Salman Rushdie is ready for his next role. ''I'll be Marlon Brando in a turban,'' he says. His friend Deepa Mehta, who recently directed the author's adaptation of the Booker-winning novel Midnight's Children, wants Rushdie to play an ageing godfather in her new movie, set among western Canada's feuding Sikh gangs.
''I really want to do it,'' Rushdie says. ''It'll be Tarantino with brown people.''
Rushdie played an approximation of himself in the 2001 movie Bridget Jones's Diary. He wasn't asked to play himself in the 1990 Pakistani film International Gorillay, about jihadists who vow to kill an author called ''Salman Rushdie''. At the end of the film, ''Rushdie'' is terminated, not by jihadists but by three large Korans hanging from the sky that reduce him to dust in punishment for slurring Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses.
The real Rushdie played a key role in ensuring that film's British release: film censors were set to refuse it a certificate because it was inflammatory, but Rushdie assured them he wouldn't sue for libel. ''It was a piece of crap but banning it would only have glamorised it,'' he says.
We are meeting in London to discuss Rushdie's longest-running role, his 13-year performance as a character called Joseph Anton. This was the pseudonym he took after going into hiding following the fatwa declared upon him by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine's Day, 1989. His protection officers suggested he choose another name to increase his security when he turned up at a new home (though being flanked by four armed men in bulletproof Jaguars usually did the trick).
And so, Rushdie writes, he became ''an invisible man in a whiteface mask''. Joseph was Conrad's first name, Anton was Chekhov's. He was Mr Anton until March 27, 2002, when the police Jaguars finally drove out of his life for the last time.
That pseudonym now supplies the title for his 636-page memoir. Why would he want to revisit those years? During that time his first wife, Clarissa, died of cancer, his second and third marriages broke up, his fourth was shaky, his Japanese editor was murdered, his Norwegian publisher shot, his Italian translator stabbed, hundreds died in riots protesting against his novel, his books were burnt, he did things that still make him burn with shame and he found that writers he admired such as John Berger and John le Carre attacked him for not withdrawing the novel.
''For a long time I didn't want to write this because I felt it would be too upsetting,'' he says. ''But writing it actually wasn't … I didn't want to write 600 pages of getting even. I thought I would try to be as understanding as possible to everybody else and as rough as possible on myself. I decided not to varnish stuff.''
His second wife, the novelist Marianne Wiggins, surely will not enjoy reading the passages in which Rushdie presents her as delusional. She becomes, if the memoir is to be believed, an undermining presence during Rushdie's adversity, giving an interview in which she calls him weak and vain. The couple divorced in 1993.
Did he show Marianne the manuscript? ''No, she can buy a copy,'' he says.
By contrast, his third and fourth wives, Elizabeth West and Padma Lakshmi, were consulted, as was his son Zafar, whose mother, Clarissa, died during the fatwa years. ''Elizabeth was one of the first readers of the book and, after correcting some passages, she signed off on it,'' he says.
She signed off, presumably, on the delicious scene in a New York room in which she meets Lakshmi, who would become Rushdie's next wife, and eviscerates the Indian supermodel, TV chef and actor in ripe language that her husband was surprised she could use so eloquently.
Lakshmi, from whom he was divorced in 2007 after three years of marriage, said, according to Rushdie: ''Just tell me what's in the book so I don't get blindsided.'' The fourth Mrs Rushdie will not like the passage in which he watches her ''pose and pirouette'' for the paparazzi outside a Vanity Fair dinner in Hollywood. ''She's having sex,'' Rushdie writes, ''sex with hundreds of men at the same time and they don't even get to touch her; there's no way an actual man can compete with that.''
If he is rough on himself, it is for becoming briefly, as he puts it, ''a dentist's zombie''. On Christmas Eve, 1990, at the behest of six Muslim scholars whom he had agreed to meet at Paddington Green police station in London, he signed a paper saying he had intended no offence to Islam and re-embraced the religion. The man who brokered this meeting, dentist Hesham el-Essawy, sought to return Rushdie to the faith into which he had been born in Mumbai in 1947.
Soon after that meeting he wrote an article called ''Why I am a Muslim'' for The Times. ''I am certainly not a good Muslim,'' he wrote then. ''But I am able now to say that I am Muslim; in fact, it is a source of happiness to say that I am now inside, and a part of, the community whose values have always been closest to my heart.''
''I was physically sick after that,'' he recalls. ''I felt I had lost my mind.
''Reading through my journals of that time, I see it was the blackest period. I became the dentist's zombie, thinking he was giving me [spiritual] Novocain. But everybody who loved me told me I was insane.''
He doesn't entirely regret his temporary ''zombification''. ''It was hitting the bottom and one of the benefits of hitting bottom is you know where the bottom is,'' he says. He describes himself today as ''a profoundly irreligious man'' and ''of the Hitchens camp'' (his late friend Christopher Hitchens wrote the bestseller God Is Not Great). In Joseph Anton, he argues that there is a need for blasphemy, used as a weapon against the power of religions in the way of the French Enlightenment writers.
At the start of Joseph Anton, Rushdie recalls what he said on US TV the day he received the Ayatollah's unfunny valentine. ''I wish I'd written a more critical book,'' he told CBS, adding that he did not feel his book was especially critical of Islam but that a religion whose leaders behaved in this way could probably do with a little criticism.
''I'm proud of myself for saying that in deep shock,'' he says. So if he redrafted The Satanic Verses today, knowing the miseries the fatwa caused him, he'd have written something even more critical of Islam? ''Definitely. Oh yes. But The Satanic Verses isn't - or is not only - about Islam. It deals with the origin story of religion, closely following Islam. It's about the nature of revelation, about the seeing of visions.''
He also found it interesting to write about the moment Muhammad was seduced by the devil. The satanic verses of Rushdie's novel were those Muhammad believed were dictated to him by the angel Gabriel. They said that the pagan goddesses worshipped in Mecca ''are exalted females whose intercession is to be desired'' - a contradiction of nascent monotheistic Islamic orthodoxy. Only later did Muhammad repudiate these verses, Rushdie argues, saying he was deceived by the devil, disguised as the archangel, into believing them.
For many Muslims, Rushdie was attacking their religion and mocking its prophet. ''I don't mock Muhammad,'' Rushdie says. ''I treat him as someone who behaved pretty well. When he came back to Mecca in triumph he didn't kill many people.''
At the end of Joseph Anton, Rushdie writes that he is not sure if the battle over The Satanic Verses ended in victory or defeat. Why not? ''Well, the book is still in print and the author wasn't suppressed so it was a victory in that sense. But the fear and menaces have grown.''
That is an understatement. We are meeting a day after the murder of the US ambassador to Libya, and as many Muslims spend their holy day attacking Western embassies across north Africa and beyond, in protest at a film, Innocence of Muslims, that slurs Islam.
''The film is clearly a malevolent piece of garbage,'' Rushdie says. ''The civilised response would be to say of the director: 'F--- him. Let's get on with our day.' What's not civilised is to hold America responsible for everything that happens in its borders. That's crap. Even if that were true, to respond with physical attacks and believe it's OK to attack people because you're upset at this thing, that's an improper reaction. The Muslim world needs to get out of that mindset.''
He doubts it will. The downside of the Arab Spring for him is the rise of Salafism.
''That extremist form of Islam has risen since the Arab Spring in those countries where there were revolutions.''
Worse yet, Western liberals have bent the knee to the sensibilities of the most extreme Muslims, he says. If Rushdie presented the manuscript of a new novel more critical of Islam than The Satanic Verses to his agent today, would he be able to sell it? ''Probably not.''
Rushdie has lived for the past decade in New York, though he maintains a home in London. One thing that thrills him about living in the US is how immigrant writers are revivifying its literary culture, in a way that perhaps he and others did in Britain a few decades ago. ''American literature has always been immigrant.'' Now, he says, writers such as the Chinese-born Yiyun Li and Dominican-born Junot Diaz are making American literature unprecedentedly rich.
Today, as Rushdie steps out into London's evening sunshine to get a cab to his launch party, there are no cops, armed or otherwise, to be seen. It has been like that in Britain for 10 years, since his minders revoked his membership of the Level One Club. Before, that club had three members, all of whom required 24/7 protection: the Queen, the Prime Minister and a certain Mr Anton. ''Then in 2002, I dropped to level three or four, and basically then you look after yourself.''
Tonight, he is a free man. He aims to play that part for the rest of his life.
Guardian News & Media
Joseph Anton is published by Jonathan Cape, $35. An extract appears in today's Good Weekend.