Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is his memoir of the time he spent in hiding after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against him. It’s very long (633 pages), overly explanatory, filled with the minutia of his life -- and I could not stop reading. It’s one of the most intensely claustrophobic things I’ve ever read. At one point when I was in the middle of it Doug said, “Hey, do you want to go out for dinner?” and I thought, How can we go out for dinner? We’ll have to tell the police guards, and then have the drivers pick us up...
Rushdie was apparently a very divisive person in England. Either you supported him, along with free speech and the right to satirize anything including religion, or you disliked or even hated him. (One of the people who disliked him, unfortunately, was one of my favorite writers, John le Carre -- I’ll never be able to think of him the same way again.) Various people in the second camp gave interviews about how arrogant he was, or how self-obsessed, and now I realize that I’d heard about some of these secondhand, and that they’d influenced the way I’d thought of him. Of course in a memoir you want to show your best side, but he does come across as a decent person, someone interested in literature and freedom, in words and writing, in the fantastic, in love. He says, “...a sort of dust or film obscured our vision, and the true, miraculous nature of life on earth eluded us. It was the task of the artist to wipe away that blinding layer and renew our capacity for wonderment.” And he’s funny -- he keeps trying to see the humor, the absurdity, in his situation, a very hard thing to do.
From being primarily a writer he had to go to being a public figure, someone everyone had an opinion about but who couldn’t talk back. He spent about four years hidden away, living with guards and being unable to go anywhere without it being okayed by the Special Branch and then planned meticulously ahead of time. Then, for the next seven years, he fought back -- “He became, having no alternative, in part an ambassador for himself. But politicking did not come easily to him.” He traveled, with and without the sanction of the Special Branch, making speeches about censorship; he met heads of state and tried to win them over to his side; he worked with Article 19, a group trying to rescind the fatwa.
Every so often, though, I started wondering if the people who’d called him narcissistic didn’t maybe know a few things. As you may have noticed the book is in the third person, a strange choice and one which makes it easier to say good things about yourself without seeming boastful. (But on the other hand, maybe he didn’t want to relive the fatwa years that closely, maybe he wanted some distance.) He sees everything that happens to him through the prism of his own situation, so that he says things like “That year, which began with horrors -- on a small scale the fatwa, on a much larger scale Tiananmen [Square]...” and he says about Harold Pinter’s play Mountain Language, “Like the people in the play he, too, was being forbidden to use his language.” (But these are his memoirs, and of course the fatwa is the most important thing in his world; how can it not be?) When the police tell him he needs a false name so he can get a bank account, and so his protectors would have something to call him, one of the first things he tries is combinations of the names of famous writers -- Vladimir Joyce, Marcel Beckett, Franz Sterne -- before finally coming up with the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, Joseph Anton. (Well, but he is a very good writer -- it isn’t that far-fetched for him to compare himself to these other writers.) We see him cheating on both his second and third wives, and he leaves his third wife for a vain, self-centered, beautiful model. (Okay, I don’t have an excuse for this one.)
Overall, though, this is a fascinating book. I’ve always loved Rushdie’s writing, and love The Satanic Verses; I even went to a demonstration in front of B. Dalton’s when they refused to carry it. (One person there held a sign that said, “What’s the difference between B. Dalton’s and a book? A book has a spine.”) And you can’t really go wrong with someone who can write this well, who can, for example, describe Roald Dahl as “a long, unpleasant man with huge strangler’s hands.” You feel vindicated along with him when the fatwa is cancelled, and you’re delighted at the end when he’s finally free. “’All right then,’ he thought, ‘here goes.’ He walked out of the Halcyon Hotel onto Holland Park Avenue and stuck out an arm to hail a passing cab.”