Joseph Anton: A Memoir
by Salman Rushdie
2012 / 656 pages
Rating – 9
I’ve read a number of Rushdie’s novels, Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, and The Enchantress of Florence twice each – Fury, Shame, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Shalimar the Clown, once each. I think I’ve missed only two adult fictions – The Moor’s Last Sigh and Grimus in addition to the children’s books and the essays. I’ve loved some, others not so much, a couple I’ve really disliked (Shame and Fury).
I was as horrified by the Fatwa as anyone, I suppose, although I’d not read The Satanic Verses at the time. And I kinda-sorta followed Rushdie as he made his way through those times. I knew he’d married and divorced and lived in hiding. But my imagination had him living in some kind of pathetic apartment in London somewhere. He was in a much better environment than that! But his security requirements didn’t make it much happier.
I suppose this puts me in a good position as a reader to appreciate Joseph Anton and I do – thoroughly. This book is basically an account of his time in hiding during the “fatwa” which was issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988. The title is the name he used while living in London during this time.
I have enjoyed reading briefly of his childhood, education, and young married life. The section dealing with The Satanic Verses is fascinating – who is who and how the threads of that book came together. I get a bit bored with the name-dropping. The background on various things, Russian literature at the time for instance, have me wanting to know more but understanding that this is outside Rushdie’s scope.
Told with a mostly linear chronology, it reads easily and well – the sentences flow merging ideas and events in Rushdie’s lovely style.
One very interesting literary device is that Joseph Anton is written in third person. When I first heard this I thought it would be pretentious or cumbersome but it really works quite well. The “he” gets me mixed up sometimes and I have to glance back to see who “he” is and it is occasionally difficult.
The pace picks up when Satanic Verses starts getting banned and burned. That was a terrible time – I remember it well. At that point I thought the “greatness” of the book was all hyped and really about the politics. (I’m allergic to hype.) I hadn’t enjoyed Midnight’s Children all that much on my first reading. Anyway, as a result, I didn’t read The Satanic Verses until … um … 2000?
Sad to say that after a few pages of Rushdie’s initial hiding, the pace of the book frequently slows to a crawl, a very repetitive and name-dropping, fact-regurgitating crawl. He’s in one house then another and then has to move again – his protective agents help him a lot, the publishers are very hesitant about paperbacks or other books with his name on them. Marianne Wiggins, his wife at the outset of the book, has difficulties, his son, Zafar, by Clarissa, Rushdie’s first wife, loves seeing him when it can be arranged.
Fortunately, the slow parts pick back up again and more things happen – around the middle section there is some very profound material: (asterisks are mine)
“He was remembering something Günter Grass had once said to him about losing: that it taught you more profound lessons than winning did. The victors believed themselves and their worldviews justified and validated and learned nothing. The losers had to reevaluate everything they had thought to be true and worth fighting for, and so had a chance of learning, the hard way, the deepest lessons life had to teach. The first thing he learned was that now he knew where the bottom was. When you hit bottom you knew how deep the water you were in really was. And you knew that you never wanted to be there again.
“He was beginning to learn the lesson that would set him free: that to be imprisoned by the need to be loved was to be sealed in a cell in which one experienced an interminable torment and from which there was no escape. He needed to understand that there were people who would never love him. No matter how carefully he explained his work or clarified his intentions in creating it, they would not love him.”
(Kindle Locations 4696-4703)
And although it would be easy to say that he had second thoughts out of opportunism which might have driven his first retraction – I doubt it. There is something here that has the ring of truth. Rushdie is arrogant and brilliant. In some ways the book is a mess, in other ways it shows pretty clearly how Rushdie’s situation was a mess.
Finishing up I felt like I ‘d got a good look at how it must have been to live with police all over the house, to have to get “permission” to go anywhere and even then fully escorted. It was very interesting to read Rushdie’s take on the Fatwa and his life as a result of that. Although some skimming was required, I’m quite glad I read it because Rushdie still writes a mean sentence.
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