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Salman Rushdie savors a touch of normalcy

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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.

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