Salman Rushdie has been able to see this Friday by streaming from the hospital bed in Pennsylvania where the tribute that outstanding colleagues, convened by PEN America, have paid him at the doors of the New York Public Library is recovered. The event, just a week after a 24-year-old tried to execute the Iranian fatwa that sentenced him to death in 1989, brought together writers of the stature of Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Gay Talese, Jeffrey Eugenides and Hari Kunzru, among a dozen prestigious names, to remember the Anglo-Indian author with the reading of fragments of his books. On the entrance steps of the venerable institution, open to the throng of tourists that flowed along Fifth Avenue, the memory of Rushdie floated in the environment like the genie in the bottle of the story: a demiurge whose mere invocation transforms the world.
Most of the participants stuck to the script and chose excerpts from Rushdie’s prolific work to honor him and defend freedom of expression against any form of obscurantism. joseph anton, the emotional memoir he wrote in the wake of the fatwa, was the most cited, as Hustvedt did by choosing the passage in which he recalls how his father, Anish, changed the complicated family name to Rushdie in homage to Ibn Rushd, or Averroes. But not all of them stuck to the plan, and some, like Eugenides, recreated anecdotes related to his admiration for Rushdie. “At the age of 20, after reading children of midnightI went to London and had the happy idea of meeting him. I found her name, address and phone number in the directory, I went there but I was on vacation in Italy, but her mother-in-law let me in and gave me a piece of paper, where I wrote her a note. Then I went back to the hotel”, said the author of the wonderful novel Middlesex (Anagram). Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, recalled Rushdie’s hedonistic and vital character in the introduction to the act, “and his fondness for parties.” Iranian poet Roya Hakakian, also a refugee in New York, recalled the most playful Rushdie, the one who wrote the children’s book Harun and the sea of stories.
Paul Auster, visibly aged -he has lost his son and his granddaughter, his daughter, due to an overdose in a few months- stressed the power of literature as a key to access the world. The best literature, like that of his friend Rushdie, “opens the universe, breaks down the borders of languages, expands the world and helps us understand those who are not like us,” he said in clear reference to the intolerant. The novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt, his wife, underlined the value of diversity, such as that which fed the Indian teenager who came to the United Kingdom in the 1960s to study, that Rushdie who would come as an adult “to enjoy his many roots ”.
At the end of the act, the couple emphasized their message “against rampant intolerance.” Both stressed that the Iranian theocracy is not the only threat to freedom of expression, although it has never revoked the fatwa against the writer. “Right now, in this country, we are witnessing violence. From the extreme right white nationalists, so we need to be very clear about the real enemy of this country. It is the extreme right, which encompasses the entire Republican Party,” said the author of 4, 3, 2, 1, who cited the example of the banning of books in ultra-conservative circles to warn that freedoms cannot be taken for granted. “We must stand with Rushdie and all that he exemplifies, which is unfettered freedom of expression, but we have to realize that we too are under threat. And that the person who attacked him is an American.”
Hustvedt recalled that the lukewarm also constitute a deaf threat: “33 years ago [cuando se publicó la fetua] some publishers were very brave, there were attacks on bookstores… But others wanted nothing to do with it and there were even writers who denounced Rushdie and blamed him for all the problems”. In the end, said the author of everything i loved“literature survives and goes on, but we must be very diligent and not take anything for granted”.
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It was an act with bits of humor – the first thing that Rushdie recovered after the attack, according to his son Zafar – and love, a lot of love and admiration for the figure of the powerful Anglo-Indian writer, whose career, threats aside, constitutes a “celebration of life”, as several participants recalled. It was a dismayed tribute, but also, perhaps because of the sun that beat down on the improvised lectern, luminous, even hopeful, by a gathering of friends eager to meet the absent one again. “We are going to celebrate Salman for what he has been through, but also, more importantly, for all that he has spawned. For the stories, the characters, the metaphors and the images that he has given to the world”, summarized the executive director of PEN America. In short, for the literary, personal and creative universe of an author as dazzling as an explosion of fireworks.
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