Publisher: Random House
Published: September 18, 2012
The word “Kafkaesque” is probably used most liberally by those who have never actually read that author’s work, while those who have done so often possess more effective means of appearing erudite. Therefore, I will show sufficient humility to refrain from using it to describe the life of Salman Rushdie after Valentine’s Day, 1989, even though the term seems to have been lying in wait to ambush the Indian-born author after the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses.
The title of this memoir refers to the alias that Rushdie adopted during the years that he was under the smothering embrace of the Special Branch of Scotland Yard. It is a mash-up of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. During the years of the protective detail, or “prot,” the officers responsible for his safety always called him “Joe,” and never addressed him by his actual name. In many ways, this book is the biography of three men, the private Salman, the fictitious Anton, and an equally false public Rushdie, a unpleasant fellow who brought the whole mess on himself, then insisted the British taxpayers pay for police protection to satisfy his own monumental ego. The public Rushdie become a popular whipping boy of the British press, which never seemed to let facts get in the way of a good vendetta.
The early part of this book details Rushdie’s boyhood in India and his arrival in Britain to attend Rugby School, an English public school where he was too smart, too unathletic, and too non-white to be accepted, and was thus miserable. He survived Rugby to attend King’s College before being accepted to read history at Cambridge. It was there, where he was perhaps the only student to take on a research study on Islamic History, that the seeds of The Satanic Verses were planted.
After making a living after college as an advertising copy writer, Rushdie finally broke in 1980 through with his novel, Midnight’s Children, which established him as a significant author, followed by Shame in 1983. These novels explored the Indian and Pakistani halves of his heritage respectively. The Satanic Verses explored his family’s Islamic background. Much of the first quarter of the memoir is dedicated to illustrating how a godless man with a deep fascination for religion could write the novel that would turn his own world upside down and inside out.
What is clear, and what I will let the reader to discover for him or herself, is that the book that was reviled and condemned by the Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989, bore little resemblance to the book that Rushdie actually published, much like the author’s life after that date bore little resemblance to anything experienced by any another human being.
Fortunately, the experience of being targeted for death by a global effort to suppress free expression in the name of rigid religious dogma did not rob the author of his sense of humor, as Joseph Anton is full of the absurd details of Rushdie’s after the fatwa. At first, he moves from home to home, each one rented in someone else name, as the author is forced to hide in bathrooms whenever a repairman comes by to fix anything. He must negotiate with the police for privileges that most of us regard as the mundane details of everyday life. A stroll around the block is virtually out of the question and dinner with friends takes on the characteristics of a military campaign. Great pains must be taken to conceal not only the identity of the person living in the house, but also the presence of four armed officers living with him.
In addition to his forced seclusion, Rushdie also faces the hostility of the outside world. Beyond the unwavering wrath of the Iranian imams and the Islamic world at large, there is also the cheerfully bloodthirsty Islamic population of Great Britain, including some members of Parliament, who speak of the author’s murder with the same casual enthusiasm that the rest of us discuss plans to holiday in the Caribbean. He also has to deal with the stunning ignorance of homegrown politicians, who treat Rushdie as an embarrassment who brought the whole thing on himself and doesn’t deserve their support or sympathy.
In the early years, Rushdie’s effort to rally support from the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom and the Bush administration in the United States is frustrated by both countries’ reluctance to antagonize Iran when they are seeking Tehran’s cooperation to free the Hezbollah hostages in Lebanon. In effect, the author becomes just another hostage, albeit one held in his own home.
Joseph Anton is full of accounts of staggeringly craven cowardice on the parts of governments, businesses, and even within his own publishers, who blanch at the thought of releasing a paperback edition of The Satanic Verses. The book also contains many more accounts of courage and principle, of friends who protect his secret, of fellow authors and publishers who coalesce into a global campaign against not only the fatwa, but also against the efforts to quash freedom of expression inspired by the Iranian atrocity. Among many things, the book is a heartfelt expression of gratitude toward the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way on Rushdie’s behalf.
The author does not spare us many details about his occasionally complicated personal life, either. At the time of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has already been married for the second time, and the marriage is already in trouble. He remains on good terms, however, with Clarissa, his first wife and mother of his first son, Zafar. Joseph Anton is in many ways a love letter to the boy and young man who would be the author’s one reliable source of joy during the fatwa years.
It may seem like an odd choice, but Rushdie wrote his memoir in the third person, referring to himself mostly as “he” and “him.” I think it helps the author keep the necessary distance to remain objective about his failings, such as his misguided attempts to end the fatwa during the early years by mollifying the British Muslim community. None of these lapses were more glaring than the end of his third marriage to Elizabeth, who selflessly sustained him through the fatwa years and gave him a second son. Their marriage is strained by the author’s desire to live in New York, where he can escape the smothering security bumble, and her desire to remain in the UK and have more children. He abandons her for a young, beautiful, and hopelessly narcissistic Indian-born American actress, who ultimately become his fourth failed marriage. Rushdie is certainly a man who knows how to complicate his own life, although he was completely innocent of the most drastic complication.
I often wonder if those who were responsible were aware of the damage they did to Islam in the eyes of the outside world. Between The Satanic Verses controversy, the Danish cartoon affair and the YouTube video last year, what Rushdie calls the “professional outrage industry” within the Muslim world has succeed mostly in creating an image of Islam as a hysterical and irrational religion. Their sensitivity to slights toward their prophet also shows contempt for the man they claim to revere. Whatever one thinks of Islam, its founder managed to change the shape of his world, almost by sheer force of will, within a single lifetime. Christianity can’t make that claim. The prophet Mohammed does not need to be defended with such bloodthirsty earnest. He is a significant and important figure in history, but the actions of his more ardent followers in recent times have done more to sully their prophet’s reputation than anything Salman Rushdie could have written, even if he had actually been trying to commit blasphemy.