Good Story

Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir

Jonathan Cape, 636pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780224093972

reviewed by Sarah Emily Duff

In an essay about adapting Midnight’s Children (Jonathan Cape, 1981) for film, Salman Rushdie wrote: ‘Interestingly, on the novel’s first publication, Western critics tended to focus on its more fantastic elements, while Indian reviewers treated it like a history book. “I could have written your book,” a reader flatteringly told me in Bombay. “I know all that stuff.”’

There is much in Joseph Anton – Rushdie’s memoir of his life under the fatwa declared by Iran in response to the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses (Viking, 1988) – that seems so outlandish that it would be rejected as unrealistic in fiction: the closest he came to death during the 13 long years he spent partly in hiding, was a gun fired accidentally by a member of his police protection team, and a collision with a lorry laden with dung in Australia.

Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s first sustained account of what it was like to live under an almost constant threat of being killed, for more than a decade. The memoir’s title is the nom de guerre (the ‘whiteface mask’) Rushdie chose for himself while in hiding – a composite of the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov – and it is written in the third person. This is the story of the man transformed by the ‘Rushdie affair’ – of Joseph Anton, who was simultaneously vilified as an enemy of Islam, as well as celebrated as a heroic defender of the right to free expression.

The memoir begins with the declaration of the fatwa on 14 February 1989 – Rushdie’s ‘unhappy Valentine’ – by an ailing and elderly Ayatollah Khomeini. Like so many around the world who marched against the book’s publication, burning it and calling for the execution of its author, Khomeini had not read the novel, or even its allegedly offensive passages. Rushdie was placed under police protection by Special Branch, and was reassured that all he needed to do was to ‘lie low for a couple of days and let the politicians sort it out.’

In the end, he ‘lay low’ for 13 years, while politicians and diplomats hesitated and prevaricated over the best way of ending the fatwa. Rushdie’s understandable anger at the lack of concerted effort to deal with Iran, and his dawning realisation that British authorities wished that he would simply keep quiet and hide, forms the basis for much of the tension in this memoir. Making the point that ‘In order to be free, one had to make the presumption of freedom,’ he demanded throughout the fatwa to be allowed to live as freely as possible: not to be surrounded constantly by a team of protection officers; not to have to change cars halfway through every journey; not for every house he visited to be vetted for security; and not to have to move house every few days or weeks.

As soon as the fatwa was announced, police informed him that it was too dangerous for him to return to his home in Islington. Contrary to what many believed, Rushdie was personally responsible for locating – and paying for – the safe houses that he and his team stayed in during this time. That he was able to find a series of houses and flats to rent or borrow over the course of about two years was due almost entirely to his friends. Paying testimony to the importance of friendship, Rushdie writes: ‘He would remember this, the nobility of human beings acting out of their best selves, far more vividly than the hatred – though the hatred was vivid all right – and would always be grateful to have been the recipient of that bounty.’

Rushdie’s memoir does, though, settle scores, and with good reason. A range of commentators, politicians, and writers – from Roald Dahl and Germaine Greer to the Prince of Wales and Douglas Hurd – blamed him for having brought the fatwa on himself and, implicitly, for having caused the violence which accompanied it. Although Rushdie and his family and close friends survived the fatwa (physically) unscathed, many did not: bookshops were bombed, including Dillons and Collets in London; in 1991 the Italian and Japanese translators of The Satanic Verses were attacked, the latter fatally; and his Norwegian publisher survived being shot in 1993.

Rushdie was caught in an impossible bind: give in to pressure from Margaret Thatcher’s government and a clutch of Muslim ‘community leaders’ and apologise and retract the novel, thus betraying both his own principles and those of his supporters; or insist on his right to free expression, and continue to live under the threat of the fatwa.

As pressure mounted on him – Rushdie describes this ‘crushing burden’ as ‘the Pyramid of Giza turned upside down with the apex resting on his neck’ – he did buckle, but only once. In late 1990, he agreed to meet with a group of ‘major Muslim figures’ at Paddington Green police station, which, as the station used to interrogate members of the IRA, was the most secure of its kind. Depressed, unable to write, and ground down by criticism coming from all sides, Rushdie published a statement in which he affirmed his faith as a Muslim, and apologised for the offence which The Satanic Verses had caused.

Not only did the statement do nothing to persuade the Iranian government to drop the fatwa – indeed, it renewed the fatwa on 14 February 1991 – but he had undermined his own principles: ‘Until this moment he had been accused of a crime against the beliefs of others. Now he accused himself, and found himself guilty, of having committed a crime against himself.’ His sister and friends were baffled by the decision; he fell sick. The problem, he argues, was that he had fallen into ‘the trap of wanting to be loved.’ Once he realised ‘that there were people who would never love him’ he was able both to affirm that he ‘was prepared to die’ for a ‘bloody book’, as well as cease trying to be all the ‘Rushdies’ people required him to be. His lowest point was preceded by a kind of identity crisis:

He was aware that the splitting in him was getting worse, the divide between what ‘Rushdie’ needed to do and how ‘Salman’ wanted to live. He was ‘Joe’ to his protectors, an entity to be kept alive; and his friends’ eyes…he read their alarm, their fear that ‘Salman’ might be crushed under the weight of what had happened. ‘Rushdie’ was another matter entirely. … ‘Rushdie’ deserved everything he got, and needed to do something to undo the great harm that he had done. … ‘Rushdie’ was much hated and little loved. He was an effigy, an absence, something less than human.

This epiphany is a turning-point in the memoir: after this point he pushed harder to be allowed to live more freely. He and Elizabeth bought a house – specially adapted with a safe room and bullet-proof glass in the windows – to withstand attack; they travelled more; they attended conferences, readings, and book launches. He refused to be silenced, and, through Article 19 (the organisation run by Frances D’Souza and Carmel Bedford to lobby for the end of the fatwa) pushed the Foreign Office, the EU and the United States harder for a resolution of the situation.

The bulk of Joseph Anton is about Rushdie’s 13 ‘plague years’ under the fatwa. But its first two chapters focus on the 42 years he lived in freedom: on his childhood in Bombay and at Rugby School, his education at Cambridge, his surprisingly successful career as a copywriter, and the publication in 1981 of Midnight’s Children which allowed him to become a full-time writer. This section of the memoir considers the stories he and his family told to make sense of themselves. His father, for instance, had adopted the surname ‘Rushdie’ in homage to the 12-century Spanish-Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd, who translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic. Anis Rushdie, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, admired Ibn Rushd’s opposition to Islamic literalism. Neither he nor his wife were particularly religious people, and raised their four children – Rushdie, their only son, was born in 1947 – to think critically about Islam and its history.

Rushdie comments that ‘Without his father’s ideas and example to inspire him’ The Satanic Verses ‘would never have been written.’ This novel, which was partly an attempt ‘to criticise and historicise’ Islam’s origins, was the product of this upbringing. It was also shaped by Rushdie’s own attempts to cope with being a migrant, an outsider. At Rugby, he ‘created his first fictions’ in his letters to his mother, describing an idyllic boyhood, whereas, in fact, his Indian-ness and his brown-ness meant that never really fitted in at school.

Despite initial misgivings about returning to Britain after completing his A-Levels, at Cambridge in the late ’60s he found a way of fitting in. He also ‘found out about the satanic verses.’ These describe an incident when the Prophet Muhammad was tricked by the Devil into announcing that it was permissible for Muslims to worship three winged goddesses. Later, realising his mistake, the Prophet expunged the incorrect ‘satanic’ verses. The young Rushdie thought ‘Good story’ and used it, twenty years later, as the basis for another story.

With Midnight’s Children, Rushdie became fully part of a literary world. As a young copywriter, he had felt ‘Envy, resentment, longing, and despair’ at his colleague Fay Maschler’s stories about her friendships with writers – feeling utterly excluded from a world he desperately wanted to enter. Winning the Booker Prize in 1981 established him as a writer a worth taking seriously. So it was as a successful author – as a literary ‘insider’ – that he turned to the experience of migrancy for The Satanic Verses.

Ironically, the fatwa simultaneously emphasised his position both as an insider and as an outsider. One of the most common criticisms of his police protection was that he was insufficiently ‘British’ – and had done too little – to deserve the protection provided to him by the state. The question of who he was – British, Indian, a writer, an emblem of the struggle for free expression, an enemy of organised religion – was brought into focus by the fatwa: hence his need to reassert who ‘he’ - not ‘Rushdie’, ‘Salman’ or ‘Joseph Anton’ - was.

Unsurprisingly, he turned increasingly to the one country that consistently welcomed him: from his meeting with Bill Clinton in 1993, to the police- and surveillance-free summer holidays he and Elizabeth took there (‘their annual shot in the arm, the time that gave them the strength to survive the rest of the time’), America represented acceptance and freedom. With the revocation of the fatwa in 1998 Rushdie moved to New York. By this stage, paradoxically, the fatwa had brought him a kind of celebrity. Rushdie has become not only a member of the literary establishment – with friendships with Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Don DeLillo, and others – but of the entertainment world too. He lunched with Warren Beatty. He attended a party at the Playboy Mansion. Carrie Fisher tried to set him up with Meg Ryan.

His relationship with Elizabeth West having fallen apart – they divorced in 2004 – his new partner and, then, wife, Padma Lakshmi, manifested all of Rushdie’s ‘millenarian illusion’. Free and in America, he met Lakshmi, a model and television presenter, at a New Year’s Eve party at the turn of the millennium, at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. The marriage lasted until 2007; the episode is the least edifying part of Rushdie’s memoir. Joseph Anton concludes with the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre – an event which Rushdie argues is the logical outcome of the attacks of free speech by Islamic fundamentalists which began with The Satanic Verses. Throughout the memoir, he makes the point that his was not the only novel to fall foul of book-burners and religious zealots.

This long, dense opus is Rushdie’s ‘huge unscreamed scream’, a riposte both to the Iranian authorities and other supporters of the fatwa, as well as those in Britain who wanted him to grow ‘fat and pale’ in hiding. In 1991, coming to terms with the fact that the fatwa would not end soon, Rushdie told himself: ‘Joseph Anton, you must live until you die.’ In 13 years under the fatwa, he arguably achieved more than he had during the previous 42 years: he married twice and divorced three times; he raised two sons; he travelled to the United States, Australia, Central and South America, and Europe; he published four novels, an anthology of Indian writing and a collection of his own essays. He became a seasoned campaigner for free expression.

But Joseph Anton is also an impassioned homage to the value of storytelling. As Rushdie struggles and then, in America, comes to terms with his own hybrid, migrant identity, he argues that part of the significance of the novel form is that it demonstrates that the human self is ‘heterogeneous not homogeneous, not one thing but many, multiple, fractured and contradictory’:

All writers and readers knew that human beings had broad identities, not narrow ones, and it was the breadth of human nature that allowed readers to find common ground, and points of identification….

What literature does is to ‘open the universe’ – it encourages openness, and understanding, and sympathy.

Given the frequently bizarre nature of life in hiding, it was fitting that Rushdie’s first account of the fatwa was a fantasy written for his, then, ten year-old son Zafar. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Granta, 1990), the eponymous hero journeys to the Land of Gup and the Sea of Stories to help his father, a storyteller (‘the Shah of Blah’, the ‘Ocean of Notions’) whose stories dry up after his wife runs away with their neighbour.

He finds that the Sea is being polluted by Khattam-Shud, the fanatical leader of the silent, black-clothed Chupwalahs, the enemies of the chattering, talkative Guppees. The novel answers Khattum-Shud’s accusation: ‘What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?’ When Haroun wonders why the Guppee army is allowed to criticise its leaders’ plans, his guide, Butt the Hoopoe answers: ‘but what is the point of giving persons Freedom of Speech … if you then say they must not utilise same? And is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all?’