When Salman Rushdie received what he once gamely dubbed, "my unfunny Valentine," from the mullah of Iran for writing The Satanic Verses, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were not even part of Americans vocabulary. Now, terrorism is at our doorstep, and so is the man who has been warning us about it for the past decade.
Rushdie went into hiding to save his own life, but he didn't allow the fatwa to silence him. In fact, he became a Catherine wheel of warnings against the dangers of fundamentalism, which, packaged together in his latest book of assorted nonfiction, Step Across This Line (Random House, $24.95, 381 pp), provide a reminder of how essential writers can be in ensuring that such catastrophic events like Sept. 11 never happen again.
As Rushdie believes, a "wider war" between secularism and fundamentalism has been sweeping the globe, and there are grave issues at stake. Most important, for Rushdie, is free speech, for without this, he believes, individuals lack the ability to think and act on their own volition. In many of the editorials included here, Rushdie takes pains to show that he is not the only writer whom Khomeini attempted to silence.
Rushdie does an admirable job of keeping his language urgent, but not shrill. The Last Hostage does a beautiful job of recreating the logistical nightmare that was Rushdie's existence for nearly 10 years . He quickly developed a sense of humor about his plight.
Although the jokes are less funny in repetition _ this is not a book to be read front to back, but randomly _ Rushdie's humor has a point: He will not let the fatwa define him, he will define it.
As he writes in one essay, "We worship, these days, not images but Image itself; and any man or woman who strays into the public gaze becomes a potential sacrifice in that temple." Rushdie did not so much stray into that arena, but was dragged in, against his will. Step Across this Line chronicles his magnificent attempt to write his way out of it.
_ John Freeman