SALMAN Rushdie recently came out of the tunnel after hiding and running away from the shadow of death threats for nine years.
Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on Rushdie in 1989 after the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” which the Islamic world decried as blasphemous.
The Iranian government renounced Khomeini's decree in 1998 but a semi-official Iranian religious foundation headed by Ayatollah Hassan Saneii has raised the bounty from $2.8 million to $3.3 million on the heels of Middle East riots triggered by recent protests against an anti-Islamic film.
Rushdie is known for his dream-like novels filled with fecund metaphors, including “Shame” and the Booker Prize winning “Midnight’s Children” (two of my all-time favorites).
“The Satanic Verses” is not exactly among Rushdie’s greatest works (to me, at least) on grounds of its forgettable plot. But the surrealism that encompasses the novel itself – or its publication – has buried Rushdie into the pages of his own book, making “The Satanic Verses” one of the century’s most interesting works of literature.
After years of producing disappointing novels and short stories while in exile from a normal life, Rushdie is now back in the literary landscape, brandishing “Joseph Anton,” a memoir filled with details of those years in hiding.
Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described “Joseph Anton” as “a harrowing, deeply felt and revealing document: an autobiographical mirror of the big, philosophical preoccupations that have animated Mr. Rushdie’s work throughout his career, from the collision of the private and the political in today’s interconnected world to the permeable boundaries between life and art, reality and the imagination.”
In his recent interviews, Rushdie disclosed that the book is titled after the pseudonym he used while in hiding. “Anton” was for Anton Chekhov and "Joseph" for Joseph Conrad, author of the credo “I must live till I die” that Rushdie lives by.
Rushdie’s memoir, according to Kakutani, was more than about the controversial novel. “It was about the era of fear and self-censorship that the fatwa had brought into being,” she wrote. “It was about standing up for literature, which ‘encouraged understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself’ at a time when ‘the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.’”
Incidentally, Rushdie’s memoir is released a week before The Freedom to Read Foundation marks the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6. According to its release, FTRF, via its Judith F. Krug Memorial Fund, has awarded eight $1,000 grants to libraries, schools (including Simon Sanchez High School of Guam) and other organizations in support of the movement.
According to FTRF Executive Director Barbara Jones, grants would “encourage librarians, teachers and event planners to be creative with their plans” and “further spreads the message of the importance of the freedom to read – and the role of libraries in protecting that freedom.”
Fortunately, we live in an era that created a borderless world in which banning books doesn’t render them inaccessible. Any book is downloadable and information is de-massified.
What we fear now, however, is the emergence of the thought police, the juvenile sophists and politically correct zealots, who don’t allow you to think.
But like Rushdie, independent thinkers must stand up for freedom of speech, freedom of the imagination, freedom from fear.