One particular day, February 14, 1989, determined Salman Rushdie’s entire future life. Ruhollah Khomeini, the political and religious leader of Iran, promulgated a fatwa (fatwa) against him, a death sentence for which a foundation offered a financial reward of 3.3 million dollars, considering his book blasphemous Satanic Verses. 33 years later he has been, for the spring time, directly exposed to death and has been the target of an attack this Friday in the State of New York.
Salman Rushdie: “Magical realism should be limited to South America, mine is more surreal”
At that time Rushdie was 41 years old and had published three other books, in addition to Satanic Verses. He was born in Bombay just two months before India became independent as a British colony and at the age of 13 his parents sent him to study in the United Kingdom. From these cultural bridges his narrative is born, a kind of magical realism, which he prefers to call surrealism, which intertwines East and West.
With his first book, Grimus (1975), the author was never very proud; in fact, it has not been translated into Spanish. But with the second children of midnight (1980) received immediate recognition thanks to the Booker Prize, the most important literary award granted in England. Subsequently, it won the Booker of Bookers twice, that is, it was chosen as the best book among the last 25 winners. In this novel, the writer travels back in time and does so precisely to the important independence events that took place in the year of his birth. Almost like the author, the protagonist is born at the precise moment that India becomes independent. He has telepathy and an extreme sense of smell, powers that allow him to find out that all the children who were born at the same time also have special powers, so he decides to reunite them. Each child is different, as is the new nation, and the story becomes an allegory of how the country is divided and faces the future.
The political upheavals in Pakistan are the backdrop for his next novel, Shame (1983), although in the book it is called Peccavistan, a magical country ravaged by shame and shamelessness, between honor and humiliation, and there is a plot of several families in which characters appear under extraordinary circumstances: one he is the son of three mothers who become pregnant simultaneously, another is a dictator who is hanged after death, another is sentenced to give birth to children every year in arithmetic progression, another is the beauty and the beast at the same time. Rushdie uses the grotesque to address the post-colonial situation in the East and the divisions of the countries.
Shame is the springboard for the satanic verses which is published in 1988 and in it a transcript of the Prophet Mohammed, founder of Islam, makes an appearance. Those “satanic verses” refer to excerpted fragments of the Koran, the gjaraniq (“cranes”). The literal translation into Arabic of the title lost the reference to the discards and introduced an incorrect allusion to Satanism, as explained by the translator Mark Polizzotti in the book Sympathy for the traitor. Manifesto for translation (Plot, 2020). And that translation error, according to Polizzotti, motivated the fatwa that Khomeini issued a few months before his death, and that was not launched only against the author but against “all those who had participated” in the publication of the book.
The suppressed verses of the Qur’an refer to three pagan goddesses of Mecca, and Rushdie, once again, uses magical realism to intermingle sagas of characters to whom extraordinary events take place, clothed in normality, and that serve the author to address relationships between India and the UK. The protagonists are Bollywood actors who decide to expatriate to England. On the flight, the plane is hijacked and explodes in the middle of the English Channel but, before dying, the two protagonists are saved in a magical way and take on the personality of an archangel and a demon; the latter is arrested for irregular immigration, and that is just a series of events that besiege the lives of both. From there, both try to get back together as best they can, they even return to India, but they are no longer the same as they were. Farishta, the protagonist transformed into an archangel, has daydreams and in one of them he alludes to the story of the discarded verses of the Koran. In it, Muhammad appears —Mahound in the novel— and announces that he will accept pagan goddesses into Islam, although he later retracts and admits that he acted under the influence of Satan.
A month after its publication, the publisher began to receive letters and phone calls from Muslims asking for the book to be withdrawn, and shortly after, the Government of India banned its importation, followed by Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya. , Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore and Venezuela, according to Ian Richard Netton in his book Text and trauma. And shortly after, the Yorkshire Muslim community carried out the burning of a copy. that photograph it ignited many other protests outside the UK and, from there, Khomeini’s fatwa, calling for the author’s death. A year later, the hardcover edition of the book – the publisher did not dare to publish it in paperback – had sold a million copies.
Nearly 15 years after the persecution of Rushdie began, writer Hanif Kureishi wrote in The Guardian that the fatwa was “one of the most significant events in postwar literary history” and noted that “words can be dynamite.” but that “in other parts of the world, particularly in the Muslim world, writers who speak freely may be in great danger.”
The extrajudicial death sentence hanging over his head changed his life. He had to hide first and live escorted later. In 1991, his translator into Japanese was assassinated, fulfilling the threat against “those who had participated.” Ten days earlier, his Italian translator was stabbed in the neck, chest and hands, though he survived the attack. The Italian police could not prove the connection of the attack with Rushdie’s book, but the translator stated that the attacker identified himself as Iranian.
Writer and friend of Rushdie Ian McEwan also recalled in The Guardian what those days were like: “The first few months were the worst. The mobs were terrifying. They burned books in the street, shouted for blood in front of Parliament and waved banners saying: Rushdie must die. “It seemed like the social glue of multiculturalism was melting away,” he recalled. “We were falling apart, and we were doing it over a multilayered postmodern satirical novel, one that the loudest spirits of the debate had no intention of reading for fear of being spiritually contaminated,” he analyzed about that moment, and also gave details about how It was the life of the threatened novelist: his escort hid him every day in different country houses, hotels and semi-detached chalets. Sometimes his friends stayed with him, but they were tense moments. “Despite all expressions of personal solidarity, he was essentially alone. It was him they wanted to kill, not us,” he said.
Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, suggested that if Rushdie apologized, he would be pardoned. And he did: ″I am deeply sorry for the anguish that this publication has caused to the sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many religions, this experience has served to remind us that we all need to be aware of each other’s sensitivities,″ he wrote in a statement. And Iran said that was not enough.
Numerous governments condemned the fatwa, including Spain’s, but some institutions took considerable time to do so: the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature, he did it 27 years latershortly after a new one was published reward for murdering Rushdie for half a million euros.
As best he could, the writer continued with his life and his writing, although critics have reproached him for the fact that his later work, despite its dazzling artifices, is not up to the task of the trio that forms Children of Midnight, Shame Y Satanic Verses. From the experience of the first months under the fatwa, he wrote a ghost story for children in a sad and ruined city that had forgotten its own name, Harun and the sea of stories (1990). In a symbolic key, the narration is interpreted as the dangers of telling stories and the defense of their power over silence. She continued her career writing short stories and narrative: The last breath of the Moor (1995), the musical The ground under your feet (1999) and Rage (2001), changing its old oriental settings for New York.
He then spent four years writing Shalimar the clown (2005), about the assassination of a former French Resistance hero at the hands of a terrorist; the background is again the religious and political conflicts between Pakistan and India. His last works are The enchantress of Florence (2008) and, after a long hiatus, the fantasy novel Two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights (2015), which, grouped differently, are Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights, where once again the ambitious author wants to tell everything in a single story, which is many at the same time. In an interview with elDiario.es, after publishing that book, the author announced that he was “tired of talking about Islam” and “exhausted of giving his opinion on Islamic extremism”, which is why he turned to investigate pre-Islamic Muslim traditions.
Between one work and another, the writer recalled and traced his autobiography joseph anton —the alias he chose for the police to address him, a combination of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov—, where he explains how he lived in hiding after the fatwa was issued and how it affected his life. “I am tired of religions demanding special treatment, there is no reason why they should be given. We have to be able to talk about things seriously, but also with satire, ”he said in an interview with Europa Press.
His last two works have been The decline of Nero Golden (2017), a portrait of American society from Obama to the arrival of Trump to the presidency, and Quixote (2019) a metafiction based on the ingenious hidalgo cervantino.