Salman Rushdie savors a touch of normalcy

On the second day of the Paraty Literary Festival, the main square of this small Brazilian town is buzzing. A parade of papier-mâché dolls passes the ancient church, a clown eats fire near a packed corner cafe, and people stream from two tented pavilions after an author's talk. Among the throng, ambling the cobbled streets in plain sight, is the characteristically disheveled figure of Salman Rushdie, the Anglo-Indian writer who is the star of this year's festival.

Sixteen years ago, after Islamic fundamentalists in Iran called on Muslims everywhere to assassinate him for having insulted their religion, Mr. Rushdie could not walk about his own home in safety, much less announce his presence at an international gathering like this one.

Now his life has returned to a type of near normalcy. Yet his new book may thrust him again into the limelight - this time in a positive way.

"Shalimar the Clown," Rushdie's latest novel, is being published here in Brazil two months ahead of its English release. Those who have seen it say it is his best work since his "Midnight's Children" took the literary world by storm in 1981. Kirkus Reviews called it "a magical-realist masterpiece that equals, and arguably surpasses, the achievements of 'Midnight's Children,' 'Shame,' and 'The Moor's Last Sigh.' " Even his rivals on the British literary scene believe it outshines anything he has done previously.

Since the fatwa was lifted in 1998, Rushdie's life has gradually been returning to that of an international literary superstar, with foreign travel, speeches and appearances, and even a glamorous model wife. He has taken on a very public role as the president of the PEN American Center, a writers' human rights organization, and feels at ease doing all the things he did before the death sentence was imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Shuttling between his two homes in London and New York without bodyguards shadowing his every step, Rushdie is in jovial form.

Even being stopped in the street can bring a smile to Rushdie - despite his longstanding reputation for grumpiness. "It's not so bad to have lots of people interested in what you write," Rushdie says when asked if the attention bothers him. "The people who come up to me are mostly coming up because they are interested in something I have written. Sometimes it can become intrusive, but on the whole it is not bad, really."

Chats with fans during the four-day festival, which took place over the second weekend in July in this charming colonial town 140 miles from Rio de Janeiro, centered on "Shalimar the Clown," the ninth novel in a career that began in 1975 with the publication of "Grimus."

Set in California, Kashmir, France, and England, "Shalimar" tells the story of Max, a former US counterterrorism chief who is assassinated by his Kashmiri driver, Shalimar, and the subsequent fallout for the men and the women who connect them.

The book is an obvious nod to Kashmir, the beautiful mountainous region where he spent boyhood summers. Rushdie calls it "a series of love tragedies between parents and children, between men and women, between peoples and places," as well as about "the possibilities of happiness."

Rushdie first got an idea for a novel about Kashmir in 1987, when he visited the region to make a TV documentary about the 50th anniversary of India's independence from Britain. The impact made by a band of traveling actors he met on the trip stayed with him, and in 1999 he began writing "Shalimar." He stopped briefly to pen the novel "Fury" but took it up again in 2001, just as his two worlds were colliding in a way no writer could ever have imagined and none can now ignore.

Rushdie says the 9/11 attacks changed the way novelists see the world and had a profound effect on him, a Muslim who has spent most of his life in the West.

The attacks reinforced his feeling, he explains, that the world has become a tiny place where all stories crisscross and intermingle. "Every writer I know understands that you need to rethink," Rushdie tells reporters before going onstage to talk about his work. Sept. 11 "showed me that the stories of the world are hopelessly entwined with each other. Because of the shrinking planet and the consequences of mass migration and geopolitics and so on, we all live in this world where our stories are no longer separate. [Before], one could mostly tell a story about India. You can't think like that anymore."

Some predict Rushdie's new book will generate even more excitement than his earlier works.

"It is the best book he has written," says Liz Calder, organizer of the Paraty festival and publisher of "Midnight's Children." "I will always love 'Midnight's Children.' The shock and joy of finding it and publishing it will always be special to me, but I'd say that 'Shalimar' is his most remarkable book. It embraces so much about contemporary life."

Rushdie's contemporary life would make a novel perhaps even more compelling. But he is not about to write a novel about his years in hiding.

"If you had my life, you wouldn't want to write about it," Rushdie tells the audience with a smile. "Enough already of my life!" A few moments later he is off again, shuffling around Paraty, largely unknown, and very happy to be so.

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