November 2002

Jessa Crispin

nonfiction

Step Across This Line By Salman Rushdie

Since September 11th, Salman Rushdie's thoughts on Islam and terrorism have been in demand. His columns were widely syndicated and suddenly he was being interviewed by desperate journalists begging him to give us insight, a reason, anything. Many of his columns were regarded as giving voice to what many of us thought but couldn't express. I personally must have read his "bacon sandwiches, kissing in public, short skirts" column a few dozen times the month after the attack. It was his city that was attacked, too. (Rushdie has been a New York City resident for a few years now.) But while we were all struck dumb, he managed to put it all in words.

Those essays are collected here in Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction from 1992 to 2002 along with his thoughts on a large range of topics, from soccer to writers in exile, from U2 to immigration policy. The biggest draw this book has, however, is "Messages From the Plague Years," a series written in the height of the fatwa madness.

In an interview with January Magazine, Rushdie spoke of the thought he put into the order of the book. If he had placed The Plague Years at the front of the book, essays like his clever "In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again" would fall flat. The book begins with what Rushdie likes, how he thinks, what he feels is important. The writing gets progressively more serious and political, until you feel you have an idea of who he is. When the fatwa is addressed about two-thirds into the book, you know Rushdie as something other than just the author of a book that pissed a bunch of people off. You understand that this particular person was behind all the headlines and that what happened was ridiculous and outrageous. It's a skillful layout, and it moves the book along very nicely.

The book opens with "Out of Kansas," about the influence The Wizard of Oz had on his life. It's a perfect opener as it covers most of the themes running through his fiction: family, exile, the idea of "home", rites of passage, and the tornadoes that come and change everything. The piece is warm, light-hearted and funny while still having bite, and it corresponds well with "The Plague Years" pieces. The Wizard of Oz seems to be the perfect metaphor for the trials that came after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

His tangles with the Islamists seem so very timely now that the world is paying attention to Islamic terrorism, but it is frustrating to read Rushdie jumping up and down, trying to get the press to cover the slaughter of journalists in Turkey, for example. It makes you realize how long alarm bells were ringing while governments made excuses because of trade and economic issues.

Many years into the fatwa, Rushdie had the opportunity to return to India after years of being denied a visa and being snubbed by the government. His diary from his trip is here as "A Dream of Glorious Return," and it is the most remarkable piece in the book. He travels with his son Zafar who has not been to India in years. It gives a different view of Rushdie than anything else in the book, including being a father of a teenage boy. "Zafar has always had a complete set of my books proudly on display in his room, but he reads Alex Garland and Bill Bryson and I pretend not to care." The minor frustrations and bewilderment of parenting a teenager are all there, even for celebrated authors.

The diary is a twisted "how to function under heavy security." He gets frustrated at his protectors' insistence that he wear a hat, sunglasses and scarf in the 100 degree Indian weather. Even fans seeking autographs are automatic threats and keep him from having a relationship with his readers. Rushdie wants to reconnect with friends and make his son fall in love with his beloved country, but with constant supervision and every deviation from the security plan seen as an opportunity for someone to strike, it's a homecoming he probably didn't dream about. As always, however, he jokes, he accepts, he takes what he can get, understanding he can't be just another man on the street. That acceptance that this is now "normal" is very moving.

Paul Auster wrote in his book The Art of Hunger, "I pick up my pen, and before I begin to write, I think of my fellow novelist across the ocean. I pray that he will go on living another 24 hours. I pray that his English protectors will keep him hidden from the people who are out to murder him. Most of all I pray that a time will come when these prayers are no longer necessary, when Salman Rushdie will be as free to walk the streets as I am." With the official threat revoked and Rushdie moving to New York City without his troops of protectors, he is free to walk the streets these days. Step Across This Line seems to be his attempt to put all of this to rest so that now he can talk of other things. Like U2.

Step Across This Line: Collection Nonfiction 1992-2002 by Salman Rushdie
Random House Publishing
ISBN: 0679463348
320 Pages