Every evening at seven, by arrangement, does the principal make a phone call? Who does he call? One evening, was there no response when he made the daily agreed-upon call? No response when he called 15 minutes later? No response when he called again and again every few minutes?
Did the bodyguard come in to ask if there had been a break in routine? Was the principal sitting on the floor, with his back wedged against the wall, the phone on his lap? Was he afraid that his son had been killed or kidnapped? Was there a mistake?
The surprising conceit that Rushdie does employ in his memoir is the use of the third-person narration to write about himself. JM Coetzee had done this in his memoirs, the voice suiting his clinical portrayal of the past. But Rushdie is a more gregarious and voluble writer. In Joseph Anton, there is fury, and, what is rarer, also shame. What the distancing device does, more than anything else, is that it allows Rushdie to reveal, at length, the difference between the persona created by the fatwa and the person he had been till then.
There is no art without artifice. It is evident even in the choice of the name Joseph Anton. Drawn from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, this was the identity Rushdie chose when his protection team pointed out that he needed a new name to escape detection. Of course, the best distancing device at the disposal of the writer is the fictional imagination. But, as the events after the publication of The Satanic Verses showed, it hadn’t been enough for the literalists. It is inspiring then to see that the artistic imagination is at work again, triumphantly shaping experience in new ways.
They had wanted to kill Salman Rushdie; they failed. The writer himself has now killed, as only writers can, a character he had invented. RIP, Joseph Anton.