all officially Islamic countries, as well as some with large Muslim populations. “I tried to write against stereotypes,” Rushdie explained in an op-ed for The Observer, and “the zealot protests serve to confirm, in the Western mind, all the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world.” The protests were mild compared to what happened next. On Valentine’s Day, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the now-famous fatwa on Radio Tehran: “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death,” the announcement went. “I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.” The initial price on Rushdie’s head was one million U.S. dollars. Upon hearing the news from a BBC reporter, Rushdie ran around his London home, locking things, drawing curtains. “I’m a dead man,” he thought. The next morning, British intelligence officers arrived at his door. He would be under complete protection, “in internal exile,” starting that afternoon.
Assigned a round-the-clock security detail, Rushdie remained indoors, “growing pale and hairy.” For years, contact with his young son was limited to nightly phone calls and occasional visits at the homes of friends who were willing to undergo security assessments and accept the risk. Despite Rushdie’s condemnations of Thatcher, her administration moved his detail (in an armored Jaguar) between 57 different locations in the most charged months following the decree. The government deported two Iranians suspected of plotting to assassinate him. He even met Mrs. Torture, a woman he would go on to call “very considerate, and surprisingly touchy-feely.” In September 1995, six years after the fatwa was issued, Rushdie attended his first public appearance at a London panel discussion. “Thank you for attending this little coming-out party,” he told the crowd. By 1999, when The Ground Beneath Her Feet was published, he had become a celebrity. It was an instant bestseller. The book party, held at Tina Brown’s house, was attended by David Bowie, Iman, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, and Jerry Seinfeld. The material support of the West had to have been disfiguring for a writer whose multifaceted identities and national fealties had served as a foundation for a contrarian politics and a radical literary style. Is it possible to go on critiquing one’s shield in good faith?
Salman Rushdie has been under threat from Islamic extremists for longer than I’ve been alive. And yet as I read and revered his early novels as a teenager, I was still able to forget the conditions under which his later work was produced. He had slipped out of danger in the popular imagination and mine. Watching him get onstage and sing offkey with U2 or appear as himself in Bridget Jones’s Diary, I understood Rushdie to be a socialite, a card-carrying member of the Illuminati who bounded from metropole to metropole, woman to woman (he was on his fourth marriage to the supermodel Padma Lakshmi, whom he famously called a “bad investment” for not sleeping with him enough), all the while slinging an anodyne brand of broad-mindedness. He was called upon by outlets like The New York Times and MSNBC whenever there was a perceived threat to free speech. “Terrible ideas, reprehensible ideas, do not disappear if you ban them,” he told Bill Keller, former editor of the Times, in 2012. “They go underground. They acquire a kind of glamour of taboo.” He never defined where the “underground” was exactly, or what “the glamour of taboo” might engender, but he returned to this insipid argument often and with smug verve. He repeated himself, almost verbatim, to a Yale auditorium in 2013 and to Chris Hayes in 2019. The Rushdie I came to know wasn’t thinking in real time, much less risking offense; he was reducing his ideas to unobjectionable sound bites. His politics had become so sedate that Mitch McConnell quoted him on the Senate floor in 2020: “Two things form the bedrock of any open society — freedom of expression and the rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.”
By that point, the fatwa had become a cultural touchstone, referred to in television shows like Cheers, Golden Girls, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rushdie himself once remarked, “If it wasn’t for the fact this isn’t funny at all, it would be quite funny.” (On Curb, Rushdie, appearing as himself, gets in on the joke: he tells Larry David to seek out “fatwa sex… the best sex there is!”) Rushdie’s ubiquity in popular culture could be why those of us who came of age after the fatwa forget that on July 4, 1991, his Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was stabbed multiple times in his home, and that seven days later, Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, was stabbed to death. We forget that the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, William Nygaard, was shot three times as he was getting into a car. We forget that Aziz Nesin, a prolific Turkish satirist who translated and excerpted the book in an Istanbul newspaper, was the target of an arson attack that killed 37 people; he narrowly escaped because he was mistaken for a police lieutenant. Rushdie himself enjoys no such anonymity. He still cannot travel freely to South Asia or anywhere in the Middle East without fearing for his life. He has not yet been able to visit his mother’s grave.
Rushdie maintains that the fatwa did not change his writing. This is hard to believe. In the immediate aftermath of the fatwa, Amis — by then a friend — wrote, “Rushdie has vanished into the front page,” and it became an even more apt statement in the decades that followed. But taking Rushdie at his word, and casting aside the most forgivable explanation for the rapid decline of his work, we can read the novels that followed his death warrant as waypoints to the terminus of his literary mode, examples of the diminishing return on stylistic investment. On the use of magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude, V.S. Pritchett notes a requirement of the form: “Almost every sentence is a surprise and the surprise is, in general, really an extension of our knowledge or feeling about life, and not simply a trick.” After the fatwa, Rushdie gradually abandoned surprise and idiosyncratic flourish for just that: simple tricks in the service of morality plays. But platitudes, clichés, and self-congratulation do not mimesis make.
Rushdie’s métier has never been plot or character but the caustic abuse of all political and ideological structures. Once that intention was abandoned, his weaknesses as a writer highlighted the limited capacity of his signature filters (the fantastic, the magical), which over the past three decades have come to function as little more than wainscoting for an all-knowing liberalism.
While he was still in hiding, Rushdie continued working on the novel he had already conceptualized — The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), a generational saga set in Bombay and Cochin — and published a children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), ostensibly intended to explain the concept of censorship to the son he was no longer able to see. With In Good Faith (also 1990), he attempted to defend The Satanic Verses, explain his artistic motivations, and describe his life in hiding. He also released a declaration stating “that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his last prophet.” Neither gesture was paid much attention, at least not by the fundamentalists he was addressing. And after that, he seemed to stop trying to fight the new life the fatwa had given him.
Rushdie was no longer interested in antagonizing anyone — let alone everyone — and began to write as if enamored of his Western readers. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which Rushdie describes as an “everything novel,” is a paean to the virtues of rock and roll and the metropolitan sensibility. To make sure he’d gotten the facts straight, he sent the manuscript to his friend Bono, who ended up using some of the rock star character’s lyrics in his next album. (“Black is white, and cold is heat / For what I worshiped stole my love away / It was the ground beneath her feet,” he sings.) Rushdie moved to New York, got another couple of divorces, and wrote Fury (2001), a midlife-crisis novel set in his new city, which he caricatures as “Gotham.” In Shalimar the Clown (2005), a doltish and vengeful cuckold joins an Al Qaeda-like group, a contrivance that reduces terrorism to a collective act of stupid and broken men. Next came The Enchantress of Florence (2008), seemingly spurred by Rushdie’s late-in-life discovery that the Mughal golden age overlapped with the Italian Renaissance. Set during both periods, it is a clear precursor to Victory City: reaching centuries, rather than decades, into the past exacerbates Rushdie’s more puerile tendencies; he writes his Janissary general into a threesome with the titular enchantress and his Machiavelli into a masturbation scene involving mandrakes. That novel was followed, four years later, by Joseph Anton, the third-person memoir that functioned as a monument to Rushdie’s ego. Once he was finished calcifying his own myth, he debauched others still. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015) is a hackneyed retelling of 1001 Nights, and it reads like a Marvel screenplay about the battle between reason and extremism. Lightning is shot out of fingertips; reason is victorious.
After Donald Trump’s election, Rushdie told an interviewer, “This thing that is very bad for America is very good for the novel.” Was it? He doubled down with The Golden House (2017), in which he styles Trump as The Joker, a “green-haired cartoon king” who takes on Batwoman in the 2016 presidential race. When The Joker is victorious, the narrator remarks, “What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it.” I can’t believe I’m asking this, but what does Rushdie think it would have proven about America if Batwoman had won?
Since then, he has once again indulged in his fetish for popular culture with Quichotte (2019), a forgettable remix of Don Quixote in which a 70-year-old becomes obsessed with American television and falls in love with a former Bollywood star turned talk-show host young enough to be his granddaughter. Rushdie also wrote a short story about leaving Twitter, “The Old Man in the Piazza” (2020).
Collectively, Rushdie’s recent novels tell the story of an ideological laziness, a refusal to refocus his formerly harsh lens. In the preface to the 1997 reissue of The Jaguar Smile, he repeated his friend Mario Vargas Llosa’s charge “that as I have grown older I have grown more politically sensible and therefore more conservative.” He added, “I fear he may be right. I fear he may be wrong.” Whatever that means, it’s clear the September 11 attacks pushed Rushdie decidedly in one direction. In an op-ed published in The New York Times in November 2001, Rushdie wrote, “If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based.” This is, of course, after he elided — with some rote handwaving — what had long ago been the basis of his critique of neocolonialism, insisting that there was “no room here to rehearse the geopolitics of the Cold War and America’s frequently damaging foreign policy ‘tilts’… or America’s role in the installation and deposition of sundry unsavory leaders and regimes.” Why wasn’t there room? Had so much changed since his time in Nicaragua, when he saw firsthand how the United States had unsettled a nation? A year later, he wrote an op-ed in The Guardian titled “Fight the Good Fight,” which, while it quibbled with the U.S.’s unilateral approach, ultimately extolled the virtues of liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s corrupt regime.
Somewhere hot, Mrs. Torture is smiling.
When asked in 2015 what he would like to leave behind, Rushdie quoted Amis: “A shelf of books. You want to be able to walk into a bookstore and say, ‘From here to here, it’s me.’” Having read Rushdie’s shelf, I wonder what else we are inheriting. He has proven a hard man to kill, both for religious extremists proudly ignorant of his writing and for novelists like myself, who bear his influence despite ourselves. Rushdie is the backslidden Muslim who provided me a model for my own apostasy through literature. In Shame, he parodied the Qur’an, comparing it to the inchoate ramblings of the Pakistani military. My own novel uses Qur’anic verse as marketing jargon for a utopian project in Saudi Arabia. More sacrilegiously, an imam rapes his mentor, a cleric; it’s one of the passages that gave my editor and me pause. We wondered if the scene was too incendiary, but we decided it was necessary, and so it stayed. I should have remembered Rushdie in that moment, how he afforded me the freedom to write what I chose. When a book review likened my writing to his, I was flattered — I also winced. A Muslim — anyone really — who writes critically of Islam is bound to Salman.
It could be that this influence sometimes goes both ways, that Rushdie is bound to a new generation of politically certain writers who use the novel as a Trojan horse for political prescription and moral signaling. Early Rushdie, like Gabriel García Márquez and Miguel Ángel Asturias, wrote with the awareness that a political allegory — the kind that is present in Midnight’s Children and Shame — can be the first element to recede into a novel’s grain, becoming invisible to fresh generations of readers; a previous era’s political particularities are meaningless and uninteresting, unless fused with what Rushdie once called “the liquid things about life.”
But if Victory City is any indication, late Rushdie is issuing an insouciant response to writers today: anything you can do, I can do more gratingly. Victory City’s heroine, Pampa Kampana, “the blind poet, miracle worker, and prophetess,” lives for 247 years, whispers Bisnaga into existence (through magic seeds) and pluckily attempts, as the book jacket suggests, to “give women equal agency in a patriarchal world.” She succeeds; it’s a parable, dummy. Where the old Rushdie might have employed scripture as a metafictional device for social commentary, the new Rushdie is working within the genre outright. Throughout the novel, Pampa Kampana is writing the Jayaparajaya, a divine epic we would all do well to follow, if only because Rushdie — sorry, Pampa — has every single answer. Omniscient and infallible, she can discern liars from honest folk, just cause from folly, good wars from bad. If it is a burden to be in sole possession of the truth, neither Pampa nor Rushdie shows it.
There are passages, primarily in Victory City’s second half, where the old Rushdie shines through. When Pampa asks her transcriber and acolyte what she might wish for herself in the future, the acolyte responds, “I want to be a foreigner.” Her description of what she envies about foreigners sounds a lot like a diagnosis of Rushdie’s success: “They just come and go, no ties, no duties, no limits,” she says. “They even tell us stories about ourselves and we believe them even if they get everything upside down. It’s like, they have the right to tell the whole world the story of the whole world, and then just… move on.” The exigency of this sentiment recalls the best passages in Shame, places where Rushdie’s visceral portrait of unbelonging collapses the distance between the reader and the text. Unfortunately, at almost every other juncture in Victory City, sensation supersedes internality. There are beheadings, rapes, years of drought, sometimes occuring all on the same page. Stories begin and are swiftly orphaned. More of them should have been.
At the end of Victory City, Pampa herself is blinded. Falsely accused of killing the king’s son, Pampa and the equally innocent chief minister, Saluva, are sentenced to have their eyes sealed shut with hot iron. The blacksmith weeps while performing the deed. The town cries out: “Remonstrance!” A page later, the king comes to his senses, sort of, and repents.
When he kisses Pampa’s feet and asks for forgiveness, she replies: “Yes, yes… I know. You were angry, you got carried away, you weren’t thinking straight, you weren’t yourself. You need forgiving? I forgive you.” The brutalized Saluva is less magnanimous. “No,” he says. “I do not forgive you, and I would not, even if I lived a thousand thousand lifetimes.” Reading this scene, with its dueling expressions of forgiveness and indignation, in the context of the recent attack on Rushdie’s life, I found myself wondering to whom he was writing.
Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old who allegedly stabbed Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution, claims to have watched a lot of the author’s lectures and found them offensive. “I don’t like people who are disingenuous like that.” (If only Rushdie still allowed himself some disingenuousness, some ideological inconsistency, in his fiction.) The Satanic Verses doesn’t seem to be particularly related to Matar’s murderous rage. “I read a couple of pages,” he told the New York Post. “I didn’t read it cover to cover.” This is likely two pages more than the zealots who burned the novel in 1989 had read. Back then, Rushdie has said, he felt “revulsion when I saw these images of my book set on fire, not just set on fire, first nailed to a post and then set on fire, first crucified and then burned.” His writing cost him something dear then, and again in August, and in all those intervening years.
What if the fatwa had never been issued? What then? The celebrated author does not become a celebrity. Notoriety and isolation don’t become competing and conspiring psychological forces within him, deepening his obsession with schlocky parables and his own mythology. He is not beholden to the West, to Norway, to France, to Sweden, to Canada of all places. His translators and publishers are not attacked and murdered. He doesn’t attempt to explain his art to fundamentalists who were never going to accept him anyway. He tells friends like Christopher Hitchens to fuck off, preferably in print, when they cosign invasions that lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. He doesn’t wave away attempts to place 9/11 in the context of American interventionism abroad. He can still see out of both eyes and use his hand. He probably doesn’t meet Bono. He never meets Bono. He is able to visit his family in South Asia and travel freely in the Middle East. He attends his mother’s funeral.
Wishful thinking, of course, but my desire for him — for us — to wake up in this alternate present has me recalling a line from his very first book: “Then, everything was possible. Now, nothing is.”
Zain Khalid is a novelist and the fiction editor of The Drift.