One could argue the death threat Salman Rushdie received from Ayatollah Khomeini for writing The Satanic Verses ranks among the worst rejections in literary history. Fueled by Khomeini’s fatwa, or edict, Rushdie’s enemies not only banned and burned his book, they wanted to kill him for writing it, called on the wide world of Muslim believers to do the righteous deed, would-be assassins blowing themselves to bits, fellow Muslims pipe-bombing bookstores and killing other Muslims for not hating Rushdie enough. Protests, often violent, broke out in Paris, New York, Oslo, and in India, Pakistan, Germany, Thailand, the Netherlands, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Turkey, Sweden, Australia, and England. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in an elevator, stabbed repeatedly in the face and arms. Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was attacked, kicked and stabbed, but survived. Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, took three bullets, yet lived. Rushdie, forced into hiding and invisibility—from February 14, 1989 to March 27, 2002—found himself at the center of a global controversy about what it means, and what it costs, to speak freely.
But this story has been told and told again, best in Rushdie’s own recent account, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. I have a Salman Rushdie story only I can tell, a story of a chance encounter and unexpected common ground.
In June 2004 I attended an international conference in Los Angeles, arriving at an unnamed Avenue of the Stars hotel registration desk, travel weary, dragging a laptop computer and an over-stuffed garment bag, only to learn I had no room (confirmed reservation notwithstanding) and would have to hump luggage and self across the street to an alternate hotel. Next to me, receiving the same news, was of all people, Salman Rushdie, the keynote speaker for the conference. The hotel staffer at the desk had no idea who Rushdie was, didn’t recognize the name even when it was spelled out for him twice, and treated Mr. Rushdie with the same forced courtesy I received.
Rushdie didn’t so much as raise one of his legendary eyebrows. He quietly accepted the inconvenience, checked the directions to the other hotel, and even thanked the desk attendant before turning to go. I followed his lead. A woman on the other side of me, who had even more luggage and had received the bad news with tears, also followed us out the door. I helped her with her bags and we fell behind Rushdie as he crossed the street in languid strides. “That’s Salman Rushdie,” I whispered to the woman. “Who the hell is Salman Rushdie?” she blurted. Really? Didn’t she see his picture in the conference brochure? Is he so invisible? The fatwa had been all over the news for a decade. It had only been a short time since India, Rushdie’s childhood home and birthplace, had finally granted him a visa to return, after more than 12 years. For someone like Rushdie, wouldn’t this kind of invisibility be an insult, one of the worst kinds of rejection? And if Salman Rushdie is this invisible, then how much more invisible, and therefore more rejected, must I be?
Soon Rushdie and I are shoulder to shoulder again at the other hotel registration desk. This time we get a room. Not together, of course. I can’t help noticing Mr. Rushdie has to repeat his name yet again and spell out the last: R-u-s-h-d-i-e. Yes. That’s it. Thank you. No problem. Invisible once more and not unhappy about it. In fact, he doesn’t seem to mind in the least. After all, to save his life, Salman Rushdie had to master the art of invisibility in the fatwa years, when he was under the protection of the British government, which amounted to house arrest, except when he was shuttled, in armored vehicles, from “port to port,” that is from the back door of his “current location” to other back doors—to visit his son, Zafar, to hide in friends’ homes, or to plead with publishers unwilling to print his work, or on secret visits to literary gatherings, embassies, concert halls, restaurants, movie theatres, or even to the home of U2’s Bono who spirited Rushdie away from security for a pint of Guinness in a Dublin pub.
Is invisibility rejection or freedom? Or both? Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning novel Midnight’s Children, is rescued from war-torn Pakistan by disappearing “inside the basket of invisibility.” It saves Saleem’s life, too, and, yet, his rescuer, Parvati the witch, warns him, saying, “nobody should be kept invisible that long—it was dangerous.”
Before I can finish my story, I need to go back fourteen years, before my chance meeting with Rushdie in Los Angeles, back to 1990, two years into the fatwa, when I was unaware of Rushdie’s ongoing battle to get The Satanic Verses into paperback, and I found myself in Washington, D.C., on business. A bit on TV about the Rushdie affair had launched me from another hotel in search of the maligned novel. At the first bookstore, no Rushdie books at all; at the second, a copy of his first novel, Grimus, but no sign of The Verses or even Midnight’s Children. The new novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories had yet to appear. Had the terrorists succeeded in silencing Rushdie? Were store owners afraid to sell the book, even told by their corporate owners not to stock any of his “dangerous” books until things cooled down? Quite possible.
I’m telling you this because it was the beginning of a pattern. After that night, every time I went into a book store, I checked to see if they had Rushdie’s Verses for sale. It was a kind of measure of the store’s tolerance, quality, even courage. Sadly, I rarely found the book, years went by between sightings, but even when I did see it, I didn’t buy it, not for a decade. Why not? When I did finally purchase my own copy, I turned the title inward as I exited the store, hiding it from my wife and kids, reading by flashlight in the wee hours. And there is more to this pattern. Another book I always look for when I visit a bookstore is Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December. I’m not in search of a copy, since I already own three. I look for it because it is a book that saved my life. The Dean’s December was the subject of my Master’s thesis and I all but ingested the novel in graduate school during a time of loss: a hoped-for girlfriend sleeping with her roommate’s boyfriend—say that quickly three times. I could have taken it all in stride. Wasn’t this a near universal disappointment for the young? The girl in question was, in spite of the wrenched circumstances, a true friend, intended me no harm, and she was honest about what happened. Even in the middle of it, I didn’t have it in me to be angry with her. I still don’t. But being in my twenties at the time and a romantic type, I opted, though unconsciously, for suffering, night seizures, near nervous breakdown, expensive hospital tests and mandatory therapy sessions in which they rated me 7 on a scale of 10 for suicide potential. I say this only because Saul Bellow’s Dean, that unjustly slighted book, kept me going. The protagonist had far bigger troubles than mine, a family death, a grieving wife, a career in freefall, a violent crime in Chicago that haunted and obsessed him, and, most of all, his isolation, far from home, in Romania.
Now back to 2004 in Los Angeles. The day goes on. Conference attendees get settled into some hotel or other near the Avenue of the Stars, and Rushdie gives his keynote speech, in which he quotes, of all the books in the world, in the vast sea of stories, Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December. Rushdie sites an obscure scene where the protagonist, Albert Corde, a Chicago-born college dean, looks out his window at the bleak cityscape in communist-ruled Bucharest, Romania.
Earthquake damage was still being repaired. A machine, a wheeled crane, worked its way down the block. A crew of two stood in the large bucket to patch cracks in stucco, working around the open porches. Women in kerchiefs whacked their carpets in the morning. From all sides one heard the percussion of carpet beaters. Give it to them! The dust went off in the sunlight. A dog barked, whined as if a beater had given him a whack, then barked again. The barking of the dog, a protest against the limits of dog experience (for God’s sake, open the universe a little more!)—so Corde felt, being shut in.
I guess it’s no surprise Rushdie, being similarly shut in and spied upon for so long, attached himself to Bellow’s protagonist, to this novel, and even to this particular scene. But when I heard him read those words, a chill crawled up my back, I stopped breathing. For it was this very scene, these very words that I had read hundreds of times, underlined in yellow and red in my three copies of the novel, because they captured perfectly my own sense of isolation, at a time when I had shut myself into a box of invisibility and rejection. I was that barking dog and for all these years I had thought I was the only one who knew it. Now here was Salman Rushdie saying, “It’s as if that dog is saying, ‘For God’s sake open the universe a little more!’ That’s what storytelling is all about— to expand the song of what it means to be alive, to crack open the universe. You don’t do that by being safe in the middle—you have to go to the edges.” After this I’m scrambling for a pen in the darkened room to write down every word he says, as if the deepest secret of life was about to be revealed. Rushdie says: “Killing people because you don’t like what they write—is that a valid form of literary criticism?” The audience laughs but soon quiets down when he mentions 9/11 and muses, almost to himself: “These times are surreal and ugly—I don’t remember a darker time,” and reminds us we are all capable of intolerance, even violence: “The defense of free speech begins when someone says something you can’t stand.”
That evening I nearly miss Rushdie’s book signing, arriving late to find him alone boxing up unsold copies of Step across This Line. No armed bodyguards. No skulking jihadists. Rushdie graciously sits back down and signs my book. He doesn’t mind a bit being invisible in this way of freedom, bearing the quotidian writer’s rejection and anonymity, the nagging sense that people attend book signings more for the wine and cheese and the slender youths dressed all in black than for the writer.
He tilts his head in recognition, as if to say, “Aren’t you that fellow from the hotel.” And we chat a bit about how we made out pretty well with the alternate accommodations after all. I want to ask, “Does your room have three sofas, facing wall-length mirrors, a separate bath and shower, a bidet, a fresh cotton robe for every night, plus truffles and strawberries, and a balcony above a swaying row of Ponderosa pines?” We talk instead about The Dean’s December and speculate on why Bellow’s first post-Nobel Prize effort gets short shrift. I tell Rushdie, “I can count on one hand the times I have found the Dean in stores in the last 20 years.” And he tells me, kindly, “I think it’s actually one of his very best.”
We all face it—rejection—somewhere along the line, far more than a few times, no matter how famous or obscure we may be, and it slaps us hard in those hit-bottom moments, when we see ourselves as no more than dust, or, again in the words of Rushdie’s hero, Saleem Sinai, “six hundred million specks of dust, and all transparent, invisible as glass.” And yet, we are not invisible, not always, not even to strangers, as Rushdie said in his speech, “Our stories bleed into each other . . . the distance between the public and private is very thin.” We see. We connect, from the page written to the page read. We are here.