Salman Rushdie's new memoir revisits a life in hiding

Award-winning author Salman Rushdie is revisiting the decade he spent in hiding, under threat of death, with Tuesday's publication of his weighty new memoir Joseph Anton.

'That fear is still there' amid publishing community, Rushdie says

Salman Rushdie has published his memoir Joseph Anton, which chronicles the decade he spent in hiding under threat of death by religious extremists. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Award-winning author Salman Rushdie is revisiting the decade he spent in hiding, under threat of death, with Tuesday's publication of his weighty new memoir Joseph Anton.

More than 20 years after he first released his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, a climate of fear concerning literature challenged by religious extremists not only persists but is more pervasive than before.

"One of the questions I ask myself about this whole episode, you know, was whether we should see it as a victory or a defeat," he told CBC's Wendy Mesley during a recent interview in Toronto.

The Indian-born British writer, 65, spent a decade in hiding after then-Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in 1989 that called for his death. Khomeini and other Muslims claimed Rushdie's magic realism novel The Satanic Verses — which weaves together stories of Indian-born Muslim expats in England — was blasphemous.

"In a narrow sense, you could see it as a victory: the attempt to suppress a novel, the novel was not suppressed. There was an attempt to suppress the author of the novel and... and here I am," Rushdie said.

"But in a broader sense, I think the case of The Satanic Verses and the viciousness, the violence of the assaults that publishers and booksellers faced in those years, scared people. And I think that fear is still there."

Waiting to write about life underground

The memoir's title, Joseph Anton, refers to the pseudonym Rushdie adopted while in hiding and comprises the names of his two favourite authors: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

He ultimately emerged in 1999 after Iran's foreign ministry assured the U.K. that Iran would do nothing to implement the fatwa. In interviews, Rushdie has said he chose to wait before writing about his time in hiding.

Film version?

Earlier this month, Salman Rushdie helped unveil Deepa Mehta's film adaptation of his acclaimed novel Midnight's Children at the Toronto International Film Festival. Though unsure of how The Satanic Verses could in turn be translated for film, he didn't completely rule out the notion.

"Leaving aside the issues of controversy, I think it's a difficult book to film because it's got so many different storylines threading in and out of it, which is one reason I really want to see Cloud Atlas, because Cloud Atlas has six different storylines: past and future and present intertwined," Rushdie told CBC News.

"If the [directors] Wachowskis have managed to pull that off, then it might give me the sense that you could make a film of The Satanic Verses," he said, adding that "we've already filmed one 'impossible' book [Midnight's Children], we can film another one."

"I felt not emotionally in the right place. Also, I felt I wanted to slam the door on the past and get on with my life," he told the BBC.

In 2005, Khomeini's successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei renewed the earlier fatwa, saying Rushdie was considered an apostate whose murder was authorized under Islam. Earlier this week, a Muslim cleric in Iran increased the reward offered for Rushdie's death by $500,000 US (for a total of $3.3 million).

Amid the publication of Joseph Anton and the current, completely separate controversy over the U.S.-made anti-Muslim film Innocence of Muslims, "these days are the most appropriate time" to carry out the fatwa, Hassan Sane'i, a cleric of the 15 of Khordad Foundation, said in a statement.

Today, with so many authors attacked by extremists over literature branded offensive or blasphemous, the climate is more difficult than when he was forced underground, Rushdie says.

"If you were to write a book like The Satanic Verses now, it would probably be much harder to get it published. Probably be much harder to get booksellers to stock it," he said.

"There is a real fear of 'you know, we don’t want that to happen to us.'"

Officially released Tuesday, Joseph Anton is already a nominee for the £20,000 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, one of the U.K.'s most prestigious non-fiction literary honours.

Wendy Mesley's interview with Salman Rushdie will air Sunday on The National.