Salman Rushdie can take a joke

Author discusses pop culture, the price on his head and the Muhammad cartoons

Neil Munshi

Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” in which Kramer thinks Salman Rushdie is a member of his health club? But he goes by Sal Bass (“He just replaced one fish with another, Jerry!”)?

I saw it when I was 10 or 11. A couple of years later I picked up his book “The Satanic Verses” and tried my best to read it. I couldn’t make any sense of it after 100 or so pages.

I’m not relating this to show you what an ignorant illiterate I am; it’s tough for a 13-year-old to grasp a complex intertwining of multiple narratives centered somehow on a semi-blasphemous retelling of the Quran. I’m telling you about it because I told it to him.

Rushdie was on campus last week to lecture at Northrop Auditorium. And I was able to attend his talk with an honors seminar dedicated to his writing.

Like the students in the class, I got to ask Rushdie a question. So after relaying my little anecdote, I asked him about his relationship with pop culture – from touring with U2 to film stars to countless pop culture allusions populating his novels to, of course, “Seinfeld.”

Rushdie explained that he likes pop culture but doesn’t confuse it with high culture – and I had to begrudgingly accept his notion that “Bob Dylan is not Keats, because they’re not trying to do the same thing.”

This is the man who often is called the most famous living novelist. To this day, a $3 million bounty remains hanging on his head like a dedicated bull’s eye.

Rushdie lived in hiding for years after Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on him for his “blasphemous” novel “The Satanic Verses.” So it was a surprise when Rushdie entered the seminar classroom not behind a cadre of stoic Secret Service types, with curlicue earpieces and hands locked behind their backs, but instead before a pleasant, unassuming woman in a gray sweater.

And he joked about the fatwa. Not just during questions addressing the subject, but in catty asides and as an opening remark to his Northrop lecture. He seemed determined to push the absurdity of that situation while faintly, and sometimes blatantly, commenting on the similar seemingly irrational behavior after the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspapers.

“I thought it was a really colossal overreaction to not very much,” he said. “I would have told the editors to only publish the cartoon telling the suicide bombers to stop because they’re running out of virgins, which was the only funny one, I thought.”

He was jocular without being crass, flip without sounding unconcerned.

“My worry,” he said, referring to many newspapers’ refusal to republish the cartoons, “is that when you give into intimidation, all you do is make sure there will be more intimidation.”

The mission of art, he said later in the lecture, was best summed up by a dog’s plea in Saul Bellow’s “The Dean’s December” – “For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!”

It’s the narrowness, the limitations, the boundaries that seem to bind free thought and expression, Rushdie said, that force the writer to transgress – a term that means, ” ‘to move across,’ and has only acquired a negative connotation because some people think that’s a bad thing.”

Art doesn’t open up the universe by staying safe in the middle ground, acquiescing to mediocrity and the status quo – it bursts the boundaries by going out to those frontiers.

“In spite of all the risks inherent to the process,” he said, “if you’re going to be a writer, that’s the job.”

And Rushdie, from turning Indira Gandhi into the Wicked Witch of the West to postulating that parts of the Quran could have been handed down by the devil, has done his job, jilting convention in favor of a surrealistic complex mélange of his version of reality.

“Going too far is the point,” he said. “What’s the point of not going too far? That’s called not going far enough.”