Joseph Anton was the alias that Salman Rushdie chose (a combination taken from Conrad and Chekhov) when he was in hiding, after being 'sentenced to death' after publication of "The Satanic Verses". On a sunny morning in London in 1989, a few months after the book had been published, a call from a BBC reporter changed his life. "How does it feel to know that you have been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?" she asked. With those few words, everything changed for him forever. In his Islington house, Salman Rushdie, understandably, shuttered the windows and locked the door. When he later left for an interview, he had no idea that he would not sit foot in the house again for many years...
This memoir is always totally honest and never less than gripping, especially in the first half of this enormous book. The author discusses his education, family, relationships and his behaviour during those incredibly stressful years with immense openness. During the first two or three years of the fatwa, Rushdie was constantly on the move, reliant on his friends for places to stay. His second marriage was less than a year old at the time and already in trouble, so the stress and intrusion certainly did not help that situation either. The author was criticised, even at the time his life was in danger, by press articles claiming he was costing the country huge amounts of money, the government were imposing limits on what he was allowed to do (including how and when he could see his beloved son) and he was accused of selfishness for wanting to publish a paperback version of "The Satanic Verses" when the lives of hostages, such as Terry Waite, hung in the balance. Eventually, he would almost be blamed for being an author, for writing, for opening his mouth or putting pen to paper.
Salman Rushdie admits frankly that many people saw him as arrogant and unrepentent during that time. He also allows that his need to be loved made him make misguided attempts at conciliation, which he later regretted. He knew little of what was going on - there were vague rumours or threats of hit squads, contracts and assassins, but he was told few details. He was simply moved again - and again and again. His freedom limited and, when he rebelled, he was told simply, "If you want to live, you will move." Much changed for the author, and the world, during that time. There were major world events and huge social changes. Rushdie tells how he wrote his first book on a computer, instead of a typewriter, during those years.
As a book, it has to be admitted, that the first half is certainly the most interesting. I certainly enjoyed reading about his early years and how he strived to become a successful author. The news of the death sentence and how the author reacted to it is certainly both shocking and gripping to read about. This is a very important book for those who recall the furore caused, so long ago, by a novel. I was quite young in 1989, in my first job, and I recall the huge outpouring of rage and hate that swept the country at the time. There was a real threat - bookshops were firebombed around the world and those who had translated the book were attacked (in one case killed). I did something I never did then, which was to buy a hardback copy of a book (too expensive on my low wage at that time) and that book was, of course, "The Satanic Verses". As the author says, "The freedom to write is closely related to the freedom to read". As we do not wish to be told what we can read - as we, as readers, feel we have the right to read whatever we want, then authors have to have the freedom to write those books for us. As a reader I am grateful for the stand this author took, which took immense bravery and which he tells with a great deal of humour (his brief attempt at using a wig as a disguise is priceless) and humility. This is a book you will be glad that you have read and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
on 22 September 2012
Joseph Anton is a gargantuan memoir that reads like a novel. There are goodies and baddies, and the final prize is the most coveted one of all: freedom of speech. But this structure of extremes isn't the only novelistic flourish. Curiously, it is narrated in the third person, a distancing technique employed to give a little objectivity to the account, a way of having it function as a historical and unbiased document. But it doesn't work, and it's not long before Salman Rushdie's boiling anger explodes at the fatwa's pernicious aftermath. And why shouldn't it?
The book's early pages quickly retrace the years leading up to Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa of 14 February 1989. It is a vibrant account, and one that documents his colourful journey from India to England, Rugby School to Cambridge University, ad work to literary fame. Brutally candid, Rushdie admits his past infidelities and lapses into arrogance, his atheism and Enlightenment values. He investigates his post-fatwa motivations and wavering thoughts with an exemplary ruthlessness, the low point being his ill-conceived affirmation of Islamic faith. This, he insists, may have been his easily avoidable nadir, but it was also the catalyst that brought about his intellectual rebirth.
During this time he still managed to write and undergo love's confusing fluctuations. The gestations of his novels during the fatwa years make for intriguing reading, his admittance to being emotionally and intellectually stumped revealing a fallible side to his perfect poise. His public persona and assured voice may have seemed undimmed, but this was due to a torturous rebuilding of the self. But what of love during these years? Well, who knows what Marianne Wiggins, Rushdie's second wife, will make of her portrayal in this book? She is painted as a mendacious hypochondriac who compromised Rushdie's safety and even, it is insinuated, faked cancer. Lady Macbeth seems a friendlier acquaintance to have. Is Rushdie being fair? We have only his word.
Overall, though, Joseph Anton is an engrossing book, necessary and brave, and one that should never have to be written again. Always compelling, it is a journey throughout the world of the famous and fatuous, the courageous and cowardly. It will attract trouble, there's no doubt about that, but that seems to be the cost attached to honesty nowadays. And Rushdie, if anyone, has paid the price for that.
[For those buying the hardback edition, be sure to check for the 'Erratum' slip placed between pages 616-7, as it carries a paragraph missing from page 617. But if your edition has a paragraph beginning 'They did break up...' after the third line then you have the correct printing and don't need to worry.]
on 28 January 2013
I can see why some reviewers took SR to task for his approach in this memoir; he often verges on the narcissistic, and there is too much whining about the many people who disapproved of him, or failed to give wholehearted support during his dark years of fatwa. He can be pretty ugly in his assessment of ex-wives and friends who fell short of his expectations. Way too long, too.
Salman Rushdie's memoir of, predominantly, the fatwa years is completely gripping - albeit not necessarily in the way the author intended I suspect. For any lover of literature it's a fascinating insight into the man. People write memoirs largely to put their side of the story. Rushdie is of course supremely intelligent and a gifted wordsmith and yet while aspects of the story remain shocking and induce both anger and incredulity that the situation was allowed to go as far as it did and for so long, it's probably not a book that will change your views of Rushdie the man, not least as he displays many of the traits that the press ascribed to him. Oh why do our heroes always have to be so imperfect?
Usually people referring to themselves in the third person is guaranteed to irritate me, although here the story is told entirely in the third person. The title "Joseph Anton" is the name he chose when asked to provide a pseudonym for the security services. As a result the book reads as much more like a novel and it works well.
To try to impose some structure on this review of what is a lengthy tome, let's look at three key elements: the "crime", the "punishment" and the "perpetrator".
He fails to address any intent or otherwise in the apparently inflammatory content of "The Satanic Verses". If you have read the book in question, you'll know that the allegedly offending content is minimal to the overall book's structure. It's not much more than a dream sequence. Certainly it would be hard to argue that the book as a whole is an attack on Islam. And yet of course, this is exactly what happened. Did he know what sort of reaction this might evoke? Perhaps as that oxymoronic thing, a secular Muslim, he ought to have done but we never really get to the bottom of this. He even complains later in the book when the media continue to ask the questions about intent. Yes, that's because you never answered the question. Once accused, he goes straight into Voltaire mode to defend his right to say it.
The sense I got from reading it is that he was as surprised as anyone by the reaction, and his point that if a work of literary fiction such as "The Satanic Verses" is deemed that threatening to a major religion, then it has fundamental problems is well made. In my memory, it was Ayatollah Khomeini who started the problem with the fatwa but here he explains that there were Islamic protests before that. Khomeini admitted to not having read the book and it's hard to imagine that any of the protesters really had either. If he isn't going to address motive or otherwise in this lengthy memoir then I guess we'll never know.
In the "punishment" content of the book, Rushdie is at his eloquent best. It's clear that to a great extent he was a victim of political posturing. Khomeini himself was probably using it as a political cause, but more difficult to reconcile is the lack of support from the British government to state sponsored terrorism who were probably slow to respond for fear of derailing hostage negotiations over the likes of Terry Waite. There's something of a "James Bond" fascination to learn about the inner working of the security "prot" team who mostly come over as the good guys in all of this. While you could argue that the freedom of expression arguments are not difficult to make, Rushdie makes them powerfully and given his situation, movingly. There are also superb moments of typically Rushdie-esque black humour such as his first trip to the US during the fatwa period.
What makes the book so compelling though are the sometimes jaw dropping revelations about Rushdie the man. Rushdie repeatedly laments that his image remains unsympathetic certainly amongst the British press (who he terms "The Daily Insult"), and often expresses frustration that he just wants to be loved. In fairness, there's probably much of the migrant's wish to be accepted as much as loved. And this is at the heart of things: whatever you think of Rushdie's work or indeed Rushdie the man, to Western eyes the Iranian fatwa was wholly unacceptable. The British like nothing better than an underdog, and yet despite both these things, public sympathy for his plight has been surprisingly antagonistic. You'd expect his memoir to alter this view. This remember is a man who once worked in advertising. It doesn't.
He cites many good friends who indeed go to extraordinary lengths to help him out but there's a difference between how those who know him respond to him and those who don't. He attributes much of his lack of sympathetic image to the press, both the tabloids and the "Independent" who seem to have it in for him. And yet, he displays many of the characteristics that probably belie this image. He can be arrogant, he can be extremely hypocritical and is quite spiteful to anyone who crosses his path. He also comes over as extremely sensitive to criticism but is quick to hand it out. To illustrate this, at one point he reviews books, gets shocked that writers who are his friends object to his analysis of their books, and swears off doing any further reviews. A few pages later, he's back reviewing again.
The reader can always tell who is going to be on his side because they are always, always introduced with the adjectivally limited term "great". This lack of descriptive range is surprising for a man of Rushdie's descriptive powers and gets, frankly unintentionally comic. He comes over as something of a literary luvee. This might be due to the sad restrictions placed on his movements by the fatwa, but probably not.
And then we come to his relationships with women. At the start of the fatwa, he had only one ex-wife. By the end of the book, he had increased this to four, at least two of which are presented as madly dysfunctional. It's hard to believe the fault is all on one side though and to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to marry one bonkers person is unfortunate, two looks like carelessness. Consider for example that his first contact with what was to become his third wife was on the telephone discussing watering a parrot, on the basis of which he went out and bought three bottles of wine for their first face to face encounter. That's not normal.
These then are the conundrums of Rushdie: a man whose fiction is about inclusion and cultural integration has his creative and personal life disrupted by cultural conflict; and a man who has a supreme understanding of personality in his fiction can be so divisive in his own interactions in ways he does not recognize. That aspects of his character are flawed seems clear, but of course that doesn't make any of the things that happened to him any more just. They do though make for a gripping memoir.
on 22 February 2015
Early in Joseph Anton Salman Rushdie contrasts the Christian poles of Guilt and Redemption with the Islamic ones of Honour and Shame, and indeed this memoir of a cultural Muslim is not short of examples of the latter. Here he is, for instance, honoured one moment by a telephone call of support from the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the next forced to hide in his own home while its dodgy fixtures are examined by a 'West Indian plumber'. Hold on a moment. What exactly is the significance of his tradesman's ethnicity to this sense of shame? But before you jump to the obvious conclusion there's a context here: this is the same Rushdie who castigates his police protectors for breaking his floors with their big feet and his chairs with their plebeian arses, while offending his amour proper by reducing his carefully crafted literary pseudonym to the more manageable monosyllabic 'Joe'. So less the racist, perhaps, more just the old school snob?
This is very much the style of Joseph Anton: the philosophical/theological/literary asides, the intrusions of PC Plod as the attractive if clumsy mechanics, the initially, at least, quite exciting chase story, the almost autistic descriptions other people and that constant guarding of honour, at different points including threats of verbal fisticuffs with Arundhati Roy and actual ones with Louis de Bernieres for their daring to dis the Great Indian Literary Authority. But, above all, what Joseph Anton provides is hundreds and hundreds of pages of grade-A celebrity gossip featuring everyone from Bill Clinton and Warren Beatty to Bono and Harold Pinter. It's the print version of those horribly addictive side stories on dailymail.com: an unputdownable guilty pleasure; naughty but nice. One does wonder at times, though. Can a writer really be quite so lacking in self awareness that after 600 odd pages of literary self congratulation he's the one gasping at his fourth wife's `majestic narcissism' or putting down Delia Smith for talking in the third person when this entire book is written in it or railing at the mullahs for depriving him of growing son's company when it's actually rather more the consequence of his having deserted the boy's mother when she wasn't providing our hero with enough sex. And mustn't someone who constantly reminds us of his historical knowledge be trying to trick us when he describes his early nineteenth century hideaway as Queen Anne, or his High Victorian school chapel as having been designed by a late 20th century historian? Are we on the receiving end of some sort of literary game? Perhaps the seeming indignation at the shortening of his name is actually a fable of the down to earth cops knowingly pricking the balloon of his literary pretensions and part of the same game? Who knows? But perhaps not, given the immense seriousness with which Rushdie treats himself.
I had never read any of Salman Rushdie's books, although I had certainly heard of them (How could one not?). However, I recently did listen to a reading of "Joseph Anton" on BBC Radio 4 in five fifteen-minute snippets that prompted me to contact Amazon.com so that I could read the entire book, which focuses on the writing of Mr Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses", and the shattering aftermath of its publication.
I am especially fascinated in reading an author's account of the creative process of writing and the production of a book. And the prose of Salman Rushdie, whose account of his real life blends so seamlessly with that of his fictional tales, is mesmerising. Written in the third person, "Joseph Anton" reads like a novel. Occasionally I had to jog my memory as to the identity of the narrator, and to remind myself that I was reading an autobiography. I also found it curious that even though the book is entitled "Joseph Anton"--Mr Rushdie's chosen cryptonym for a decade--he rarely writes the name, but refers to himself continually with the pronoun 'He'. Gradually, however, I realised that namelessness reflects the author's invisibility during the terrible years of his 'hiding in plain sight'. Joseph Anton is a name that 'He' cannot bear to utter.
Salman Rushdie's engrossing memoir is larded with keen wit, as his dry observations on the fickleness of politicians under the stress of shifting public opinion and his remarks about his thankless stint as a reviewer of other authors' books illustrate. One of the most arresting aspects of the book, however, is Mr Rushdie's commentary on the written word and how it can become so easily distorted, and how this distortion can escalate and result in acrimonious censorship.
It takes no leap of credibility to imagine that every professional writer would like his book to top the bestseller list. The subtext of "Joseph Anton," however, contains a warning with mythological overtones--"Be careful what you wish for"--because the author's realisation of 'Best-Sellerdom' has been granted at a terrible price. Imagine waking up one morning and discovering that one's just-published novel, has, like the genie escaping from the bottle, been transmogrified into a worldwide event with the most frightening consequences. And all this occurred before advent of the computer technology to which we have become accustomed. Considering that "Joseph Anton" concerns events of the late 1980s, the book is especially apt in the context of today's globalised society, with its mercurial advancements of technology in respect not only to the written word but also to the visual image, as recent global events have demonstrated.
"Joseph Anton" is a riveting read, all six-hundred-and-thirty-six pages of it. I recommend it for anyone interested in the process of writing and certainly for anyone interested in literature within the framework of gripping historical events.
on 24 September 2015
Slightly irritated by the use of the third person narration but otherwise fascinated by Salman Rushdie's own description of his life following the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah. I remember some of the headlines he writes about. At the time I had read the Satanic Verses and couldn't understand the rantings from the opponents of the book. To me it gave insight into the origins of Islam. Good luck to Salman Rushdie in the future.
on 15 September 2013
I grew up with the consistent tabloid and news articles regarding the publication of the Satanic Verses; at that time, I didn't really care, it was another consistent, monotone dull item of news. I decided to read this book as I became older, as it became apparent how limited and restricted our view of what it means to be 'free' means. This book was necessary; it was necessary to finally illuminate the following when the Satanic Verses was written:
1. How deceitful the tabloids were - i.e. a character reference was always provided by the newspapers that actually seemed to the absolute opposite of the author himself.
2. How much abstract 'crap' was written in the newspapers and their reluctance to approach and accept the fact that the author actually lived in a democracy and performed a normal act of only writing a novel.
3. How utterly incompetent and deceitful the particular government at that time was in dealing with the fact that a foreign state had decided to pass a decision whereby a citizen of another country could be 'rightfully' murdered.
4. To clarify in detail the utter hell the author and his family had to endure for several years.
5. Finally, to emphasise the true value of friendship and humanity in assisting him through such a terrible time.
To all those who at the time had the audacity to cry out, 'he brought it upon himself', please read, how much it costs to preserve freedom in today's world and what a limited luxury it is.
on 22 December 2012
For starters, I am a great fan of Salman Rushdie's books (with the exception of Fury). They have always dragged me into different worlds where in amazing ways a myriad of storylines that seems to constantly diverge in the end harmoniously converge.
Therefore, I was also very much interested in what Rushdie had to go through during the years he has been in hiding because of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. This book gives some insight into it and provides a look into Rushdie's private life as well. The most interesting part I found the autobiography of everything that led up to him writing The Satanic Verses.
However, in what followed, there was simply too much name dropping: one "brilliant author" hasn't left the story yet and the next "eminent writer" shows up. After 250 pages or so I promised myself that if another literary hero would be mentioned, I'd give up.
And I did give up. Not only because of the continual name dropping, but also because of the way in which Rushdie describes his experiences. All the minute details of his life in hiding are just not interesting enough to fill six hundred pages. Worse, it seems that the only way of dealing with the events, no matter how gruesome it must have been to live through them, was to rationalise them to the extreme. Never ever do we hear about what he feels, about the fear that he must have experienced. Instead, he seems to be more concerned about whether Penguin will release the paperback version of the book or not and where to publish his next book.
Finally, he seems to have a complete lack of empathy: everyone who does not defend him publicly is a coward and no sympathy can be given to those who have come under attack because of his book, such as bookshopkeepers.
This is a well-written book, because Rushdie is simply one of the greatest English authors alive, but the contents make this book hard to get through and eventually simply extremely annoying to read.
on 12 February 2014
A pure masterpiece. I had read some bad reviews, specifically in The Guardian. I just do not understand. The book is beautifully written. It stongly recommend everybody to read it. Salman Rushdie at his VERY BEST.