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The Courageous and Cowardly,
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This review is from: Joseph Anton (Hardcover)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.]