The Two Salman Rushdies: Writer and Public Figure


I remember the exact moment I realized there were two Salman Rushdies. It was when I read his 2001 humblebrag about palling around with U2. “I’ve been crossing frontiers all my life — physical, social, intellectual, artistic borderlines,” Rushdie wrote, “and I spotted, in Bono and the Edge, whom I’ve so far come to know better than the others, an equal hunger for the new, for whatever nourishes.” The truth is that Rushdie’s camaraderie with the members of U2 — particularly Bono — makes total sense, and the fact that he finds them to be kindred spirits even more: both of them did their best work in the 1980s, and both of them (at least in Bono’s case) have spent the bulk of their careers advocating and being the faces of specific causes. Bono’s tend to vary, while Rushdie is the freedom of speech hero who faced religious crazies that threatened his life after Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, placed a fatwā on Rushdie’s head for his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which the Ayatollah claimed was “blasphemous against Islam.”

Twenty-five years later, Rushdie is still alive. He stared down the bullies, and, thankfully for all of us, he survived, and the tale can now be told in a new a new article in Vanity Fair titled “A Fundamental Fight.” Of course, author Paul Elie’s great piece isn’t the first insider story we’ve had on the subject: Rushdie himself, in the third person, gave us his account of his experiences in hiding from the wrath of fundamentalists in Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Although it was a welcome thing to hear Rushdie’s own side of the story, Joseph Anton just wasn’t a very good read, and the vitriolic way he wrote about the women in his life made Rushdie seem like a main character out of an Updike novel.

As Elie points out in his article, Rushdie eventually came out of hiding, moved to New York, and spent “a thousand and one nights chronicled unkindly in the tabloids, whose columnists seemed to begrudge him his very existence.” He still has to always look over his shoulder, but the Salman Rushdie of the 21st century is more than just an author: he’s a figurehead, a knight, and he maybe had a thing with Courtney Love. Not so bad for a guy who was Public Enemy #1 to a big group of people at one time, but it’s hard to look at the books Rushdie has given us since his reemergence and not think that Rushdie the Writer has been replaced by Rushdie the Public Figure. He is, and will forever remain, one of the most important literary figures of his generation based on what he went though and what he stands for. Should we be asking much more from him? But after a quarter-century of talking about Rushdie’s perseverance, more discussion of Rushdie as writer might be in order. Hopefully he gives us a chance to do that again.