Salman Rushdie at the Bloomsbury Theatre

Waiting for Salman

Salman Rushdie’s new book Joseph Anton is the tale of the author’s life in the period during which he lived under the threat of death from the fatwa pronounced against him by the Ayotollah  Khomeini in 1989.  Rushdis is currently in the middle of a tour to promote the book, and I attended the event last week in which he was in conversation with David Aaronovitch at the Bloomsbury Theatre.

I should confess at the outset to not being that much of a fan, and when I heard that this autobiographical was written in the third person, my first expectation of him was of some pretension.  I went because I was interested in hearing what he had to say about freedom of speech and expression, and of being the object of furious hatred.  It was a pleasure to discover that I liked him more having heard him speak than I had before; and, as we know, there is never any guarantee of that being the outcome of listening to writers talk.

By now, several weeks into his tour, it must be a well rehearsed act, but Rushdie does seem to be able to look back on that extraordinary time of being in hiding, attacked from all sides, both literally and metaphorically, with a sanguine, writerly eye.  He can see humour in what must have been hideous, and with some clever comic timing, he can deliver bons mots and appropriate anecdotes.

He spoke about the people who had made a virtue out of refusing to read The Satanic Verses while damning both it and its author, and told stories about the unlikely relationships both he and some of his literary friends forged with the Special Branch officers who volunteered to serve on his protection squad.  And he speculated that had the British government acted more decisively against the people making death threats in this country, then the violence and the threat of it, might not have escalated so far and so rapidly.

In response to a man in the audience who confessed to having been part of the demonstrations against the book, sent there by his mosque, and who had come to the event to say that he had now read the book and wanted to apologise for having been part of the protest, Rushdie said it was not the first time he had heard similar remarks.  He then went on to say that he was glad that now The Satanic Verses could have the normal life of a book: that people are free to like it or not like it, and if they don’t like it, they can simply close it and put it down.

The only sour notes of the evening came from David Aaronovitch, an unreconstructed angry old leftie, in terrible shoes, who made a couple of self indulgent inappropriate comments with which Rushdie dealt with charm they didn’t warrant.

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