Flawed but unmissable,
This review is from: Joseph Anton (Hardcover)
This huge book is an account of the ten-year ordeal of the novelist as he struggled to cope with the severely restricted life of fear, rage, despair and stultifying boredom imposed on him by having to go into hiding after Khomeini's fatwa against him for writing The Satanic Verses became a death sentence. It's written in the third person, a device I found rather distracting at first and then accepted as giving a flavour of how disconnected poor Salman Rushdie felt from not only his former, normal life(or as normal as that of any name-dropping member of the London literary glitterati can be!)but also from his actual self. The demonic creature who deserved death which stared at him from every crazy placard and hateful utterance of every Islamic fanatic and opportunist on the planet; the alias self, Joseph Anton, named after the author's two favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, also known as 'Joe' by the down to earth Special Branch officers who protected him in those dreadful years; the 'author of the controversial book' about whom everyone had an opinion, whether good or bad or just plain silly; even the ineptly arrogant Salman of the cowardly, two-faced Dismayed Friends who tut-tutted about his situation as though he 'should have known better', as if he should have expected that a 'magic realist' novel could have you running in danger of your life: all these extra personae were drowning the human being as he was to himself, and the third-person narration makes that plainly and painfully clear.
If you imagine suffering should ennoble, however, you'd have a reality check with this book. This is unvarnished stuff(and often feels unedited), based on his journals in hiding. It isn't a pretty picture: character flaws come out glaringly, and he often reveals himself to be petty, arrogant, ungenerous, even downright nasty, and reveals details about certain people, particularly his wives, that I think would have been better left under a veil of silence(especially as he rarely if ever is so harsh on himself!) It's true that the reported behaviour particularly of his second wife, Marianne Wiggins, is hard to justify, but still, it seems to me, it would have been better left to one side or at least not explored in as much detail. But about Clarissa, his first wife, his beloved son Zafar and friends who stayed true, he has nothing but praise and love, and much respect and affection too for the Special Branch guys who looked after him(though nothing but dislike of their bosses, the government etc). Thing is, though, whenever I was tempted to pontificate, to say, really, Salman, this is rather appalling of you, I'd think, well, how would I behave if I was subject to those sorts of stresses? Would I act graciously or lash out in all directions? I have no answer to that, anymore than I have to the issue of my irritation with his simplistic lack of understanding of religion and the religious impulse in its non-fanatical, non-murderously-literal-minded aspects, as experienced by the vast majority of people around the world. However, to expect him to be judicious on these matters is much too much to expect of anyone, given the circumstances! As it is to expect him to be sanguine or even dismissive about the often-cowardly way in which some of the publishing industry, public figures and indeed governments behaved when faced with the bullying of Iran--and their enthusiastic rent-a-crowd mobs in Bradford--on the 'Rushdie question'.
There are moments of humour, as in a hilariously dry evocation of the ridiculously inept death-wish Pakistani film, International Gorillay(they meant to say Guerillas, but it got lost in translation, clearly!) which imagines Pakistani 'gorillay' looking for the author, who is of course protected by Israeli commandos! And there's some great sketches of the Special Branch guys and their rather lame 'policemen jokes'. But these flashes of humour are few and far between. Yet despite its many flaws, this is a book I really do recommend to other readers. It's not one you'll easily forget.