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Reports From The Front

Rushdie's triumph of the imagination

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For Salman Rushdie, a death sentence liberates the tongue and the pen, eliciting verses upon verses, satanic and otherwise. Consider his opinion of organized religions. "They may," he writes, "at some point cease to feel like the texts in which human beings have tried to solve a great mystery and feel, instead, like the pretexts for other, properly anointed human beings to order you around."

Such less-than- reverential but insightful sentiments dominate Rushdie's Step Across This Line, a stellar essay collection that makes up for last year's surprising literary misstep, the dreadful novel Fury. This, then, is the mesmerizing raconteur of Midnight's Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Since the ayatollah's fatwa, or death sentence, against Rushdie and his famously infamous novel The Satanic Verses, millions know the author and his book from news accounts rather than from reading his work. (The fatwa began on Valentine's Day 1989, sending the author into hiding with armed guards. It ended in September 1998 at the UN General Assembly in New York.)

This nightmare form of celebrity often threatens to eclipse India's sublime British export, a multicultural literary magician who dazzles, cajoles, flatters and, in book after book, displays sheer genius.

This isn't to say Rushdie is infallible, by any means. Just as Fury displayed a jaw-dropping lack of perspective, this book has some lesser moments. For example: A tossed-off essay describing what it's like to be shot by the famous fashion photographer and portraitist Richard Avedon. But there is too much right -- and, at times, brilliant -- in this collection to spend much time carping over a few faux pas.

Rushdie begins with an elegant essay on the film version of The Wizard of Oz, his inspiration for storytelling. He recalls the movie prodding a 10-year-old Bombay boy's first, clumsy short story, one that included a hybrid of Judy Garland, Elvis Presley and the "playback singers" of the Hindi movies. Genuine adoration for Oz flows from each sentence, every observation. The visual motif, Rushdie reports, reflects the simple goodness of home through simple geometry: the parallel lines of a wooden fence, the triangle serving as the dinner bell, the Kansas house, all right angles and triangles. And the bad? Twisty, irregular, misshapen, as any glimpse of the knotty trees in the forest reveals.

"Over the Rainbow," Judy Garland's, and the movie's, signature moment, runs counter to the scriptwriters' insistence that there's no place like home, Rushdie asserts. Then comes the needle: "That "Over the Rainbow' came close to being cut out of the movie is well known, and proof that Hollywood makes its masterpieces by accident, because it doesn't really know what it is doing."

In Rushdie's eyes, "what (Garland) embodies with the purity of an archetype, is the human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots." The dream, in other words, of an immigrant, a constant theme in Rushdie's work.

Rushdie's ruminations on Oz display his agile, playful mind -- a mind that engages all manner of observation, alternately making the trivial weighty and the weighty trivial.

Nothing is sacred for Rushdie, a man who is intellectually insatiable if unorthodox. Rushdie happily dissects and digresses on all matters of interest: immigrants, those lovable fundamentalists, reality TV, the disputed American election of 2000, the new world ushered in by 9/11, U2, Amadou Diallo, the Rolling Stones, Elian Gonzalez, the magic of soccer, it's all here.

Reflecting on the death of Princess Diana, he reminds those who tut-tut about the relentless paparazzi of their own complicity: "What newspaper do you read? When you saw the pictures of Dodi and Diana cavorting together, did you say, that's none of my business, and turn the page?"

Fittingly, freedom of speech engenders not only passion but intense eloquence. This is a man amazed at his plight, but self-aware enough to realize that the larger issues of free speech and free thought hang in the balance. He senses the responsibility and demands of the role. Above all, Rushdie knows he's merely the most visible symbol of intellectual persecution. He makes it clear that numerous poets, novelists, professors, journalists and other dissenters suffer the slings and arrows of censorship, torture, even successful fatwas, in the service of free speech.

During the past five years, Rushdie's restriction of movement has been largely removed and he has become a much more public man, chatting on talk shows, delivering lectures and making appearances without the accompanying secrecy of a presidential itinerary. That makes it all the harder to remember that a Japanese professor, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in 1991 for translating The Satanic Verses. Or that Rushdie's publisher, Penguin, fearing reprisal, refused to publish a paperback edition of the book in 1992.

When the intrepid author made his way to Washington for a planned Congressional speech a decade ago, Secretary of State James Baker called on leaders of both houses to quash the appearance. (He did meet with a handful of senators.) Marlin Fitzwater, the erstwhile presidential spokesman, explained the administration's lack of approval: "He's just an author on a book tour." Hard to argue, considering the armed bodyguards and secret movements required to ferry Nicholas Sparks or David Baldacci to your neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

Even the comparative folderol of rock & roll can't enervate Rushdie's muscular prose. Upon watching Mick Jagger and Keith Richards lead the Stones through a riff-roaring stadium show a few years back, he proclaimed the geriatric bad boys pop-cultural DNA.

According to Rushdie, ". . . We may even be able, by now, to pass the knowledge on genetically to our children, who will be born humming "how come you dance so good' and those old satanic verses, "pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.'"

Those who may have considered Rushdie a devil -- and the place he considered hell -- reached a truce with their notorious Man of Letters two years ago. Long at odds with his home country, Rushdie returned to India and began repairing bruised feelings.

"A Dream of Glorious Return," written two years ago, recounts that homecoming and its related adventures. Perhaps in this essay, more than any other, the facade of the omniscient master of stories falls away, replaced by sheer ebullience. Rushdie feels his "happiness rising like a tropical dawn, fast and brilliant and hot. There are few such moments in a lifetime. Forgive me for saying perhaps too much about this one. It is a rare thing to be granted your heart's desire."

That rare thing is deserved. After all, how many authors, no matter how rare their talent, face a decade-long death threat? As his pal Bono might say, it's a beautiful day, Salman, don't let it get away.

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