Welcome to the inaugural edition of One Page, a newsletter that transports you into the world of an outstanding book for a few minutes. A couple of times a week, we’ll send you a great passage from a book we love. (To subscribe, unsubscribe, or donate, see below.) Red Room Editors Gina and Huntington selected a page from Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie (2012), to share with you today:
He unlocked the front door, went outside, got into the car and was driven away, and although he did not know it then, so that the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning, he would not go back to that house, his home for five years, until three years later, by which time it was no longer his.
The children in the classroom in Bodega Bay, California, sing a sad nonsense song. She combed her hair but once a year, ristle- te, rostle- te, mo, mo, mo. Outside the school a cold wind is blowing. A single blackbird flies down from the sky and settles on the climbing frame in the playground. The children’s song is a roundelay. It begins but it doesn’t end. It just goes round and round. With every stroke she shed a tear, ristle- te, rostle- te, heybombosity, knickety-knackety, retroquo- quality, willoby- wallaby, mo, mo, mo. There are four blackbirds on the climbing frame, and then a fifth arrives. Inside the school the children are singing. Now there are hundreds of blackbirds on the climbing frame and thousands more birds fill the sky, like a plague of Egypt. A song has begun, to which there is no end.
When the first blackbird comes down to roost on the climbing frame it seems individual, particular, specific. It is not necessary to deduce a general theory, a wider scheme of things, from its presence. Later, after the plague begins, it’s easy for people to see the first blackbird as a harbinger. But when it lands on the climbing frame it’s just one bird.
In the years to come he will dream about this scene, understanding that his story is a sort of prologue: the tale of the moment when the first blackbird lands. When it begins it’s just about him; it’s individual, particular, specific. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film.
At the CBS offices he was the big news story of the day. People in the newsroom and on various monitors were already using the word that would soon be hung around his neck like a millstone. They used the word as if it were a synonym for “death sentence” and he wanted to argue, pedantically, that that was not what the word meant. But from this day forward it would mean that for most people in the world. And for him.
“I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Qur’an, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.” Somebody gave him a printout of the text as he was escorted toward the studio for his interview. Again, his old self wanted to argue, this time with the word “sentence.” This was not a sentence handed down by any court he recognized, or which had any jurisdiction over him. It was the edict of a cruel and dying old man. But he also knew that his old self ’s habits were of no use anymore. He was a new self now. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was the author of Satanic Verses, a title subtly distorted by the omission of the initial The. The Satanic Verses was a novel. Satanic Verses were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author, “Satan Rushdy,” the horned creature on the placards carried by demonstrators down the streets of a faraway city, the hanged man with protruding red tongue in the crude cartoons they bore. Hang Satan Rushdy. How easy it was to erase a man’s past and to construct a new version of him, an overwhelming version, against which it seemed impossible to fight.
King Charles I had denied the legitimacy of the sentence handed down against him. That hadn’t stopped Oliver Cromwell from having him beheaded.
He was no king. He was the author of a book.
He looked at the journalists looking at him and he wondered if this was how people looked at men being taken to the gallows or the electric chair or the guillotine. One foreign correspondent came up to be friendly. He asked this man what he should think about what Khomeini had said. How seriously should he take it? Was it just a rhetorical flourish or something genuinely dangerous?
“Oh, don’t worry too much,” the journalist said. “Khomeini sentences the president of the United States to death every Friday afternoon.”
On air, when he was asked how he responded to the threat, he said, “I wish I’d written a more critical book.” He was proud, then and always, that he had said this. It was the truth.
A $1 donation allows you to buy any of Salman Rushdie’s books today at 40% off. For a donation of $5, $25, or $100, you’ll get 40% off all books purchased in the next week. For $250, we’ll send you copies of Joseph Anton: A Memoir and The Satanic Verses, plus a Red Room Author a little less busy than Salman will take you to lunch. (Onerous restrictions apply.)
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-The Red Room Team