Joseph Anton – A Memoir
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Random House, 636 pages
An acclaimed author’s memoir of living under a death sentence ruminates on some very important issues in today’s world.
SOME books make for great reading, others are important to read. Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, which recounts his years living under a death sentence fatwa following the publication of the infamous The Satanic Verses, is a book that fits both categories.
Given that it is penned by the Booker Prize-winning Rushdie, considered to be one of the great writers of our time, it may go without saying that the memoir is an excellent read. What makes it an essential read, however, is the way in which the events outlined in the book continue to resonate so strongly today, almost 24 years after they were first set in motion.
Intolerance, religious fundamentalism, and freedom of speech are salient issues that we continue to grapple with today, so Joseph Anton’s publication in September seems very timely indeed.
Rushdie’s story is one of those real-life accounts that seems right out of the pages of fiction. The book begins on Valentine’s Day in 1989, when he receives a phone call at his London home from a BBC journalist telling him that Iran’s spiritual leader at the time, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had proclaimed a fatwa demanding Rushdie’s execution.
His crime was writing The Satanic Verses, which was seen as blasphemous against Islam. With a sizeable bounty on his head and the religious “call to arms” nature of the fatwa, Rushdie instantly becomes a marked man.
This is the start of the author’s life in hiding, as he is forced to live under special police protection while moving secretly from house to house.
He is asked to choose an alias to conceal his real identity, and he picks “Joseph Anton”: a combination of two favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.
Meanwhile, protests rage across the world against The Satanic Verses, people are calling for Rushdie’s death, the book is banned in multiple countries, and within Britain public and political opinion is divided over whether Rushdie deserves the special treatment of police protection (at taxpayers’ expense) or whether he has simply brought all this upon himself.
The author would go on to live in this manner for more than nine years, and it would be 2002 before British Intelligence finally lifts the protection accorded to him. During this time, Rushdie struggles to maintain some semblance of a normal life, as he falls in (and out) of love, tries to be a good father, and of course, continues writing.
Written in the third person – Rushdie refers to himself as “he” throughout – Joseph Anton may surprise those who are used to Rushdie’s more dense and layered prose in his fiction. While the writing style amply displays his flair for language and dry humour, it is also very down-to-earth and relatable.
The book is not without its flaws, one of which is a tendency to slow to a crawl in parts. As he himself says, long periods in his life during this time were spent in stasis, and not even a writer of his calibre can make reading about drudgery feel exciting.
The book is also very much Rushdie’s opinion of Rushdie, which can sometimes seem rather gratingly high. But for all his tendency to self-aggrandise, there can be no downplaying what the man has lived through, and you’d be hard-pressed to read Joseph Anton without keenly feeling the loss of all those years in his life.
Things that we take for granted – visiting our parents, going on a date, taking holidays abroad, playing in the park with our children – are near impossible for Rushdie during this time in his life, and driving this painful point home is one of the book’s fortes.
As with most memoirs, the book also offers many voyeuristic pleasures, with Rushdie recounting his relationships with the women in his life.
Here, he is often as brutally honest about his own flaws and failings as he is about his partners’. His accounts of his love for his sons, meanwhile, and his very real fear for their safety, are some of the most touching parts of the book.
Also exciting is his hobnobbing with many famous names, ranging from the late Harold Pinter, the playwright, and celebrity chef and “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson to rock star and humanitarian Bono.
Rushdie’s observations and anecdotes on those who share the literary scene with him too are quite delightful, encompassing everyone from Roald Dahl to Arundhati Roy.
What comes through even more, though, is the efforts of those around him to champion his cause: the many officers who voluntarily put themselves in danger to protect him, publishers and booksellers who championed his works in the face of assassination threats, other writers who at great risk to speak up on his behalf.
To them, Rushdie generously and repeatedly pays homage.
They are fighting, he asserts, not just for his freedom but for freedom of speech itself. For at it’s core, that is what Joseph Anton is about – that art can and should be questioned, discussed, praised and denigrated, but never curtailed.
In weaving his own story with that of the fatwa, what Rushdie has done is put a human face to that issue; it may be relatively simple to disregard exactly what it means to call for the death of a person, but it becomes a lot more difficult to stomach when you think of that person as a husband, father, brother, son and friend, one who is blessed, like the rest of us, with all-too-human strengths and failings.