Salman Rushdie has amassed for himself a fair number of distinctions over the years, among them the Booker of Bookers prize, the Whitbread novel award (twice), the James Tait Black memorial prize, and a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for his immediate assassination.
Yesterday, however, came the big one: a knighthood recognising the services to literature of one of the world's most lauded - and most divisive - literary grandees. "I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way," the newly-minted Sir Salman said in a statement.
The announcement signals a belated endorsement by the British establishment, 18 years after the author was forced to go on the run after The Satanic Verses was condemned as blasphemy by Iran's late spiritual leader. Britain broke off diplomatic relations over the incident; Rushdie himself had to live in hiding for a decade.
"I am delighted for him," said fellow novelist Ian McEwan said last night. "He's a wonderful writer, and this sends a firm message to the book-burners and their appeasers."
John Sutherland, academic and former Booker prize judge, suggested the award might represent a tacit olive branch from those who perhaps had failed to support Sir Salman as he might have hoped.
"It's astonishing that Tony Blair, among others, has been so reluctant to be seen shaking Rushdie's hand, and here he is getting a knighthood from the Queen," said the emeritus professor of literature.
"Public figures have been very, very reluctant to support Rushdie, particularly when he was under direct threat of assassination. It's a brave and entirely commendable decision by the people who advise the Queen - I would be curious to know if the recommendation came directly from Downing Street, though."
Fatwa aside, Sir Salman has long divided critical opinion. Midnight's Children, only his second novel, was named Booker of Bookers, best novel of the previous 25 years, in 1993. His recent work has failed to win similar acclaim, however, and the author has abandoned the London literary scene for New York.
"It does set the mind speculating what went through his mind when he accepted [the knighthood]," said Prof Sutherland. "He is a nomad. He has a supra-national, post-colonial style, so that it is very hard to say who owns him. And now he has pledged himself in the personal service of the monarch! For the writer of The Satanic Verses, which was extremely rude about England, it's certainly unusual."
(Personal Note: I am wondering how many of the rampaging dimwits in the "Muslim world" have even SEEN a copy of "The Satanic Verses," let alone read a page of the novel.)
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