By Salman Rushdie

(Jonathan Cape, R307)

“There are people in the world who believe only killing can compensate for an idea they cannot tolerate,” Rushdie brooded on the fatuous fatwa, the death sentence proclaimed by the Ayatollah Khomeini against him for having written The Satanic Verses, a fictionalised account from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, which the prelate considered blasphemous.

For 10 agonising years Rushdie lay in hiding with the assumed name of Joseph Anton to fend off would-be assassins. The British government offered him protection at the taxpayers’ expense, which included armed 24-hour surveillance and a bulletproof car.

In answer to the Ayatollah’s call for his execution, the Muslim community in Britain became apoplectic and vowed to kill him. Muslims who did not share these sentiments were themselves murdered. His Japanese translator was assassinated; his Italian translator survived an attempt on his life as did his Norwegian publisher – both sustaining serious injuries. Riots broke out in India at which several demonstrators were shot dead. A public book burning was held by the Muslim community of Bradford in England. Rushdie was appalled and so were many right-thinking people throughout the world, who rushed to his side.

Yet, not only did a number of prominent individuals fail to speak up for him but a number expressed understanding of the Ayatollah’s position, including such luminaries as the Archbishop of Canterbury (who later apologised) and John Le Carré who became embroiled in a public spat with Rushdie that left Le Carré reeling – Rushdie is a formidable debater. The Prince of Wales called him “a bad writer who costs too much to protect”.

South Africa too has a walk-on part. Invited by the Weekly Mail to speak at a conference on apartheid and censorship, he was asked by Nadine Gordimer to decline the invitation – the Muslim members of the South African Writers’ Union threatened to kill him, bomb his meetings and attack those who had invited him.

There was a risk that the anti-apartheid movement would split. Ideology won over principle. JM Coetzee, André Brink and Athol Fugard protested in his favour but Rushdie did not come.

Rushdie is a brilliant polemicist. He makes a strong case for freedom of expression. Scattered across this long book are pages that make one punch the air with delight at a turn of phrase, a perspicacious observation or the force of his logic. But the work is too long, too prolix, too filled with self-serving, self-referential observations.

Men who take themselves seriously as he does are apt to display pedestrian sensibilities. He confuses his person with the cause he serves. We accompany him through four marriages in the course of the book, which he describes with the heavy-footedness of a Hollywood autobiography.

Typical of a celebrity memoir, Rushdie drops lists of names: politicians, film stars, television personalities, publishers, opinion makers, journalists, intellectuals – all had the pleasure of crossing his star-crossed path, from Nigella Lawson to Michael Foot, from Bill Clinton to Vaclav Havel.

This book could have done with some radical editing. His brilliance is lost in a labyrinth of shallow personal observations. – Ugo Paladini