Listening to Salman Rushdie tell the story of a desperate man who goes into hiding to save his life, is forced to move from house to house -- sometimes in the dead of night -- and must lock himself into the bathroom whenever the plumber or electrician comes around to fix some common household problem, it's easy to forget that the acclaimed novelist with a bent toward the fanciful isn't spinning a tale.
But the spellbinding story Mr. Rushdie shared with some 300 people gathered last week at Kepler's bookstore, and which he details in a new memoir, is no flight of fancy.
It's the true story of how his own life was forever changed when, in 1989, the spiritual leader of Iran issued a "fatwa" informing his followers that Mr. Rushdie must be hunted down and killed -- a death sentence that followed the release of the author's novel, "The Satanic Verses," which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned as "blasphemous against Islam."
Mr. Rushdie was introduced to the standing-room-only Kepler's audience by novelist and memoirist Tobias Wolff, who was among the cadre of fellow writers and friends who supported Mr. Rushdie during his decade of hiding. Describing his friend as a "bon vivant and a great raconteur," Mr. Wolff spoke of "the amazing weight (that) had been put on Salman and his family" by the ayatollah's fatwa, and noted that despite the circumstances, Mr. Rushdie managed to write a number of books "of the highest quality."
Now a New York City resident, Mr. Rushdie appeared at Kepler's as part of a promotional tour of his memoir, "Joseph Anton" -- a reference to his alias during his years of hiding. The conversation between the two writers ranged from political and philosophical musings on freedom of expression and the increasing limits placed on it by religious extremists, to the sharing of anecdotes that offered glimpses of the strange, often tense, but sometimes funny life Mr. Rushdie was forced to lead as a hunted man.
The British Indian novelist spent nearly 10 years in hiding before intense pressure by England, strongly supported by President Bill Clinton, according to Mr. Rushdie, led to a halfhearted lifting of the fatwa. During that time, the British government provided round-the-clock security. But even after the fatwa was withdrawn, death threats persisted and hardliners in Iran continued encouraging his execution.
After the fatwa was issued, many writers and human rights leaders spoke out against the extremists calling for the novelist's death. But Mr. Rushdie noted with residual anger that some, such as the British spy novelist John le Carre and children's book author Roald Dahl, publicly criticized him and accused him of arrogance and greed because he would not withdraw the novel.
But he also spoke gratefully about other writers -- including Mr. Wolff, Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd and Ian McEwan -- who stood by him, offering him protection, sometimes shelter, always keeping the secret of his whereabouts. Characterizing the literary world as "gossip central" -- people who "can't keep their mouths shut to save their lives" -- he added: "Yet, to save my life, everybody kept their mouths shut for more than a decade. ... It was an incredible act of solidarity."
Mr. Rushdie spoke of the growing threat to the world and human freedom from religious extremism and intolerance. He described events over the last few decades, including the campaign to execute him, as "modernity turning on itself." In the late 1980s, there were enough modern tools -- telephones, faxes, air travel -- for extremists to cross national lines in pursuit of a perceived enemy. Even before the "information age," the threat followed him, he said. "Had there been what we have now, this thing would have been more severe, much more difficult to come out of it."
Mr. Rushie noted that 13 years after the fatwa was issued, the world saw another example of the use of advanced tools used against modernity: Religious extremists "took the modern -- a jet plane -- and turned it against another icon of the modern -- the skyscraper -- (in the service of) a medieval idea."
The author is troubled by the trend toward self-censorship and governments' timidity in the face of intimidation by religious extremists and "bully boys." In his memoir, he writes: "As to the battle over 'The Satanic Verses,' it was still hard to say if it was ending in victory or defeat. The book had not been suppressed, and nor had its author, but the dead remained dead, and a climate of fear had grown up that made it harder for books like (Mr. Rushdie's) to be published, or even, perhaps, to be written."
Whether or not Mr. Rushdie is still in danger from extremists bent on carrying out the 1989 fatwa is not a settled question. But precautions are still taken. The hundreds of people who walked through the doors of Kepler's before last week's event had their bags searched by two security guards at the entrance.