Salman Rushdie taught us yet another profound lesson: great literature will always be a matter of life and death | Robert McCrum

Jhis worst fear for Salman Rushdie has always been: the festival crowd, the vulnerable writer on stage, the buzz of audience anticipation, and then the terrifying eruption of mindless medieval fury.

Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa sentenced him to death on Valentine’s Day 1989, Rushdie has lived in fear of violent Islamist retribution. But he has, over time, conducted himself with such courage and distinction that the literary world has come to forget the murderous frenzy sparked by his novel. satanic verses.

As described in Josef Anton, Rushdie’s memoir of the fatwa, it became an unsettling experience that saw the writer go into hiding with a team of branch special officers armed with submachine guns. This episode mixing terror, boredom and farce, Jack Higgins crossed paths with Tom Sharpe. On one occasion, his guardians presented him with a wig in which, he admitted, he looked ridiculous. This fleeting experience ended after his first outing in his new disguise, on a street in London. As he got out of the car, he once told me, there were stares and comments: “There’s Salman Rushdie with a wig.”

Rushdie had always been a gregarious metropolitan. Now he was in solitary confinement. “It’s a strange thing to have a price on your head,” he told an interviewer, expressing concern about his confinement. “I’m sick of being stuck,” he said. There was, according to him, a difference between hiding someone and protecting them. For a time, he appeared to be on a life sentence. In this intolerable situation, his newfound courage showed itself in the ironic disdain with which he dismissed the threats against his life. Once he was able to settle in the United States, he was able to resume an almost ordinary existence.

Rushdie became president of PEN [a global association of writers] and shaped a role as a champion of free thought and free speech. With a kind of dry stoicism, without a stain of self-pity, mixing English and Indian composure, he said “I go on with my life”, a typically defiant affirmation of his right, as he sometimes puts it, “to say Things “.

Since he was born in Mumbai in 1947, Rushdie has said things all the time, with himself at the center of the conversation. The coincidence of his birth and national independence gave rise to a family joke: forget Gandhi or Nehru, it was baby Salman who drove the British out.

midnight children, inspired by Indian independence, remains a masterpiece of magical realism, widely recognized as a turning point in the reshaping of the English novel at the end of the 20th century. Drawing on his own life experience, he has always maintained that nothing is forbidden.

Such courage comes at a cost, which on Friday became horribly obvious. The threat that Rushdie’s heroic act of will seemed to have neutralized shattered the illusion of normalcy like a knife in its tang.

When I heard the news of this terrible attack, memories of the violence surrounding satanic verses revenue. The 12 people who died in a riot in Mumbai and the six killed in a riot in Islamabad; books burned and bookstores set on fire. In 1991, the Japanese translator of the novel was stabbed to death and his Italian translator seriously injured. In October 1993, William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of the novel, was shot three times outside his home in Oslo and seriously injured.

Once again Salman Rushdie has taught us a profound lesson in life and art. For an age where creative effort is monetized to the extreme, there is something archetypal in the recognition that great literature will always be a matter of life and death.

Robert McCrum is former associate editor and literary editor of the Observer

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