After Ayatollah Khomeini ordered Muslims to kill him for publishing The Satanic Verses in 1989, Julian Barnes gave Salman Rushdie a shrewd piece of advice. However many attempts were made on his life and the lives of his translators and publishers, however many times Special Branch moved him from safe house to safe house, he must not allow the ‘Rushdie affair’ to turn him into an obsessive.
When I interviewed him ten years ago he had learned to live without fear. No shaven-headed bodyguards accompanied him as he walked into a Notting Hill restaurant. His eyes did not scour the room for signs of danger. If the other diners knew who he was, they were too well-versed in the manners of the English upper-middle class to stare at a celebrity. They did not wolf down their meals and head for the exit, just in case today was the day the bomber got through. They carried on eating as if the old fear had passed.
Like online trolls, religious totalitarians want their targets to think about them constantly. If some cannot physically harm their enemies, they will accept mentally crippling them as the next best option. The threats against Rushdie never went away. A few days before we met in 2012, the owners of the Jaipur Literary Festival venue had cancelled a booking. They feared that the mere sight of him might lead to assassination attempts, riots, injuries and deaths.
Rushdie seemed safe in London and New York, however. Tens of thousands of people saw a funny, kind and brilliant man at ease with himself him on the stage of conferences and literary festivals.
Rushdie got his bitterness out of his system with his memoir Joesph Anton, which recorded in, yes, at times obsessive detail, the literary figures on the left who could not condemn incitement to murder a novelist because they worried about stirring racial tension, and the politicians and journalists on the right, who hated him for being an uppity brown-skinned immigrant.