October 16, 2012
A Fictional Character
‘Joseph Anton: A Memoir,’ by Salman Rushdie
by Donna Rifkind (10-12-12)
Salman Rushdie’s memoir is many books in one book. It’s a personal story that takes place at the center of an international crisis: the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 denunciation of the author’s fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” as a work of blasphemy against Islam, and his call for Rushdie’s death.
It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man that describes his influences, obsessions and ambitions as well as his rise in the publishing world. It’s a record of his relocation from Bombay to London to New York, where he settled in 2000. It’s an intimate tale of fathers and sons, of the beginnings and ends of marriages, of friendships and betrayals.
At the same time, “Joseph Anton” is a large-scale spectacle of political and cultural conflicts during an era in which, Rushdie writes, “incompatible realities frequently collided with one another.” The death decree, or fatwa, would come to be seen by some as an early signal of a clash of absolutes that would lead up to 9/11 and into our tinderbox present — of the continuing struggle between religious belief in the immutable word of God on one hand and secular faith in the unconditional right of free speech on the other.
One unifying theme that emerges from this multilayered account is the concept of flight — though here that word assumes a double identity. Flight from the fatwa meant a “fretful, scuttling existence” in which the author, a 41-year-old British citizen, abandoned his home in the London neighborhood of Islington and dashed from one safe house to another around the United Kingdom. While Rushdie located and paid for these dozens of hide-outs himself, the British government provided him with nine years of round-the-clock protection by the “A” Squad of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, who in turn answered to Britain’s intelligence services.
If flight meant forced departure, for Rushdie it also meant an insistence on certain freedoms. Most critically, he would not give up his literary life, his flights of fancy. Battling depression and writer’s block, he managed during this time to write a major novel, “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” along with a charming children’s book called “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” at his young son’s insistence. He collected a volume of short fiction (“East, West”) and another of essays (“Imaginary Homelands”). He wrote book reviews, poems and op-ed essays. Whether large or small, every completed piece of writing felt, to him, like “victory over the forces of darkness.”
“Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told?” Rushdie is right to pose the conflict over “The Satanic Verses” as a question not of ideology but of power and control. And he is right to claim his own story after many humiliating years of surrendering that story to other people, most of whom transformed it for their own purposes.
But the question of control is also a tricky issue in Rushdie’s own writing. His novels are giant winged contraptions, packed to capacity, hurtling across time and space, “pitting levity against gravity,” as he describes one of his airborne protagonists at the beginning of “The Satanic Verses.”
At their best, Rushdie’s imaginative machines attain lift and remain thrillingly aloft. At their worst, their centers cannot hold, and they spin into pieces. In “Joseph Anton,” which Rushdie has composed very much like a novel, both these scenarios come to pass. There are sections where the narrative soars, and more than a few in which it plummets.
One of the memoir’s novelistic approaches is its perspective, which shifts from the autobiographical “I” to “he.” It’s not as mannered a choice as it sounds in a narrative consumed, as much of Rushdie’s writing is, with the multiplicity of identity. “He was a new self now,” he realized after news of the fatwa reached him.
In fact he split into several selves: not just the Salman his friends and family knew but also a “Rushdie” reviled by screaming demonstrators in England and abroad, “an effigy, an absence, something less than human”; and reproached, too, by many unsympathetic compatriots in the Western press.
The sense of fracture was heightened when the Police insisted he invent an alias so he could write checks without being identified. He came up with “Joseph Anton,” the first names of two favorite writers, Conrad and Chekhov. Not lost on him was the peculiarity that a man who invented characters for a living had now “turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well.”
In early sections — among the best in the book — the author reveals that his actual surname was itself an invention. His father, a nonpracticing Muslim, changed his “fine old Delhi” name to Rushdie in homage to Ibn Rushd, the 12th-century Spanish-Arab polymath who wrote commentaries on the works of Aristotle and made a forceful case, 800 years before the uproar over “The Satanic Verses,” for rationalism over Islamic literalism.
Yet if his father’s “fearless skepticism” was his gift to young Salman and his three sisters, a dire home environment was his curse, for Anis Rushdie was so wrathful an alcoholic that Salman’s mother admitted she survived the marriage by developing a “forgettery” instead of a memory. In 1961, 13-year-old Salman was only too willing to leave his hometown, Bombay, for boarding school in England, where he was lonely and unpopular, and on to Cambridge, where, as a history student, he first learned about the “satanic verses,” a set of lines expunged from the Koran.
These absorbing coming-of-age passages are followed by equally engaging recollections of Rushdie’s London jobs as an advertising copywriter, where he developed his distinctive verbal bounciness. Those jingly effects and aphorisms pop up in the memoir as well (“Life was lived forward but was judged in reverse”).
And he vividly conveys the exhilaration he felt in the mid-1970s while dreaming up his first big success, “Midnight’s Children,” scene by scene, finding the tools and tone to tell his story: “India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try to find that language.” Rushdie also comes across as tenderly devoted to his two sons, Zafar and Milan, and grateful to many of the individual police officers who guaranteed his and his family’s safety for nearly a decade.
If “Joseph Anton” builds up a lot of reader-friendly capital in these sections, it exhausts that capital rather too freely as the story continues. While the first days of the fatwa unfold grippingly, there’s a steep drop in momentum as the years drag on. Not even as talented a writer as Rushdie can avoid writing about tedium without becoming tedious himself. Clichés abound: “The house was beautiful but it felt like a gilded cage”; “What was he,” he wonders while contemplating moving to America after his ordeal is over, “but a huddled mass yearning to breathe free?”
As that last quotation suggests, Rushdie shows a cheerful willingness throughout the memoir to show off his less than dignified side. These scenes can be bleakly funny: when the police persuade him to wear a wig to avoid recognition in public, he tries it out on Sloane Street in London and is immediately the center of amused attention. “Look,” he hears a man say, “there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.” But there are occasions in which his goofiness grates and creates an uncomfortable dissonance in what is, after all, a sobering chronicle of state-sponsored terrorism that resulted in the murder of Rushdie’s Japanese translator and near-fatal attacks on his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher.
It’s of course lots of fun to read of the author’s unflagging bedazzlement at mingling with all kinds of celebrities, from Playboy bunnies to Heads of state, and in his access, post-fatwa, to every sort of party. (“Willie Nelson was there! And Matthew Modine!”) It’s fun also to render cheap sideline judgments during the many instances of score-settling here (particularly unflattering are Rushdie’s portrayals of his ex-wives Marianne Wiggins and Padma Lakshmi; his publishers at Penguin and Random House; and the former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb).
Are readers likely to remember mostly these juicy bits, and if so, how will that affect Rushdie’s literary legacy? “It was as a writer that he wanted to be defended, as a writer that he wanted to defend himself,” he eloquently states. But with “Joseph Anton,” is he risking becoming the kind of writer whose books are not so much read as skimmed for their potential provocations — a barbarism he’s fought against for nearly a quarter-century? Read all of “Joseph Anton,” then, for its lessons in how books are used, and whether they matter.
Donna Rifkind is writing a book about the screenwriter Salka Viertel and her Hollywood émigré salon.
A version of this review appeared in print on October 14, 2012, on page BR10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Fictional Character.