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Rushdie and me

Salman Rushdie's book about being under a fatwa mentions the moment in 1988 when, with his book about to be banned in India by the Rajiv Ghandi government, he went to Toronto for the Harbourfront Festival of Authors.  As it happened, I was at the same festival.   How I got to be there is a story for some other day if ever. It was at that time officially called the Wang Festival of Authors, being funded by Wang computers, developer of the first or at least the first very successful "dedicated" word processor.  It was an amazing gathering of world authors -- Michael Ondaatje,  James Fenton, D.M. Thomas,  Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, A.S. Byatt, on and on.  (One of the side perqs of the festival was a trip to Niagara Falls.  I went under the falls with A.S. Byatt, among many,)   At a cocktail party I heard Rushdie talking with Desai about what was occurring in India, the book was to be officially banned.  "Oh that foolish Rajiv!" Desai said, in the manner of a good but strict teacher disappointed in a pupil.  "I shall speak to him as soon as I return to Delhi.  This has to be stopped."  Of course it wasn't.

Rushdie read a piece from Satanic Verses at the festival (which was, basically, a series of readings).  The piece was about a mad Islamic revolutionary ayatolla brooding in his apartment in France about the revolution he intends to bring about, the infidels and faithless officials who will die, the pure new world that will be instituted.  "Wine will flow like blood" was one line I remember. It was evident even from this small excerpt that the fatwa had nothing to do with insulting Islam or the Prophet and everything to do with insulting Khomeini.  Who did not seem to be the type to suffer insults gladly.  It seems to me that less was made of this at the time than I would have expected.

I read from my book "Aegypt," the first pages.  I shared the evening with D.M. Thomas.  There were hundreds of people in the audience.  It was truly an astonishment. 


( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 13th, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
John, lovely story and unexpected insight into the fatwa.

However, I was arrested by this line: "I went under the falls with AS Byatt". Sounds like the title of a bestseller to me.
An Infinitude of Tortoises [verisignlabs.com]
Oct. 14th, 2012 02:44 am (UTC)
Surely "to go under the falls with" is (or should be) a circumlocution or metaphor of some sort -- but what?
Oct. 13th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
Did Thomas remember Little, Big had beaten out his White Hotel for an award?

Very strange thinking of novelists hanging out. Makes you wonder what their characters would say to one another.
Oct. 14th, 2012 06:49 pm (UTC)
What award was that? World Fantasy? I imagine it went under his radar at the time. White Hotel is admirable. WHat happened to his reputation? He was at the height of his fame them. He seems to have vanished away.
Oct. 15th, 2012 06:58 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's the one.

His rep, um, seems to have gradually sunk during the years he was working on an increasingly involved multi-volume novel dealing with several different time periods and with many interpolated pages of imaginary biography, fiction and verse.
Oct. 15th, 2012 11:20 am (UTC)
Oct. 14th, 2012 11:11 am (UTC)
I agree entirely; the Jahilia scenes may have outraged the masses (generally in third- or fourth- hand retelling), but it's clear what outraged Khomeini.
Oct. 14th, 2012 12:57 pm (UTC)
As with the tale about Andy Warhol and you, obviously we have to know the right questions to ask.

A. S. Byatt made no mention of Niagara Falls in her Ellmann Lectures a dozen years or so ago. Now we know.
Oct. 14th, 2012 06:46 pm (UTC)
Well, you know, I remember HER but I would be astonished if she remembers ME.
Oct. 14th, 2012 01:34 pm (UTC)
My parents owned stock in Wang. They held it as it rose and tumbled. It was run by a guy named Dr. Wang. Near the end, my father referred to him as Dr. No. He'd open the stock pages of the newspaper each morning and mutter, "Dr. No is at it again."
Oct. 14th, 2012 01:55 pm (UTC)
I had a novelist friend who had MS and was losing muscle strength, and got one as a gift or an award of some kind. Easier to type on than a typewriter. But it's built-=in features amazed him -- how you could "micro-edit," easily go back over your work and change a comma here, a tense there. We've almost forgotten what a liberation word processing was. The Wang now appears to be a horribly clumsy and limited tool (they say it ran more slowly than the printers attached to it, which had to stop frequently and wait for more data to be delivered) and it was doomed from the start by progress in the field. But it was beloved -- by secretaries, journalists, writers -- anyone who could afford the $1500 or whatever it was they cost.
Oct. 14th, 2012 02:10 pm (UTC)
My college bought 2 Wang "microcomputers" in the mid 70s and I learned to write Fortran on them. They represented a huge leap from writing Basic on the school's "main" computer, a DEC PDP8 with 16k partitioned memory. However, they would often freeze up. The first time that happened, we searched the manual and found that the solution to this state was to "master initialize the unit." But the manual had no image or description of how to do this. We finally discovered, almost by accident, that this meant to turn off the power and turn it back on again!
Oct. 14th, 2012 06:44 pm (UTC)
Re: wang
Aha. I will now use that phrase (as I'm sure you do) whenever that operation is called for. "Reboot" is a beautiful word but it lacks the nice combination of shame and prolixity,
Oct. 14th, 2012 08:05 pm (UTC)
Re: wang
Yes, I love using it! I'll admit that I felt like I had joined some special club when I learned to "master initialize". No doubt such experiences are one source of the double-edged sword that is technological competence--one feels the thrill of acquiring arcane knowledge and at the same time recognizes how silly and overwrought the wording is.
An Infinitude of Tortoises [verisignlabs.com]
Oct. 15th, 2012 04:22 am (UTC)
Re: wang
The MI was of course followed by another form of initialization, the IPL (Initial Program Load). People got paid to oversee this whole process, he said knowingly.

Wang VS minicomputers were pretty cool systems. The OS was quite solid, and Wang had a powerful implementation of that "kitchen sink" programming language, PL/I ("Subset G"), featuring just about every sort of looping construct one could ever ask for.
An Infinitude of Tortoises [verisignlabs.com]
Oct. 15th, 2012 04:19 am (UTC)
Chip Delany had one in the early '80s, I believe; if not, it was some other early dedicated WP machine, now a historical footnote. I vaguely recall hearing of various annoyances with it. It seemed to me even then that one would be better off with a general-purpose computer and the right software.
Oct. 14th, 2012 03:57 pm (UTC)
John--it can only be intentional discretion, since you are too good a writer not to complete your anecdote. But surely everything about that passage is leading you directly to conclude:

(One of the side perqs of the festival was a trip to Niagara Falls. I went under the falls with A.S. Byatt, among many, AND THERE I STOLE AN UNFORGETTABLE DELICIOUS KISS FROM THAT VICTORIAN SAVANT AND LITERARY GODDESS...
Oct. 14th, 2012 06:45 pm (UTC)
An Infinitude of Tortoises [verisignlabs.com]
Oct. 15th, 2012 04:20 am (UTC)
The "among many" phrase was especially lovely, Paul.
Oct. 14th, 2012 05:32 pm (UTC)
I'd love to be in the same room with A.S. Byatt, if she were talking, even more than getting wet with her under the Niagara Falls! :)

Love, C.
Oct. 14th, 2012 06:45 pm (UTC)
Actually I don;t remember a word she said (it was very loud). But I do remember her in her black sou'wester and raincoat, round as a licorice drop.
An Infinitude of Tortoises [verisignlabs.com]
Oct. 15th, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)
On other fronts...
Somewhat off-topic, thousand pardons, but I couldn't help but be reminded of a certain novel earlier this evening while reading the story "New Weapons Detail Reveals True Depth of Cuban Missile Crisis" (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121012074701.htm).
Oct. 15th, 2012 11:26 am (UTC)
Re: On other fronts...
Thanks. That makes that moment even more central to the history of mankind. Think how easily it could have broken bad -- as we say.
An Infinitude of Tortoises [verisignlabs.com]
Oct. 15th, 2012 05:04 pm (UTC)
Re: On other fronts...
Could have? Indeed, think of all those parallel worlds (the existence of which the Many-Worlds school assures us is as real as one's nose) in which it DID! Luck of the draw -- WE get to experience global economic collapse, the melting of the ice caps, the Sixth Great Extinction Event, and other fun stuff. So you see, it all works out. (True, some unanticipated quirks of fate might yet shunt some or all of those particular misfortunes to an infinitude of realities not including ours. One can only hope, yes?)
Oct. 15th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
Re: On other fronts...
Unique among those infinite worlds is the one where everything, every single thing, went right. Unless there are in the infinite worlds an infinite number of things that can go wrong. Or an infinite number where everything goes right. "Infinite" always ends the game.
An Infinitude of Tortoises [verisignlabs.com]
Oct. 16th, 2012 03:11 am (UTC)
Varieties of the infinite
My understanding is that QM provides for only a finite -- though staggeringly large -- number of "many worlds" permutations for our own little universe ... but of course that leaves the multiverse, which may well be utterly unconstrained. So one way or another, you'd expect there to be an infinite number of everything, throughout eternity.

Sounds terribly wasteful, doesn't it?

As for your "best of all possible worlds" idea, just as there is a truly vast number of ways that things can go wrong (trust me on this -- I speak from encyclopedic personal experience), so one would expect there to be as many ways for things to go right. Does the precise trajectory of the $1,000 bill that blows through the window into your hand matter so much as the fact that it does so at all? Thus, there should be PLENTY of realities in which everything works out just fine, thanks.

Edited at 2012-10-16 03:23 am (UTC)
Oct. 16th, 2012 01:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Varieties of the infinite
When the king of Portugal (whose name I forget) was invited to look over a Ptolemaic cosmological system involving a large number of epicycles, retrograde motions, multiple centers on multiple spheres, he is said to have remarked "If the Lord God had asked my advice on embarking on creation, I would have suggested something simpler."
Oct. 17th, 2012 01:30 am (UTC)
Re: Varieties of the infinite
Perhaps it's already as simple as possible to work at all -- a soberin' thought!
Oct. 15th, 2012 06:36 am (UTC)
That would have been something to see.
Oct. 15th, 2012 08:06 am (UTC)
This is a lovely story, but I must confess my attention was slightly snagged by your use of "perqs", which I'm not sure if I've seen spelt that way before (vs. "perks"). Is that a US/UK thing?

(Sadly, I don't think I've been the recipient of perquisites often enough to have had the occasion to spell it out in my own writing.)
Oct. 15th, 2012 11:19 am (UTC)
You're right -- it's "perks" here too -- I knew it even as I wrote it, then decided to get quirqie and leave it.
Oct. 15th, 2012 01:11 pm (UTC)
As long as you weren't wearing a smirq while doing so.
Oct. 15th, 2012 09:23 am (UTC)
don't miss today's google doodle!
subject says it all
Oct. 15th, 2012 11:17 am (UTC)
Re: don't miss today's google doodle!
Just saw it. Awesome is the only word.
Oct. 15th, 2012 02:53 pm (UTC)
dm thomas's reputation
Thomas was accused of plagiarizing from Kuznetsov & others in The White Hotel. Others defended this as postmodernist appropriation, but the net result was an abrupt deflation of what had been rather overhyped to begin with; Seymour-Smith's subsequent dismissal of him in his authoritative biographical dictionaries is particularly scathing. (He even turns up in a book on Literary Hoaxes; http://tinyurl.com/9k78oe3 )

Edited at 2012-10-15 02:56 pm (UTC)
Oct. 15th, 2012 07:43 pm (UTC)
Re: dm thomas's reputation
Oh yes. Didn't he also get called on copying someone else's translations of Pushkin?
Oct. 16th, 2012 05:33 pm (UTC)
What a treat to be among such iconic authors. Incidentally, in 1988 I was nine years old.
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