Reviewed by Zach Pontz
Usually a new book by Salman Rushdie does not include teams of assassins, global plots for revenge, and shady diplomatic deals. This is a novelist who explores serious historical subjects and whose lively imagination has attracted major literary awards. But Rushdie’s new book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, is not a product of his imagination, it is drawn from his real-life experiences. Tales that make the fictional fare of thriller writers seem pedestrian, even droll, by comparison.
This memoir is ostensibly the story of his whole life, but it focuses on the nine years he spent living under a fatwa handed down by an ailing Ayatollah Khamanei, the then “spritual leader” of Iran. The fatwa, in this case issued as a death sentence, was declared in 1989 after it was determined that Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses had insulted Islam.
This wonderful memoir begins in childhood. Born into a privileged secular Muslim family in India, his father, a drunk whom Rushdie describes as “a godless man,” took a keen interest in Islamic history—a subject Rushdie would later explore in his fiction, and which would land him in trouble. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad?” he writes. “Well, they did do that, perhaps, but they also allowed you to become the person, and the writer, that you had it in you to be.”
Following the fatwa, Rushdie went from having a successful career, marked by the Man Booker prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children (awarded in 1981) to an international cause célèbre, with famous friends and heads-of-state pushing his plight to the top of the world agenda. Joseph Anton—a combination of the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, two of his favorite writers—was the alias he used during his years in hiding. It was a time in which much clandestine movement between safe houses, flanked by security teams, turned him into what he laconically termed a “nonperson.” While none too thrilled about these circumstances, instead of capitulating to threats, he remained defiant, even motivated by a purpose, writing, “He was fighting against the view that people could be killed for their ideas, and against the ability of any religion to place a limiting point on thought.”
Life under the fatwa was certainly full of much excitement. Security concerns were a major issue, not only for him but for his family as well. This created some of the more suspenseful and anxious moments of Rushdie’s time in hiding. At one point the home of his first wife, Clarissa—which she shared with their son Zafar—was found during a routine check by the police to be in a compromising state: front door wide open, nobody apparently home. Only moments later did the police realize it was the wrong house. Rushdie also details the dissolution of his second marriage to Marianne Wiggins, a successful writer in her own right, who crumbles under the shadow of her more famous husband. But there are also tender moments, as when Rushdie describes the courtship of the woman that would become his third wife, Elizabeth West, or the maturation of his son, Zafar, who at one point castigates the CEO of British Airways for not allowing his father to fly on the airline due to security concerns. Shortly thereafter the airline changed its policy and allowed the author to fly on their planes.
Peculiarly, Rushdie has written his memoir in the third person, which he has noted in interviews was his way of ridding it of its narcissism. A bit of that narcissism still remains, however, in his need for vengeance against those he felt were unjust. Rarely is the opportunity missed to insult those public figures who belittled him in the press at the time of the fatwa (Roald Dahl, John le Carré, Yusuf Islam to name a few), as well as politicians and bureaucrats who were not to his liking. Perhaps one can forgive Rushdie these infirmities. He is a writer, so it should come as no surprise that he uses this platform to enact retribution. He is as equally effusive in his thanks towards all those who were helpful towards him, such as the writer and journalist Bill Buford, or Rushdie’s agent Andrew Wylie, both of whom supported him unconditionally in these trying years. Despite the stigma surrounding him at the time, Rushdie’s circle of friends grew larger and much closer. He writes: “His good friends proved themselves to be true friends in need, and people who had not been close to him before drew closer, wanting to help, and acted with astonishing generosity, selflessness and courage.”
In 1998 the Iranian government lifted the fatwa, or at least declared they would not implement it. While Rushdie emerged safely, others were not so fortunate. His Italian translator was stabbed several times and the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses was shot. Both survived, but his Japanese translator was not so lucky. He was killed in cold blood; stabbed to death. All three incidents weighed heavily on the author.
In recent years Rushdie has lived freely. He married (and then divorced) a model, was knighted and has published more well-received books. But Iran has recently renewed its rhetoric—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country’s president, has reissued threats against the author and an Iranian religious foundation has increased the reward for his murder (to $3.3m) in retaliation to the “Innocence of Muslims,” an amateurish anti-Islam film that Rushdie had nothing to do with. These threats are commonplace, not only against Rushdie but many willing to speak out or question the Islamic faith. The best response Rushdie can give is to keep publishing books just as fine as this one.
Random House, September 2012