Irony. Defiance. Salman Rushdie’s Appreciation of the Everyday within the Heat of the Fatwa

Fintan O’Toole, in The Irish Times, 15 August 2022, where the title runs “The first time I met Salman Rushdie, the very idea of it was unimaginable”  ………..  reproduced here with highlights imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi   &*&

The first time I met Salman Rushdie, the very idea of meeting Salman Rushdie was unimaginable. It was after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against him. Rushdie had disappeared from the face of the earth.

By refusing to subsist in living death they prescribed for him, the author stood up for life itself as the ordinary human birthright.



I went to a party in County Wicklow. Seeing him standing in the kitchen with a glass of wine was like meeting Lazarus.

What do you say to the most hunted man in the world, a ghost whose living death forced him to separate himself even from his young son?

I muttered some inarticulate words of condolence and solidarity, clichés I knew, even as I spoke them, he had heard many times before. “Oh no”, he said, “this is not the worst thing that has happened to me.”

What could be worse? There was a glint in his eye and a sardonic half-smile on his lips. And he did what storytellers do. He told me a story.

He was a child again and in London with his father, who asked him if there was something he wanted as a special treat. To his father’s incomprehension, he said he wanted to see a football match. So, his father dutifully took him to White Hart Lane to see Tottenham Hotspur. It happened that, at the time, Spurs were the best team in England. They put a spell on him.

“And that”, he said, “was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Just think of all the misery I have endured as a Spurs fan through the decades of failure. What’s happening now is only a fatwa — that was a curse.”

The way he told it was funny and cool and vivid and engagingly elaborate — like his books that are, in essence, fabulous yarns. But it was also deeply moving. It was far too ironic and knowing to be called heroic. Yet it was his way of doing two quietly courageous things.

One: in the invocation of himself as a child with a loving father was simply to state his own humanity, to make it clear that he was still a person and not an image to be reviled or glorified. And, perhaps, though this did not strike me at the time, he was also in that memory of a father and a son finding an indirect way to evoke his own shattered paternity.

The other thing he was doing was using irony as a form of defiance. Irony undercuts and deflates. The mullahs were posing as God, inventing an eternal truth and assuming the power of life and death. Rushdie’s deliberately bathetic story made them, at least within the bounds of this anecdote, pitifully impotent creatures.

Thugs, theocrats, dictators, despots, don’t like irony. But they did a rather ironic thing to Rushdie — they inflated him to monstrous proportions.

The fatwa was a grotesque exercise in disproportion. It took a hallucinogenic episode of The Satanic Verses, a novel that is really a satire of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and a reflection on migration and displacement, and blew them up into violent tempest of outrage.

Rushdie was literally demonised, as if by putting Satan in the title he had become the devil himself. The gloating headlines in the Iranian newspapers reporting his stabbing on Friday blared “Satan on the path to hell”.

This is fame turned upside down, a hyper-infamy that twisted a writer of playful magical realist fiction into an infernal global celebrity. Has any writer’s name ever been so well known to hundreds of millions of people who do not read books and especially don’t read his?

But art is the very opposite of this hype. Imaginative writing, if it is any good, shuns overstatement. “I fear those big words”, says Stephen in James Joyce’s Ulysses, “which make us so unhappy”.

Where the despot deals in toxic exaggerations, the writer sees the great in the small, the extraordinary in the ordinary. The ambition is, like William Blake’s, to see the world in a grain of sand.

Rushdie has always loved (he quotes it in The Moor’s Last Sigh) Andrew Marvell’s poem On a Drop of Dew in which the little dewdrop “Remembering still its former height”, manages to “express/ The greater Heaven in an Heaven less.”

That’s what Rushdie decided to do, except with the twist that he expressed the Great Satan the Ayatollah tried to make him as an ordinary man. He did, in his non-writing life, what was in a sense the most defiant thing he could do: nothing much. Mostly when I have met him in later years in New York, it was in a bar or a restaurant, doing the quotidian things, being good company, walking off into the night without bodyguards, a person among people.

Which was, as he well knew, the best way not to be a slave to his persecutors. By refusing to subsist in the living death they had prescribed for him, he stood up, not just for freedom of expression, but for life itself as the ordinary human birthright.

They have destroyed one of his eyes now, but in the other one there will still be the playful glint, not of Satan, but of what we in Ireland affectionately call, a bit of a divil.


&&& Both O’Toole and Rushdie will probably be appalled at such interventions on my part! ……….. and so too Michael Morley who sent me this item.


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