Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


To live until he dies: The gift of Salman Rushdie

  • 25 August 2022
Salman Rushdie is a writer with a most defiant sense of humour. If you want to get to know him, I wouldn’t start with The Satanic Verses (1988), the book that has brought him so much grief. Thirty three years after Ayatollah Khomeni imposed a fatwa on the author, it would seem to have led, on August 12, to a young man called Hadi Matar making an attempt on Rushdie’s life at a public event in New York.

The Satanic Verses is an elusive book. Even Rushdie has joked about readers who can’t get past page 15. I doubt if the Ayatollah even got that far. If he did, he might have discovered that the main character, Gibreel Farishta, dies because he loses his faith in God and is unable to find anything to replace it, not even earthly love. I would have thought that might have appealed to the Ayatollah. Whatever was motivating him, it could hardly have been the book to which he has given so much free publicity.

To encounter Rushdie, I would start with the book that followed The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990). It is full of sunshine and mellow humour. Yet it was written at a time when Rushdie was in hiding, moving from house to house, shadowed by police and unable to stay in any one place for more than a few days. Rushdie writes about that time in his memoir, Anton Joseph. He used the name Anton Joseph as a disguise. Anton after Anton Chekhov. Joseph after Joseph Conrad. The two writers who most inspired him. He took to heart a line from Conrad in which a sailor suffers tuberculosis yet still fronts up for a long voyage. ‘I must live until I die, mustn’t I,’ the sailor explains. This became Rushdie’s motto. He was determined to live until he died. Think of his self-satirising cameo alongside Jeffrey Archer in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001).

Rushdie’s memoir is full of appreciation for the support he received, notably from other writers, and compassion for those, especially booksellers and publishers, who suffered on his account. It is concerned above all for his young son. But it is never far from mischief. He tells a story of a time when the hysteria against him was at its most frenzied and he was having dinner with a friend in London who lived in a small flat.