The Great Rushdie
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s account of the time spent in hiding from Iranian extremists trying to act on the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence to the author of The Satanic Verses, but also a memoir of his earlier years.
He was given a “panic button” to press if he was worried about anything. He tested the panic button. It didn’t work.
When I first heard that Salman Rushdie was publishing a memoir of his fatwa years, I was far from thrilled. He’d been my favourite writer for quite a while – and then had been not my favourite writer for quite a while. I had read every article and interview of his that I had come across since 2003. There didn’t seem to be much newness left as to his biography. But then, one probably has to be a pop star to write a 200.000 word book to collate what has been said during interviews (and a pop star would make that into a trilogy).
The book’s motto is taken from Shakespeare’s Tempest. The text is evenly divided into ten chapters and a prologue. The starting word: “afterwards”. One may easily figure out why Zoë Heller from The New York Review of Books, whose review at www.nybooks.com is one of the top results when searching for the book online, finds in him a lack of “ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast”. It is true that Rushdie counts himself among such earlier writers as Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence, comparing his plights to theirs. It’s true that a large part of his sense of humour seems to fade away while recounting his lifestyle as a man sentenced to death. Having to go by a false name, he combined Conrad’s and Chekhov’s first names and was disappointed that the police officers who volunteered to protect him cut that down to “Joe”. Just don’t admit to any touch of vanity, some reviewers demand.
But what would be the point in comparing oneself to lesser authors and in treating everything lightly, without discernment? Should one look back to the big names of literature, not one of them would be innocent of the self-pitying look, here and there (though better concealed in third person narratives). It is probably from self-pity that one may get to that sought-after ironic detachment, as to be detached implies a moment of crisis that causes the disconnection from one’s own emotions. However, when one writes for a major publication, one must have strong opinions, at speed - as Rushdie himself discovered while writing a column for the New York Times. And the speediest opinion to get of this book is that it’s more than slightly wrong – wrong about the prevalence of free literary speech over physical safety, about revealing too much of his marriages, about mentioning this and that celeb that he dined with just so as to make us all a bit jealous:
”Pynchon suggested that whenever next they were both in New York together they might meet for dinner. ‘Oh my goodness,’ he said, sounding like a spotty schoolboy with a crush, ‘ooh, yes, please.’ […] Then Pynchon arrived, looking exactly as Thomas Pynchon should look. He was tall, wore a red-and-white lumberjack shirt and blue jeans, had Albert Einstein white hair and Bugs Bunny front teeth.”
”On Sunday Bono smuggled him out to a bar in Killiney without telling the Garda and for half an hour he was giddy with the unprotected freedom of it and maybe thanks to the unprotected Guinness too. When they got back to the Hewson house the Garda looked at Bono with mournful accusation but forbore to speak harsh words to their country’s favorite son.”
As for the string of wives, it looks as if it were of the good – bad – good – terribly bad variety. Not that we minded reading about the mad woman’s antics. But one does wonder how she faces people who have read the memoir and might make an allusion to it for lack of conversation topics. Perhaps the thing about memoirs is that you don’t read them if you’re a personal acquaintance of the ones involved; I wouldn’t know.
“The Trap of Wanting to Be Loved”, one of the most compelling chapters in the book, tells the story of how the atheist writer signed a declaration drawn by Iranian politicians, that stated his faith in Islam and his repentance for earlier misdeeds. Their promise to lift the fatwa in exchange was broken, and his false allegiance took years to be invalidated. The confusion caused by long-term isolation is mentioned, as well as the British government’s reluctance to offer him open support, but not as full-fledged excuses for his signature. On the whole, Rushdie emerges as a victor: this is simply a massive page-turner.
Joseph Anton is a courageous book, that has most likely upset a good number of people (like a Rushdie volume ought to). The author’s artistic standpoint and many details about the development of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Ground Beneath Her Feet are to be found throughout it.
Considerable amounts of gossip – or what may be taken as such.
Anyone who has read at least two other books by Rushdie and who is not bothered by the above-mentioned weakness should find this a must-read. Warning: Roald Dahl fans will find a certain passage extremely irritating.