Book review: ‘Joseph Anton’, by Salman Rushdie

No book by Salman Rushdie can ever have an entirely neutral reception. He has entered history in a way not normally reserved for writers of fiction, and since the fatwa that was issued by the dying Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Rushdie has lived to a greater or lesser extent under the threat of violent assassination. In this absorbing, enthralling, occasionally irritating memoir, Rushdie plunges into the maelstrom of events that saw him condemned to death by the head of a theocratic foreign power for having written a novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, that was deemed ‘offensive to Islam.’ Salman Rushdie the person disappeared into a host of competing characters – the ‘Satan Rushdie’ of demonstrators’ placards; the ‘Rushdie’ of the Rushdie Affair; and ‘Joseph Anton’, the pseudonym he cobbled together from the first names of two of his favourite writers, Conrad and Chekhov. Even his book was denied the definite article, and, almost self-condemned, became no more than ‘Satanic Verses.’ Reading about the web of security in which he was caught, the sense in which his life was being directed by forces entirely outside his control, one wonders whether a pseudonym like ‘Joseph K.’ would have been even more appropriate. Throughout his ordeal – and no one after having read this book can side for a moment with the mean-spirited Daily Mail tendency that claimed all this security was present merely to stroke his massive ego – Rushdie tries to retain a sense of himself as a man and a writer. This does not come without a cost, and Rushdie is scathingly honest about his fears and failings, his infidelities, his inability at times, locked in the prison of his security, to act as a proper father, husband or friend. Finally, after much behind the scenes diplomatic intervention, and after commendable protest groups and awareness campaigns have managed to keep the Rushdie Affair in the public eye, the Iranian theocracy backs down and claims the fatwa will no longer be enforced. Shortly afterwards of course, September 11, 2001 makes of the Rushdie Affair an overture to the main event.

Rushdie has approached his story in the third person, and what seems at first a slightly curious stylistic device makes perfect sense the further into the book you read. All the personae that were forced on to him by other, self-interested actors, effectively estranged him from himself. So unreal is the situation, so smothering and bizarre, that it does at times feel as if it’s happening to another person. Beyond this, Rushdie is keen to stress the key issue at stake in the unprecedented situation in which he found himself. As he gradually comes to realise, the larger question here is not the life and death of one writer, but the life or death of an idea. Free expression is everything or it is nothing, and a world in which tyrannical regimes can with impunity suborn the deaths of writers or artists for the unpalatable nature of their ideas is not a free world in any way, shape or form. It is depressing and enraging in equal measure to read of the petty vindictiveness with which the Tory government and the tabloid press greeted his plight, and it comes as no surprise that, by the end of the book and the end of his period in hiding, Rushdie begins to associate the United States with a purer degree of freedom than is available to him in the United Kingdom. He is never less than extremely grateful and complimentary to the men and women who formed his security detail, but it is clear that at the higher levels politics intruded more than once on the way in which he was protected. Even more depressing is to read of the relativist attacks on him from the left; John Le Carre comes out of this particularly badly, as does Roald Dahl and (my heart lowered to read of it, because I revere him) so does John Berger. The claim that Rushdie effectively deserved what he got because he ‘knew what he was doing’ is particularly asinine. As he makes clear, it’s not as if he could write a novel of 250,000 words by accident, but no one could possibly have predicted the sheer scale of the response.

Of course, in the world of the late 1980s, Rushdie was not alone in finding himself persecuted for his ideas. Closer at hand, in the communist dictatorships of the Soviet bloc, writers had long known the true value of literature. He writes at length about the gradual opening up of the Cold War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall (which of course also took place in 1989), and the fall of the Soviet Union, and, recounting writers’ conferences and festivals throughout the world, draws fascinating portraits of figures such as Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz. Rushdie to a small extent aligns his experience with the experience of dissident writers in the communist bloc, but in a way he could have made much more of this correspondence. If there is one major failing to the book, it is in Rushdie’s reluctance to offer any deeper analysis of the context in which the fatwa was made. There is a broad, correlative relationship between the collapse of Soviet communism and the global rise of militant Islam, and to blame the vicious intolerance of the Iranian regime, or the unsmiling response of self-styled ‘Muslim leaders’ in Britain on nothing more than ‘religion’ only answers half the question. Rushdie’s fiction deals above all with worlds in flux, with shifting identities and the reeling uncertainty of the migrant experience. Not to quite understand that there was more to the fatwa than a hardline adherence to scriptural doctrine demonstrates an uncommon inability on Rushdie’s part to connect.

As the book continues, its sources become more obvious. Rushdie must have drawn extensively on his diaries, because he has a tendency at times to offer checklists of events rather than explorations of them, and the more celebrated a figure he becomes, the more the reader must skim through the names of the great and the good at parties, conferences and festivals. I don’t particularly care that he had lunch with Warren Beatty, that he had a date with Meg Ryan, that he hung out with Bono and the rest of U2, or that Nigella Lawson is a close, personal friend. But these are small complaints to make of a large, sprawling, important book, one that brings to life one of the key events of the late twentieth century, with a plot and a dramatis personae more outlandish than any work of fiction. Reading it, you have the sense that one phase of Rushdie’s career is finally over, and it only remains to be seen what he will do next.

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

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