On a hid­ing to noth­ing

Sal­man Rushdie has writ­ten a dev­as­tat­ing ac­count of his decade on the run from Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini’s fatwa

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes Mal­colm Forbes is a Ber­lin-based writer who re­views for the TLS and other pub­li­ca­tions.

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

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