On the 10-year anniversary of the death sentence imposed against him, Salman Rushdie faced a dilemma: "Ignore the politics ... and my silence must look enforced or fearful. Speak and I risk deafening the world to those other utterances, my books, written in my true language ... literature."
This is the challenge for Rushdie's readers too: cleaving the famous author from his books. Especially since his capital-F fame emerged not so much from his exuberant and lyrical writing but from the fact that it nearly got him killed.
You can't blame Rushdie for tiring of questions about the fatwa -- the hit ordered by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 because of alleged heresy in his novel The Satanic Verses. Shuttled between safe houses for much of a decade -- during which time his Japanese translator was murdered -- Rushdie remained in hiding until the fatwa was lifted in 1998. All this notoriety landed him onstage with U2, in a gym on Seinfeld (at least Kramer thinks it's him) and at a snooty literary function in the movie Bridget Jones' Diary, directing people to the loo.
A British writer born in India who lives in New York, Rushdie found himself with a profoundly American problem: He was in danger of becoming one of those people famous for being famous.
That's why it's thrilling to read his latest book, Step Across This Line, a collection of essays, columns and lectures from the years 1992 to 2002. (Rushdie will read from Step Across to close the Get Lit! literary festival on Saturday, April 23, at the Met.) From the opening essay about The Wizard of Oz, the reader is reminded of the agile intellect and generous humor of Rushdie the writer. If as children we identify with Dorothy, Rushdie writes, as adults we become like the wizard: "magicians without magic, exposed conjurers with only our simple humanity to get us through." It's the same high/low cultural proficiency that powered Rushdie's inventive 1994 story collection, East West, which reads like a game of artistic Twister, stretching the reader from a Pakistani arranged bride to Hamlet's Yorick to Christopher Columbus to Chekhov. (No, not that one ... the one from Star Trek.)
Fame does make a stiff cameo in Step Across This Line. (Bono, apparently, is a cool guy.) But Rushdie is at his best writing about other things: soccer, novels, India, and -- in the most harrowing section, "Messages from the Plague Years" -- life during the fatwa. These lucid dispatches even contain a lesson for contemporary writers: Suffering for your art is not the same as not making money at it.
In the best essays, Rushdie's high-wire connects history to pop culture to fable and reminds you why his 1981 masterpiece, Midnight's Children, was named the best British novel in 25 years by the Booker Prize committee. Epic and showy, Midnight's Children winks at Tristram Shandy and The Tin Drum but is utterly original, creating what V. S. Pritchett called an act of "perpetual storytelling." Here is the impressionistic birth of nation, with inevitable collisions among colonialism, religion and class, told in a voice that is inventive, funny and wrenching: "We all owe death a life."
If, as Rushdie worried, the world became deaf to his true language during the fatwa, a quick run through Midnight's Children can restore your hearing. So, too, can this new book, which closes fittingly with columns and speeches written after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. On that day, we all woke up in Rushdie's dream. Suddenly we were the sworn symbolic enemy of radical Islamic fundamentalists, and we couldn't quite understand what we'd done to piss them off.
Rushdie is a terrific and fair guide to the aftermath of such senseless terror, castigating the left for trying to blame the attacks on American policy -- "appalling rubbish. Terrorism is the murder of the innocent" -- and finally ending in a place that half the American public found itself, profoundly worried about the American government's response to the attacks: suspicious of the war in Iraq and horrified that we will barter civil rights for the illusion of security. This is the treat of being able to hear Rushdie the writer again: "Will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like his hate-filled, illiberal mirror image, or will we, as the guardians of the modern world ... go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice?"
Salman Rushdie reads from his latest book,Step Across This Line, on Saturday, April 23, at 7 pm at the Met, 901 W. Sprague. Tickets: $42. Call 325-SEAT. Opening for Rushdie will be Debra Magpie Earling and Carlos Reyes.