Voice Carries Weight

review of Step Across This Line by Salman Rushdie, publisher: Knopf

by Moe Berg, Edmonton Journal, October 13, 2002

Step Across This Line is a collection of essays, speeches and columns by Salman Rushdie culled from the past decade. For those who may have been off the planet during this period, Rushdie became headline news after his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, was banned in his native India, and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a worldwide fatwa or death sentence against Rushdie for alleged blasphemy.

Part One of the book, Essays, begins with a rather confusing and dry deconstruction of The Wizard of Oz, which appears to have greatly influenced Rushdie. As many discovered while trying to get through The Satanic Verses, Rushdie can be a touch difficult. Fortunately, most of what follows is a smoother ride. Rushdie is quite good when he allows himself a bit of levity. In a piece called Heavy Threads, which involves a legendary boutique in 1967 London, he comes across as a former wannabe hipster now comfortably in the skin of a square.

However, he is a lot hipper than he'd lead you to believe. He hangs out with U2 and is familiar with The Velvet Underground's catalogue. He is also a shameless self-promoter who never misses an opportunity to reference, explain or plug one of his books.

In a clear case of having heroism thrust upon one, the fatwa will be more responsible for Rushdie's eventual immortality than any of his writing. That said, it is a compelling story and Part Two of this collection, Messages From The Plague Years, is where things get very interesting. Rushdie wrote letters, articles and gave speeches at PEN benefits, (including a famous appearance in Toronto in 1992) asking governments to involve themselves in his cause, basically begging for his life. As Rushdie tells it, both the British government (who were shielding him 24 hours a day) and the British press resented him greatly and considered his protection a huge waste of resources. His Japanese translator was murdered, his Norwegian publisher and Italian translator were wounded but miraculously, Rushdie survived the fatwa.

Part Three is a selection of his newspaper columns. The fact that Rushdie has one foot in each of two cultures already allows him a valuable perspective. Coupled with the misfortune of having first-hand experience with religious extremists (who have recently become so relevant on this continent), his voice carries considerable weight.

One of Rushdie's finest qualities is that, unlike many North American pundits, he never gets in over his head. He seemingly avoids topics that fall outside of his personal knowledge and fortunately for Rushdie, he can speak of many things with a good deal of authority. This is especially true in some of his more whimsical pieces. His columns about sport as culture and rock 'n' roll as a revolutionary tool are truly insightful.

On the subject of the Sept. 11 attacks, while many in the West tried to attach their own politics to the terrorists' motives, Rushdie's comment that, "Whatever the killers were trying to achieve, it seems improbable that building a better world was part of it," is simple instead of simplistic.

Most poignant is his piece dated Feb. 14, 1999, Valentine's Day being the anniversary of the fatwa. When Rushdie attempts to convey his emotions, he wonders how we'd feel if, "men wielding clubs were to burst loudly into your home and lay it to waste. They arrive while you're making love, or standing naked in the shower ... Never again will you kiss or bathe ... without remembering this intrusion." To have love's biggest day be your perennial nightmare is chilling, indeed. Part Four is a lecture given at Yale from which this book derives its name.

Salman Rushdie is a part of history. His lonely struggle revealed our world's governments' true priorities (money) and their lukewarm feelings regarding more personal freedoms. While many may disagree with him, he cannot and should not be ignored.

©Copyright 2002 CanWest Global Communications Corp.

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