LONDON (Reuters) - Salman Rushdie believes literature has lost much of its influence in the West, and movie stars like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have taken the place of Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer when it comes to addressing the big issues.
The British author, who has just released his account of 10 years in hiding after an Iranian fatwa was declared against him in 1989, believes the “Arab Spring” uprisings have failed but that there is hope for freer Muslim societies in the future.
He has warm words for his elder son Zafar who was nine when the famous edict which amounted to a death sentence was announced, but the tone turns harsh when dealing with famous figures like Rupert Murdoch, the Prince of Wales and John Le Carre who he said failed to back him during the dark years.
And with the publication of “Joseph Anton”, a 633-page autobiography, the 65-year-old is finally determined to put the fatwa behind him.
“I have a sense of people thinking it (literature) is less important,” he told Reuters on Friday in a wide-ranging interview at Waterstone’s book store in central London.
“If you look at America, for instance, there is a generation older than mine in which writers like Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal would have a significant public voice on issues of the day. Now there’s virtually no writers.
“Instead you have movie stars, so if you are George Clooney or Angelina Jolie then you do have the ability to speak about public issues ... and people will listen in a way they would once listen to Mailer and Sontag. That’s a change.”
He added that in authoritarian countries the situation was different, and literature had held on to some of its power.
“In those places literature continues to be important as you can see by the steps taken against writers,” he said, counting China among them.
More than almost anyone, Rushdie sums up one of the most pressing problems facing leaders today - the tension between free speech and the desire to avoid offending people’s faith.
He argues in his book that he does not feel his novel “The Satanic Verses”, which prompted the fatwa, should have been particularly offensive to Muslims in the first place.
But Rushdie said he would continue to defend even the most provocative individual’s right to express an opinion.
Joseph Anton (Rushdie’s pseudonym while he was in hiding) hit the shelves at the same time as a film, made in the United States mocking the Prophet Mohammad, sparked riots across the Muslim world leading to many deaths.
“It’s clear that you have to defend things you don’t agree with,” he said, when asked if he thought the film should have been censored in any way.
“What is free speech if it’s only for people that you agree with? Often in the free speech argument you find yourself defending stuff you really dislike. I’ve seen this film and it’s as bad as it can be. It’s so incompetent that you wonder how anyone can get upset about it.”
He described what he called the “outrage industry” in which people deliberately “inflamed the faithful”.
Part of that “industry” pointed the finger at him again in recent weeks, with a semi-official Iranian foundation upping the bounty on his head to $3.3 million.
Asked if he feared for his life, Rushdie replied: “The world is a dangerous place and there’s never a 100 percent guarantee, but in general for the last decade it’s been really okay.”
The author who won a Booker Prize in 1981 for “Midnight’s Children” said he saw hope for a better understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim countries, but only in the long-term.
“I’m less optimistic in the short-term because I think right now the temperature is very high, but in the medium- to long-term I think it will change,” he said.
“In those countries in which Islamic radicalism has been most powerful it’s also most disliked. So the people of Iran are not enamored of the Ayatollah’s regime, the people of Afghanistan were not enamored of the Taliban.”
He believed the “Arab Spring” uprisings had failed, but that the fight for a free society would not go away.
“I think in the long-term you have to believe that this very young population in the Arab world demanding a better life for itself will somehow make its views known and I don’t think we’ve heard the last of that.”
Elements of Joseph Anton are intensely intimate. It speaks of the death of close friends and family members including Rushdie’s first wife Clarissa, while his second wife Marianne Wiggins is portrayed as delusional.
He points fingers at those he thought betrayed him, although in the interview he denied setting out to settle scores.
His elder son Zafar, who was nine when the fatwa was declared and who saw his father only occasionally in the first few years, features prominently.
“In a way he had a harder job than me because he had to grow up too,” he said of his son.
“He was nine when this began, he was 21 when it ended so that’s an extraordinary atmosphere in which to grow up having to conceal your father’s home address from your friends.
“He could easily have been messed up by it, but instead he comes out of it serene, good-natured mature, much calmer than me. I’m the arm-waver in the family. He’s the sort of unflappable voice of serenity and reason.”
He said he was worried when his second son Milan was born.
“I thought, ‘here I am bringing another child into this nightmare and what are we going to do? How is he going to go to school? Does he have to start lying at the age of two?
“In the end I just thought that it was a kind of act of optimism to have a child. It was a way of saying there’s going to be a life after this.”
Rushdie said the fatwa was not something he would choose to live through, even though it made him one of the world’s best-known writers and opened doors to the great and good from President Bill Clinton to U2’s Bono and downwards.
“I would have much rather it hadn’t (happened),” he said. “But given that it did I am prepared to try and use that experience in order to say what I think about what’s happening.
“If you had offered me, on February 13, 1989 for this not to happen on February 14 I would have taken you on, because I was perfectly content with my life as it was. I had a good life as a writer, I had written some books that were well-liked.
“I would much rather have my 40s back. I was 41 when it started and that decade, which is supposed to be the prime of life, for me turned into a kind of nightmare.”
Joseph Anton is a highly personal account of Rushdie’s life on the run, of relationships which flowered and died, of swanky parties where he rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous and of years of despair and frustration.
It is tragic, funny and at times both.
Rushdie recalls scurrying to the bathroom to avoid being discovered by the cleaning lady in one of many safe houses. His guards suggest a wig as a disguise, but when he goes out wearing it a man calls out: “There’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.”
He said he hoped Joseph Anton would help him move on from his past, and in particular the fatwa: “I think it’s a way of drawing a line under it, you know?”
With a broad smile, he concluded: “I do think that in future, if I do publish future books and somebody wants to go back into this story I can just hit them over the head with a 600-page book.”
* Joseph Anton is published in Britain by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Random House.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White