‘Joseph Anton,’ Salman Rushdie
I put it to you that Salman Rushdie may be the most important writer of the past century, and not just for the obvious reasons.
First, I should explain exactly what the ‘obvious’ reasons are, since I have discovered recently that they are not as obvious as I had thought: several American and Australian tourists I bumped into whilst nose-deep in the borrowed 630-page ‘memoir’ in the my first week here in Guatemala had no idea who he is, so let me summarise:
Rushdie is an Anglo-Indian author who has written several hugely popular books, most notably his second novel ‘Midnight’s Children,‘ which won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was later voted the Booker of Bookers, one of my favourite books and simultaneously one of the books about which it is most often claimed to be unreadable, (totally untrue, incidentally). However, his notoriety comes from the reaction to his fourth novel, ‘The Satanic Verses,’ released in 1988 and which so infuriated certain Muslim clerics, mainly in Iran, that the dying Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa on the author, a death-sentence which led to Rushdie having to go into hiding and protective custody for over a decade, fighting governments, the press, fellow authors and thinkers and, above all, religious extremists in the name of freedom of speech.
‘Joseph Anton‘ is the story of that decade.
Named after one of the pseudonyms he used whilst in hiding, (the combination of the first names of two of his favourite authors, Conrad and Chekhov), the autobiography contains a brief and interesting summary of his early life and school days, and the tale gets a little lost when dealing with his three marriages at times, (ever the author, Rushdie writes the entire memory in the third person, using ‘he’ and ‘him’ so liberally that it is sometimes difficult to tell who is being referred to when there is more than one man present), but this is really a fascinating account of how he survived the fatwa.
A revealing detail from his childhood: Rushdie‘s father, we learn, had a project to ‘unscramble’ the ‘discontinuities’ of the Quran, which inspired The Satanic Verses.
“Like his father, he was fascinated by God, even if religion held little appeal…”
I have read just about every single one of his novels, and some essays too, but it was only reading this autobiography that I realised I knew almost nothing about the man himself: I was therefore simultaneously blown away, (bad choice of words, perhaps…), and came to understand the humour running throughout his work to read that he had been a member of that hallowed group which produced my beloved Monty Python, Fry & Laurie, etc, as Rushdie:
“…was elected to the Footlights, became a minor bulb in that dazzling group of illuminati – Clive James, Rob Buckman, Germaine Greer…”
Celebrity stories come thick and fast: the author once shared a residence with his first editor, Liz Calder, and had to be her protection from the men who would accompany her home after literary events. One of them was:
“…the writer Roald Dahl, a long, unpleasant man with stranglers’ hands…”
What a put-down!
Returning to my original thesis statement, why do I claim Rushdie as the most influential writer of the last century? One reason is that he had been invited to Johannesburg in 1988 to give the keynote address at an anti-apartheid and censorship conference, but in the words of a liberal Muslim cleric in South Africa, the backlash from South African Muslims threatened to cause a split within the anti-apartheid coalition, which “…would be catastrophic and would only serve the interests of the white supremacist regime.” After much deliberation, he decided to stay away, self-censoring himself against all his principles and, possibly in a small way, enabling the eventual victory of the ANC and Nelson Mandela. Locus of freedom of speech campaigning, and enabler of the downfall of apartheid. Oh, and did I mention the Harry Potter series may only have been taken up by Bloomsbury because they hadn’t signed Rushdie and all the baggage that ended up entailing.
Quite a CV, before even considering his incredible novels.
I learned for the first time that the UK had anti-blasphemy laws which only covered the Church of England: the real surprise came in the fact that before this law which I never knew of was repealed in 2008, the government had been in favour of extending it to other religions! This was the kind of thing I needed this book to learn.
How twisted did people’s logic get in the heat of this most modern of battles over freedom of speech? In the midst of his isolation, in a display of the lack of irony and humour which seems to characterise extremists so often…
“…The ‘intellectual Tariq Madood wrote him a letter saying he must no longer talk about the fatwa. ‘Muslims find it repulsive’…”
As so often in the essays and biographies I have been reading lately, some of the most interesting parts were recollections of other figures. Here, the story concerned one of my all-time favourite authors, Jorge Luis Borges.
“He remembered the story of the meeting between Borges and Anthony Burgess. We have the same name, Burgess had told the Argentinian master, and then, searching for a common language to converse in that would be unintelligible to the listening ears all around them, they settled on Anglo-Saxon, and chattered away happily in Beowulf’s tongue…”
(This section also included the tale of when Rushdie met Borges‘s Japanese widow, María Kodama, a tale which left me with a pang of regret, as I had once passed up the chance to meet her when my slightly creepy tennis coach, during my time bumming around in Buenos Aires, had invited me to an event at the Japanese Embassy where he claimed she would be. I passed up the opportunity, not really believing him and not particularly wanting to be at an event with him, and have regretted it ever since.)
Finally, one of my favourite anecdotes, again reflecting Rushdie‘s sense of humour in the face of extremism which he often portrays as being the absence of humour and laughter, occurred minutes after his near-death experience in a car crash in rural Australia. The driver of the truck which almost decapitated him and his family was immediately suspected of ulterior motives besides merely bad driving, and was interrogated by local police at the scene:
“The driver was bewildered. ‘What’s my religion got to do with anything?’ Well, was he a Muzlim? An Islammic?…Was he carrying out the whatever it was called, the fatso?…”
Not everything in the book rang true, most significantly Rushdie‘s attempted defence of his decision at one point to embrace Islam, (an account I had just finished reading from the viewpoint of Christopher Hitchens in his autobiography, soon to be reviewed). A man who had spent years putting his safety and that of his family on the line in the name of freedom of speech and standing up for what you truly believe in bows to pressure from clerics due to what seemed to boil down to confusion and manipulation? At times like this, I was reminded that this was not only autobiography, with all the dangers of the ‘unreliable narrator’ that entails, but also autobiography from a master of the art of fiction: who knows how much was true, how much the reader is being manipulated?
This (fairly important) incident aside, ‘Joseph Anton‘ is a treasure trove of beautifully written, revealing and heart-felt prose: lovers of literature everywhere should be grateful that the fatwa was never carried out.