On a hiding to nothing
Salman Rushdie has written a devastating account of his decade on the run from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa
Joseph Anton: A Memoir By Salman Rushdie Jonathan Cape, 656pp, $35
AN innocuous passage from Salman Rushdie’s 1983 novel Shame turned out to be eerily prophetic for its author: ‘‘ He was not free. His roving freedom-of-the-house was only the pseudo-liberty of a zoo animal.’’ Six years later, on February 14, 1989, Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, proclaimed a fatwa against Rushdie: ‘‘ I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.’’
Rushdie’s initial reaction was one of bemusement rather than fear. How could his book be so incendiary? But very soon the reality of his ‘‘ unfunny Valentine’’ hit home and, with help from the British police and security services, Rushdie was forced to go to ground and surrender his freedom. He lived with the constant threat of murder for more than nine years.
Publishers dropped him, airlines refused to fly him, hotels and conference halls considered him persona non grata. Instead of going slowly mad, deafened by such ‘‘ blaring, terrible days’’, Rushdie continued to write. Along with fiction he kept a journal of his ‘‘ fretful, scuttling existence’’. Now, with Joseph Anton, Rushdie has fleshed that journal out into memoir. The result is a frank and remarkable account of his long dark journey from captivity to liberty, which at the same time throws up thought-provoking questions. At which point is a work of art deemed blasphemous? Can a writer hide behind his characters and blame them for any offence caused? Is censorship ever justified or does a writer possess the ‘‘ inalienable right to express his vision of the world as saw fit’’?
After his quietly devastating prologue, Rushdie takes us further back to his childhood in India, culminating in his parents’ decision to send him to England to be educated. We learn that the young Salman’s letters to his mother were his first forays into fiction: the horrors of boarding school swapped for a picturepostcard idyll of sunshine and cricket. At Cambridge he was the only student in his year to opt for a course entitled Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the Early Caliphate.
After graduating he washed up in London where contemporaries and future friends such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan seemed to blossom into novelists overnight. He, on the other hand, had to work his way up from ‘‘ the bottom of the literary barrel’’ and pursue a copywriting job to make ends meet.
Rushdie ensures his early years are formative, rich with seed-sowing detail, and not just colourful back-story. He mentions two key facts relating to his identity that inform his later writing. First, he is all too aware of his status as a migrant, ‘‘ one of those who had ended up in a place that was not the place where he began’’. Second, ‘‘ he was his father’s son, godless but fascinated by gods and prophets’’. Later when he is branded an ‘‘ apostate traitor’’ by his aggressors, he tempers the melodrama with the simple declaration: ‘‘ He was a proudly irreligious man.’’
The whole book is written in this thirdperson stance. ‘‘ He’’ is the Rushdie whose underwhelming debut, Grimus , is eventually published in 1975 but who is catapulted into the media glare and literary stardom six years later with his magnificent second novel, Midnight’s Children, and the later, equally career-changing (albeit for different reasons) The Satanic Verses. But ‘‘ he’’ is also Joseph Anton, the pseudonym Rushdie assumes once the fatwa has been issued.
The police insist he adopt an alias. In the end he plumps for the first names of two of his favourite writers, Conrad and Chekhov. His bodyguards call him Joe, which he detests. However, it must have been far preferable to ‘‘ Satan Rushdy’’, yet another alter-ego, although this one chosen by his enemies.
So begins the drama. Hordes of protesters burn The Satanic Verses in Bradford, prompting Rushdie to quote Heinrich Heine: ‘‘ Where they burn books they will afterwards burn people.’’ British intelligence and Special Branch update him with reports that Iranian assassins have been dispatched and are closing in, hungry for Rushdie’s blood and the lucrative bounty. Diplomatic tugs-of-war from the Thatcher, then Major governments with the Iranian mullocracy lead to raised and dashed hopes. He vilified Islam; the fatwa will never be retracted.
Rushdie’s daily life is turned upside down. ‘‘ There was the private front of his secret life, with its cringings and crouchings, its skulkings and duckings, its fear of plumbers and other repairmen, its fraught searches for places of refuge, and its dreadful wigs.’’ Book signings and award ceremonies are decreed too risky.
Rushdie becomes increasingly enraged with what he is or is not ‘‘ allowed’’ to do. He doubts he will ever be ‘‘ allowed’’ to slough off Joseph Anton and become Salman Rushdie again. Sometimes he has no identity at all: ‘‘ He was an effigy, an absence, something less than human.’’
The death threats and claustrophobic accounts of house arrest existence make for riveting reading, but ultimately it is the huge and diverse case that sets this memoir alight. Rushdie gives a warts-and-all lowdown on each of his marriages, and as we read of each new bomb scare and clandestine armoured Jaguar-ride from one bolthole to another — not to mention his indiscreet infidelities — it is miraculous that each lasted as long as it did.
Rushdie finds himself relying on the security services for protection but his friends for sanity. Harold Pinter, Margaret Drabble and Christopher Hitchens are among those who fight his corner. In the US, Susan Sontag marshals an equally impressive who’s who of literary talent to pledge support: John Irving, Don DeLillo and even the reclusive Thomas Pynchon speak up for him. In the other corner, Germaine Greer, John Berger and Roald Dahl (‘‘a long unpleasant man with huge strangler’s hands’’) publicly denounce him. A back-andforth exchange of ire with John Le Carre roars across the front page of The Guardian for a time. The Prince of Wales and hacks from what Rushdie calls the Daily Insult bemoan the cost
of protecting him and his VIP treatment. Rushdie is at his most entertaining when picking the scab of old grudges and dishing the dirt on those who started out as wellwishers but soured through the years into back-stabbing turncoats.
Joseph Anton is punctuated with many sobering facts: buildings are bombed, protesters are shot; Rushdie’s Japanese translator is killed, his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher seriously wounded. Rushdie also points out that if the fatwa had been announced now, in this age of technology,
‘‘ he would not have stood a chance’’. As if to lighten the gloom, he follows the lead of Saul Bellow’s Herzog by inserting here and there unsent letters to people, many of them famous players in the affair. Addressees range from Tony Blair to God, and the bulk of them show Rushdie pricking the bubble of his supposed pomposity, presenting himself as surprisingly disarming and humorous.
The best comic moments, however, come from others. The fatwa in his eyes is ‘‘ an extraterritorial murder order’’ but for Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul it is ‘‘ an extreme form of literary criticism’’. Rushdie shares popular jokes that feature him as the butt: ‘‘ What’s blonde, has big tits and lives in Tasmania? Salman Rushdie!’’ There is also an unwitting pun. Joseph Anton is the ‘‘ principal’’ at the centre of Operation Malachite; later, Rushdie mentions how his protection team preferred safeguarding him to politicians because ‘‘ they were defending a principle’’.
He remains balanced throughout, quick to blow his own trumpet but also to air selfdeprecating put-downs and his critics’ poisonous barbs. He explains that 1989 was a pivotal year for world politics but keeps self-aggrandisement in check by relegating the fatwa below the Tiananmen Square brutality and the fall of the Berlin Wall. At his lowest ebb he is mauled by Churchill’s black dog of depression and starts to believe his own bad press: he is arrogant and selfish, ‘‘ an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth’’ and ‘‘ a dull and unpleasantly lingering pain in the neck’’. On better days he wonders if an early death may in fact be for the best as he would be afforded ‘‘ the respect due to a free-speech martyr’’.
Those who have followed Rushdie’s literary career will realise Joseph Anton is not entirely new. Rushdie wrote many essays and speeches at the time of the fatwa, most of which were collected as Messages from the Plague Years in his 2002 nonfiction anthology
Step Across This Line. But as Joseph Anton weighs in at 600-plus pages it is clear that what we read before were mere appetisers; this is the full version, the real deal. It is overlong, occasionally repetitive, circuitous and even tendentious. In the main, though, we are thrilled to accompany Joseph Anton and ‘‘ his strange little circus’’, to hear his considered rebukes to the rabid rants of a murderous theocratic regime and his impassioned defence of his controversial novel, and to share his frustration as one false dawn to freedom follows another.
‘‘ Honesty is not the best policy in life,’’ Rushdie writes in his 1999 novel The Ground
Beneath Her Feet. ‘‘ Only, perhaps, in art.’’ How much of Joseph Anton is the unvarnished truth and how much is creative licence is immaterial. What matters is that Rushdie is one of the few writers working today who is honest in their art, and this makes any selfpenned account of his life — particularly this uniquely appalling and deeply insightful chapter — vital reading.
Salman Rushdie promotes the film of his novel Midnight’s
Children during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival