If Salman Rushdie was going to be a little smug or self-satisfied as he took the stage on the last evening of the Miami book fair, my brother and I agreed before hand that we’d understand completely. After all, this hasn’t been a bad year for the novelist; in April he published his tenth novel The Enchantress of Florence, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in May, and in July his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children was named the best novel to win the Booker Prize in its 40-year history, beating out other notable novelists including J.M. Coetzee and Pat Barker.
But it turned out Mr. Rushdie was unassuming, relaxed, and smiling ironically as he comfortably laid back in an auburn leather chair. One leg dangling atop the other, he was lively and animated as he spoke. Nathan Englander’s questions, it turned out, provided ample ground for Rushdie to perform a kind of one-man show, invariably provoking laughter and applause from the audience. It felt unreal that a little more than ten years ago such an event wouldn’t have been possible, that this brilliant and good-humored author was still living underground, officially a target for all “true believers” – still veritable proof of the dangers of the humorless.
Even more unreal was the lack of security. Neither my brother nor I had ever attended a Rushdie reading before, but we’d prepped ourselves for – at the very least – a quick and gentle pat-down. None came. Very well, then. Bodyguards? None in sight, not even as a undulating line formed in the halls outside for the book signing.
And as I stood in that undulating line, just a few feet from him, I thought of how fortunate I was – not simply because one of my favorite writers would be signing my copy of his latest book, but because I would be standing before one of the greatest novelists of the last four decades, a brave and arresting intellectual force, an outspoken and victimized opponent of totalitarianism and fundamentalism.
As he jotted down his signature in my book he looked a little tired (“those low-slung eyelids could give him an exhausted look,” Rushdie writes of a character in The Satanic Verses) but before I knew it we were casually exchanging comments about Denmark, where he told me he’d appear next year to promote the Danish translation of The Enchantress of Florence. Then, just as quickly, we said our thanks and goodbyes and I might even have said, “see you later” – such was the effect of Rushdie’s enormous approachability as a human being.
Needless to say, our hands were still trembling with awe as my brother and I left the Chapman Conference Center.