Book Reviews

Salman Rushdie

From 14 February 1989 onwards, Salman Rushdie did not receive his post directly. Instead, every letter or invitation went to his agency, where it was screened and tested for explosives before a member of his protection team would pick it up and take it to him. When a cleaner, plumber or farmer happened by one of his various temporary houses, Rushdie had to hide behind kitchen counters, in bathrooms, in the garage. Visiting his son Zafar, then just ten years old, involved a process known as ‘dry-cleaning’ to ensure he was not being followed, and consisted of driving ‘as weirdly as possible’. Thus was the life of the author in hiding, from the moment Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination for writing The Satanic Verses, which managed to turn the mundane acts of Rushdie’s life into security threats, and profound events into surreal occurrences.

Joseph Anton, a portmanteau of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, was the alias Rushdie chose to hide behind while living under the threat of the fatwa. The memoir looks at the author’s life through the lens of hindsight in order to paint a clear picture of a time that was both messy and blurry, its confusion compounded by the constant noise of fiery voices speaking for or against him from all corners of the globe. Readers are given a glimpse into Rushdie’s pre-fatwa life: the dynamics of his family, his childhood migration from Bombay to London, his years of education at Rugby and Cambridge, his struggles as an aspiring writer, his loves, his insecurities, the way he was catapulted to success after writing Midnight’s Children. Then comes the period in the shadow of the fatwa during which everything he knew, or at least thought he knew, was turned upside down. 
The story is delivered in true Rushdie fashion, skipping back and forth between the main narrative, flashbacks, and cryptic foreshadowing that any Rushdie aficionado would expect. Inevitably and necessarily, Joseph Anton explores the themes of liberty, religion and secularism. Rushdie’s battle against numerous oppressors over a work of literature is a microcosm of what was happening on a global scale, when echoes of the struggle between tyranny and freedom could be heard everywhere. While Rushdie was resisting calls to withdraw The Satanic Verses and pushing for a lifting of the fatwa, dozens – or perhaps hundreds – of Chinese citizens were crushed in Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall crumbled, Ayatollah Khomeini died (though his fatwa lived on) and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. 
Rushdie’s struggles, however, were complicated by the unexpected violence and controversy triggered by The Satanic Verses: bookshops were bombed and fatal riots exploded around the world. The lives of British and American hostages in Lebanon were at stake while the lives of the people closest to Rushdie were in constant danger. Many people felt the author should simply withdraw the book and apologise, instead of letting the consequences of publication snowball out of control. 
But he had done nothing that warranted an apology. As John Stuart Mill, an ardent supporter of free speech, put it, an author’s right to publish an ‘opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor’ should be protected, whereas the same opinion would merit punishment when ‘delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer’ because it then becomes ‘a positive instigation to some mischievous act.’ Though The Satanic Verses may have been seen as blasphemy, it was Rushdie’s opponents who were exciting an already agitated mob before the house of the author. Their reactions and the harm caused to Rushdie and others were far more damaging than the book itself.
Rushdie responded to the criticism against him in his speech, Is Nothing Sacred?, delivered at the annual memorial lecture for Herbert Read in 1990. He described literature as ‘the stage upon which the great debates of society can be conducted’. A book is one voice, among many others, about the times we live in. It can be controversial, blasphemous or outrageous but it should not be silenced because, as Rushdie pointed out, ‘Wherever in the world the little room of literature has been closed, sooner or later the walls have come tumbling down.’
Joseph Anton sheds as much light on Rushdie’s personal life, his mindset and his intelligence as it does on the global context of the fatwa. He provides elaborate details about the characters in his life, the feelings he was experiencing and the memories he held on to (amid a lot of name dropping). At times the reader cannot help but feel like Padma in Midnight’s Children, begging Rushdie to return to ‘the world of linear narrative, the universe of what-happened-next’. However, these details are what anchor his life in reality, and give context to the impact of the fatwa, reminding the reader that the man buried under the controversy had once led a ‘normal life’.
The intricate detail also gives the reader glimpses of where Rushdie finds his inspiration and the chrysalises from which his ideas emerge. For example, description of his first wife Clarissa is immediately reminiscent of Pamela Lovelace in The Satanic Verses. His childhood experiences at Rugby and his relationship with his father correlate with the life of Saladin Chamcha, also in The Satanic Verses. We see where Haroun and the Sea of Stories started and where he met Shalimar the Clown. It is through Joseph Anton that the reader begins to realize just how much of himself Rushdie pours into his works.
Another important element of the book is that it is written in the third person; to Rushdie the entire debacle felt so surreal that it almost seemed as though it were happening to someone else. For a long time, he found himself viewing his own life through the headlines, which treated him not as an individual but as the face of the issue itself: ‘He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was the author of Satanic Verses,’ he explains.
Joseph Anton is a remarkable book about a man caught in the middle of a global battlefield, whose love for literature and faith in freedom gave him the hope and courage to pull through his trying experience. There is also a historical undercurrent to the book; the attack on Salman Rushdie was just the beginning of a string of similar events that continue to this day. In fact, the release of his book in September this year coincided with new riots in the Muslim world ignited by the publication of an anti-Islamic video. Hence, the conversation continues. 
Joseph Anton is published by Random House.

To comment on this review, please click here.

More Book Reviews

Please Register or Login

Register now for full access to News and Events, Web Exclusives, Blogs and Comments.

If you've already registered, please login.