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UNMARKED MAN
THREATS AGAINST SALMAN RUSHDIE WERE INDICATIONS OF VIOLENCE TO COME, BUT THE 'SATANIC VERSES' AUTHOR COMES TO BUFFALO WITH A SENSE OF SECURITY

He divides his time between New York and London, where his two sons are (one 25, the other 8).

On one side of the Atlantic, he watches David Milch's "Deadwood," of which he is an avid partisan. On the other side of the pond, he can be talked into a cameo role in the first "Bridget Jones" movie (Jones author Helen Fielding is an old friend).

On both sides, he likes Coldplay "a lot" and Maroon 5.

Security is not an issue anymore for Salman Rushdie and, he says, hasn't been for seven years.

If, for instance, after his lecture at 8 p.m. April 28 in the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena, he decides on a whim to go out and, in the time-honored academic tradition for visiting writers, hoist a few beers with students, there would be no frowning Scotland Yard security to stop him. In fact, he says, "I often do after these lectures. I can't stress that enough: The security issue has been over for so long."

One could, then, almost convince oneself that Salman Rushdie is just another great writer in a world replete with them.

He's not.

Not only are great living writers never in unlimited supply, Rushdie, at 57, is both writer and symbol, and probably will be until the day he dies. He was, in fact, the harbinger of a Western world under attack by Islamic fundamentalism. After his novel "The Satanic Verses" was published in October 1988 and banned in his native India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini -- on Valentine's Day 1989 -- issued his fatwa over Radio Tehran sentencing to death the book's author "as well as those publishers who are aware of its contents." All "zealous Muslims" anywhere in the world were enjoined to "execute them quickly" for reward.

Two days earlier, six people died and 100 were injured during Pakistani demonstrations against the book. Rioting the next day in Srinigar, India, resulted in another death and 60 people injured.

In July 1991, his Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered for his association with "The Satanic Verses," and the book's Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was wounded. In October 1993, Rushdie's Norwegian publisher William Nygaard narrowly escaped death after being shot four times in the back.

The private terror of Salman Rushdie became the public fear of the Western world 12 years later on a beautiful Tuesday morning in September. Since 9/1 1, everyone in the West has been living in Salman Rushdie's world.

In a rare recent telephone interview, the literary embodiment of our time admitted from Manhattan: "Initially I would resist attempts to compare what happened with me to what happened on that day, because it almost seemed like an act of self-aggrandizement to do so. The scale of what happened was so much greater. I just thought 'I don't want to say I was there first.' It just seemed obscene at that time. So initially I resisted the comparison.

"What I now think is that what happened to me was a kind of overture or prologue. Now, this is the main event."

Back in 1989, "there was a tendency to see it as a very isolated case. People who were on my side made the argument that no writer had ever been persecuted in this uniquely horrible way, and it was a uniquely horrible event. People who were attacking me said that I had done something uniquely horrible and therefore no general conclusion could be drawn. This wasn't a general Islamic attack on freedom. It was that I had been so unpleasant that I deserved what was coming to me.

"Both people -- on my side and not on my side -- refused to see that there are some general principles at stake here. When I would argue that there were, it was often heard as special pleading, as self-justifying. It was very difficult to persuade people in those days that there was a very large international attack by many radical Islamists in many countries against all kinds of fundamental freedoms in their own country.

"Now, in the light of what has happened in the last several years, people see that argument much more clearly and accept it much more easily."

Even more than most writers -- even Cambridge-educated ones -- Rushdie is an extraordinarily articulate man. He's also a remarkably candid one. Among other newsworthy things he said in a remarkable conversation:

The Schiavo case was a "constitutional tragedy" for America and that there is, indeed, "a re-energized religious project of increasing political significance -- not just in the Muslim world but here as well."

Early reports of a post-fatwa prohibition against visiting his son were exaggerated for his son's protection.

He now regrets, in retrospect, all "those attempts to compromise in the early months with something that had no interest in compromising with me." If he knew then what he knows now, "I think I'd have taken a much harder line than I did from the beginning."

A full report on a candid conversation with one of the most remarkable figures in our time:

On the Schiavo case and the rise of political religiosity around the world.

"The whole Terry Schiavo thing was, of course, a personal tragedy for the family concerned. It was also, I think, a constitutional tragedy for this country -- that the constitution was so easily set aside to 'save' a woman who, quite clearly, died 15 years ago in every realistic meaning of the word 'life.' I was horrified by what happened.

"The growing strength of religious politics (is evident) in a way that hasn't been the cast in the West in my lifetime. I'm a child of the '60s. In the '60s, the idea that religion would be a major public force in politics seemed absurd. The death of God seemed well-established in the '60s. The resurrection of God is one of the more dramatic elements of the politics of the last 20 or 30 years, in the Christian world as well as the Muslim world. I would not have been able to foretell that.

"I do think that secular values are under attack right now and need defending."

Asked about the outcome, he says: "I've learned not to prophesy. As I've sometimes mentioned, I've had my own difficulties with prophets and am, therefore, not applying for the job. I also think anytime anyone forecasts the future, the future always proves them wrong. 'Futurology' is the science of being wrong about the future, isn't it."

About the many years of stories that he was prohibited from seeing his son as he grew up.

"A certain amount of that was a smoke screen. At that point we were very anxious not to draw any unpleasant attention in his direction. I actually allowed it to be thought it was impossible for me to see him, whereas in fact, it wasn't. It was difficult for me to see him. I didn't see him nearly as much as I would wish to because in those early days of maximum security, it required quite an operation to do anything of that sort. Actually I did manage to see him pretty regularly, even during the worst of it in the first couple of years.

"He's now 25, coming up on 26. We're very, very close -- especially, as unfortunately, his mother died young. For the last six or seven years, I've been a single parent, so we're very close. My youngest son, who's now coming up on 8, I'm really delighted that, in a way, he missed it all. . . . He's grown up completely fatwa free and has had a completely normal childhood, which is a great delight."

His older son? (Laughs.) "Until recently, he was working for MTV. He's now working in that new expanding field which is called 'event management.' He puts on shows."

On his own conduct during the first few years of his being condemned to death:

"There is lots I would do differently. There were moments earlier on where I was persuaded -- I think wrongly -- to try and be compromising and mollifying. I think, in retrospect, that the people I was up against were not interested in compromise or understanding. They were interested in destroying the things I most passionately cared about. I think I'd have probably taken a harder line than I did from the beginning. And certainly at the point at which I began to fight back, politically and as a writer, I began to feel much better. I felt much better about myself in the situation, when I stopped feeling like a victim and I started feeling like a competent. If I have any regrets, it has to do with those attempts to compromise in the early months with something that had no interest in compromising with me."

On the heroism of international publishers, translators and booksellers.

"(Norwegian publisher William Nygaard survived his shooting) really because he was a very fit man. He used to be a professional skier in his younger days, and he's always remained very athletic and fit. Anybody with a lower level of fitness would have died. . . . When these things happen, you always feel responsible and guilty because you feel they've been attacked in your stead. That's what I thought. I remember calling William after some time when he was able to receive phone calls. He was still in hospital. He was very, very frail. I tried to apologize to him, and he immediately stopped me and pointed out, as he said, that he was a grown-up and knew what he was doing as a publisher and was proud to have done so. And he said, in this feeble hospital voice, 'By the way way, you might like to know I've just ordered a reprint.'

"In three years, there were not just people who run publishing companies but secretaries in publishing companies who would be phoned by anonymous voices saying, 'We know where you live and where your children go to school.'

"The fact that publishers around the world refused to buckle, refused to cave in under that kind of pressure, is a great story in the history of publishing. The fact that booksellers across this country, across the world who refused to succumb to threats -- as we know there were attacks on booksellers -- nevertheless went on putting the book in the window and selling it; that ordinary courage is really what made it possible to win this battle. It feels extraordinary to have been on the receiving end of so many courageous acts and defended by them."

On the weird initial reluctance of some writers of high and aggressive political profile -- Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller -- to come to his defense, especially compared to those like the late Susan Sontag who publicly declared support immediately.

"I knew quite a lot of what was happening. I think the truth about Norman is that he'd never read a word I'd written. He was probably almost unaware of my existence as a writer at the time the trouble began. I think that might have had something to do with his kind of slow start. Once he got mobilized -- by Susan (Sontag) and others -- he was perfectly vocal.

"My sense of it is that there were some writers who were reluctant, but there were relatively few. My overwhelming sense was of immense support from the literary community, in America and England and worldwide.

"Yes, I can think of three or four writers who said (negative) things I wish they hadn't said. . . . The couple that first spring to mind are John le Carre and John Berger. I haven't run into them, ever, since then. I'm not sure what I'd say to them if I did. (Pause). I think I would feel obliged to bring it up."

On the presence of pop culture references in his work.

"The thing that people forget about the novel is that it is, in the best sense, a vulgar form. The novel is about the life of the people -- about how people actually live, what they really think about, what books they read, what movies they see, what thoughts are in their heads. If you don't know the kind of everyday garbage in people's heads, you can't write about them believably. If you're trying to create characters who live in the world as we know it, you have to immerse yourself in the things that people immerse themselves in.

"I'm also a child of the generation of rock and roll. So I grew up with rock and roll. I grew up with the movies. I didn't really, so much, grow up with television. If there's a kind of hole in my popular culture, it has to do with TV. I grew up in India at a time when there was no television in India. We had the radio and the movies -- and comic books. Believe me, I am disgustingly knowledgeable of 1950s comics. (Laughs.) I can tell you the difference between red and green kryptonite . . .

"Really the first time in my life when I lived in an apartment of my own which had a TV set, I was 21 years old. I have enormous gaps in my knowledge of television of that period.

"The thing I've been most impressed by lately is the HBO series 'Deadwood,' which I actually find myself staying in to turn on. For a start, I find it wonderfully well-written. It has some of the most vivid -- and certainly obscene -- dialogue I've heard on television in many, many years. I think it's very well-acted, but I think the writing is at a very high level of brilliance, and that excites me.

"Music? I like quite a lot of the new stuff. I'm not the world's greatest enthusiast of rap and hip-hop I must say. This may be my age showing. My wife likes it a lot, and therefore I find myself listening to it a lot. I like Coldplay a lot. I like Maroon 5.

On once writing that he grew up "kissing books and kissing bread" and whether such reverence for books could survive in an age of media white noise.

"I might be ludicrously optimistic but I don't (worry) frankly. It seems that literature was never a mass-market activity. The numbers of people who read serious books were never as great as the numbers of people who watched 'Friends' on television. Actually, if you look at the book world today, there's probably more people reading novels today than there probably have been before in the history of the novel. The fact that half of them are reading 'Harry Potter' and the other half of them are reading 'The Da Vinci Code' is regrettable, but the fact is the reading of books is not a dying activity, in many ways it's a growing activity.

"I guess what we have to do is make sure that the serious, artistic end of the market is protected and well-tended. I've always myself thought that the distinction between literature and popular fiction is a false distinction. If you look at the history of literature, many of the people you would consider the greatest writers were also, in their day, the most popular writers. That's true of Shakespeare, it's true of Charles Dickens, it's true of an enormous number of the very greatest writers. . .

"I think if you look around the world today, it's true of some of the very greatest writers. It's true of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it's true of Gunter Grass, it was true in this country of writers like Joseph Heller. I remember seeing (Saul Bellow's) 'Humboldt's Gift' at No. 1 in the New York Times best-seller list -- speaking of the great writer who just left us."

With the upcoming September publication of his new novel, "Shalimar, The Clown," Rushdie hopes to complete his name's migration "to the book pages and off the front pages."

He has become one of the world's truly and unquestionably necessary writers.

That's because, in one sense, every one of us in the West has turned into Salman Rushie.

e-mail:jsimon@buffnews.com