Jun. 19, 2008

Left Town

by Thomas McGrath

On Monday he died.
A few heard of it and were shocked but not surprised.

On Tuesday
A newspaper noted his passing.

On Wednesday
There was a small service and some people came.

On Friday
They buried or burned him at the beginning of a long weekend.

On Saturday
They went to the beach, doped, drank, fornicated, had a "good

On Sunday
With headaches, a few went to a bar and one remembered a line
        of a poem.

He would have understood perfectly the "human condition."

"Left Town" by Thomas McGrath, from Death Song. © Copper Canyon Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Salman Rushdie, (books by this author) born in Bombay, India (1947), two months before India's first day of independence. He comes from a wealthy Muslim family. His father had a huge library and was a wonderful storyteller. He told Rushdie stories every night, many of them fairy tales inspired by One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

As a teenager, he started going to an elite high school in England where he didn't get along with his classmates, who made fun of his accent.

Home from a school vacation, he found out that his parents were moving to Pakistan as part of a large Muslim exodus, and Rushdie was crushed. He didn't like England, he didn't like Pakistan, and now he couldn't go home to Bombay. He tried working as a journalist in Pakistan, but there was too much censorship, so he went back to England and tried to become a writer. When he told his father his plans, his father said, "What on earth would you write about?"

He spent a year as an actor at a fringe theater in London and then supported himself in England by writing for advertising. His first assignment was to write a jingle about the merits of car seat belts, to the tune of a Chuck Berry song. While he was working there, he wrote a science fiction novel called Grimus (1975) that didn't do well. Then he decided to write a book about India, the country that he hadn't seen in years.

Rushdie's novel was called Midnight's Children (1981), the story of a man born the same day India gained independence. The book was a huge success, among both Westerners and Indians. It won the Booker Prize, and Rushdie became the leader of so-called "post-colonial literature." Only Rushdie's family hated the book. He had revealed a lot of family secrets in the novel and nobody appreciated it.

When Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, most Western critics didn't notice that it would be offensive to Muslims. In the book, Rushdie makes a lot of obscure jokes about the Islamic religion, he names the whores in a Mecca brothel after the Prophet Muhammad's wives, and he suggests that the Koran is not the direct word of God. The book was banned in India the month after publication and then subsequently in other countries. It was also publicly burned. There were bomb threats called in to the publishing house. Translators of the work suffered assassination attempts; the Italian translator was wounded, the Japanese translator killed, and the fire set by Islamic extremists to the Turkish translator's hotel left 40 people dead.

There was a riot in Kashmir over the book, and the Ayatollah Khomeini saw scenes from the riot on Iranian television in which police shot demonstrators. After that, the Ayatollah announced that "all zealous Muslims of the world" should try to find Rushdie wherever he was and kill him. The order of death came from Iran's leader on Valentine's Day, 1989. The Ayatollah promised martyrdom for any Muslim who was successful in killing Rushdie, and another religious leader promised a million-dollar reward, doubled if the killer was Muslim.

Rushdie had to go into hiding for nine years. On the first anniversary of the fatwa, he wrote, "I feel as if I have been plunged, like Alice, into the world beyond the looking glass, where nonsense is the only available sense."

The death sentence was finally lifted in 1998. Rushdie later said, "The experience taught me ... a lot about the human capacity for hatred. But it also taught me the opposite: the capacity for solidarity and friendship. ... My Norwegian publisher was shot three times in the back and ... his first reaction, upon recovering from the bullet wounds, was to reprint the book. That's courage." After the fatwa was lifted, Rushdie decided to leave London and move to New York City. He was attracted to New York because he said, "A lot of people had a lot of stories not unlike mine. Everybody comes from somewhere else." His most recent book is The Enchantress of Florence (2008).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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