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Salman Rushdie and John Le Carre engage in war of words

November 23, 1997

LONDON (AP) _ Literary giants Salman Rushdie and John Le Carre have unsheathed their pens in a war of words.

Since Tuesday, they have been fighting daily battles in the Letters to the Editor column of The Guardian newspaper.

Rushdie lobbed the first epistolary grenade.

In a letter Tuesday, Rushdie said he had no sympathy for Le Carre over accusations by some American reviewers that his latest novel, ``The Tailor of Panama,″ is anti-semitic.

Why no sympathy? Because the spy novelist failed to support him when the Iranian government in 1989 vowed to kill him for allegedly blaspheming Islam in ``The Satanic Verses,″ Rushdie said.

Le Carre responded Wednesday, accusing Rushdie of being ``arrogant″ and ``self-serving″ with the truth. ``My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity,″ he said, adding that he deplored the persecution of Rushdie.

On Thursday, Rushdie called Le Carre ``pompous″ and a ``philistine″ who supports ``the radical Islamists″ and will not fight for freedom of speech.

Le Carre retorted Friday that Rushdie was ``preposterous″ and did not respect the beliefs of others.

``Rushdie took on a known enemy and screamed `foul’ when it acted in character. The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn’t make a martyr of him, nor _ much as he would like it to _ does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall,″ Le Carre wrote.

In the latest barb on Saturday, Rushdie referred to Le Carre as a ``pseudonymous friend″ _ a reference to his writing under an assumed name. Le Carre’s real name is David Cornwell.

As for the charge that he cried ``foul,″ Rushdie asked whether Le Carre would say the same thing ``to the many writers, journalists and intellectuals in and from Iran, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere, who are also battling against Islamism, and for a secularized society.″

Rushdie hinted that this might be his last letter.

``Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging. Me, I’m going back to work,″ he said.

In a front-page story Saturday, the Guardian said it believes the explanation for the ``vituperative exchanges″ stems from the deepest of literary grievances: a bad review.

According to the liberal daily, Rushdie wrote ``a mocking review″ of Le Carre’s novel, ``The Russia House,″ in June 1989.

The Guardian said it also found an unpublished letter from Le Carre to the paper’s New York correspondent in November 1989 in which he said he initially supported Rushdie but during the year, ``I realized that I had less and less sympathy with (his) position.″

Guardian columnist Mark Lawson said the writers appear to be settling old scores.

``The Collected Guardian Correspondence of Salman Rushdie and John Le Carre is in the great tradition of literary poison pen letters: both in their inventive viciousness and in the low personal revenges which may lie behind the high rhetoric,″ he said.

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