Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir – 636 pages long and without any index to facilitate matters – and then batting out a coherent, moderately informed review in 72 hours was not going to be easy for the reviewer. But then, there was already a heavy downpour of information about the book and the author’s views in the media. Even before he lovingly touched the purple cover with its title etched on the hardcover, the buzz around Joseph Anton had been louder than words.
Instead of trying to conjure up a supra-narrative around what was being said about the book and what Rushdie himself was saying, the reviewer decided to heed Rushdie’s own words from the book: “When friends asked me what they could do to help, he pleaded, ‘Defend the text.’” So he set out to judge the text that was Joseph Anton: A Memoir, and not go into the non-existent Salman-namas that fluttered outside as ‘current affairs’.
This, of course, was never going to be possible. The character of Salman Rushdie and the very plot line of a man who has to go into hiding after there’s an “extraterritorial murder order” – which the reviewer strangely misread as an “extraterrestrial murder order” – were the stuff of a Philip K Dick novel in which large parts of the book were already known in the public domain before the book was even written. But how good was Rushdie’s version going to be – not only as an author-ised text but also just as a book?
Joseph Anton – a Frankensteinian stitch-up of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov that Rushdie came up with as a ‘safe name’ to be used by his ‘protectors’ during his ‘hiding years’ (they just called him ‘Joe’) – is more than just A Portrait of the Artist Under A Death Sentence. In this memoir, we find the early years of a Cambridge history student, a lover of literature, an ambitious writer, a man in love, a man in lust, a man out of love, an animal in the publishing jungle, a loving and concerned father, a cheating husband...
Rushdie’s use of the third person for himself throughout the book may not have worked for more humble reviewers, but it worked like a charm for this one. Not only does this enable the author to ‘distance’ himself from himself psychologically – and thereby create a hero in his own image – but the reader encounters lines that would have otherwise be cringe-worthy. The reviewer imagined the sentence, “His imagination wanted to soar but he had lead weights tied to his ankles,” written in the first person singular and winced. He winced, though, anyway, when reading, “‘Joseph Anton,’ he told himself, ‘you must live until you die’”, where Rushdie was quoting from Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus.
There is much ‘over-writing’ in Joseph Anton, but most of this ‘excess’ also provides the interludes and back-chats that make the book more than just a personal history of a fatwa-ed man. He writes, for instance, of meeting Caroline Lang, the daughter of the French Culture Minister. “...because of her beauty, and the wine, and the difficulties with [his then wife] Elizabeth, they became lovers; and immediately afterwards decided not to do that again, but to remain friends.” This could have been Mick Jagger talking about the Canadian prime minister’s wife Margaret Trudeau. The bits about his ex-wife Padma Lakshmi, a preening queen who told the author when he called her up immediately after 9/11 that she was “doing a lingerie shoot”, are as damning as they are chuckle-inducing.
But Joseph Anton never strays too long from its prime intention: to tell the reader about a man who faced religious intolerance and the fear of religious intolerance (the two being separate things) not in any abstraction, but in the flesh. “When he was first accused of being offensive, he was genuinely perplexed. He thought he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation,” Rushdie writes about The Satanic Verses, “An engagement from the point of view of an unbeliever, certainly, but a proper one nonetheless. How could that be thought offensive? The thin-skinned years of rage-defined identity politics that followed taught him, and everyone else, the answer to that question.” Well, maybe not “everyone else”, thought the reviewer.
Then there’s his anguish about his unrequited love. He recalls not being allowed to attend the 50th Independence Day celebrations at the Indian consulate in Manhattan on August 15, 1997. “On India's fiftieth birthday, Saleem Sinai’s birthday, Saleem Cinderalla’s creator would not go to the ball. He would not allow his love of the country and its people to be destroyed by Official India, he promised himself.” And then again, “...he felt sick at heart. India, his great love, had told him to fuck off because it didn’t want to endorse him in any way. Midnight’s Children, his love letter to India, had been deemed unfit to be filmed anywhere in that country.” Joseph Anton is the story of a man, written by that man, who wants to be loved by everyone but isn’t and doesn’t understand why this is so.
“How to defeat terrorism. Don’t be terrorised. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared,” he had written in a newspaper piece after 9/11. As the reviewer closed Joseph Anton, he realised that the fine book he had just read was about Salman Rushdie’s attempt to not let fear rule his life. And it wasn’t just the fear of being bumped off by a mad man that the reviewer was thinking about.
Match that lit the fire
On the day he received the bound proofs of The Satanic Verses he was visited at home on St Peter’s Street by a journalist he thought of as a friend, Madhu Jain of India Today. When she saw the thick, dark blue cover with the large red title she grew extremely excited, and pleaded to be given a copy so that she could read it while on holiday in England with her husband. And once she had read it she demanded that she be allowed to interview him and that India Today be allowed to publish an extract. Again, he agreed. For many years afterwards he thought of this publication as the match that lit the fire. And certainly the magazine highlighted what came to be seen as the book’s ‘controversial’ aspects, using the headline AN UNEQUIVOCAL ATTACK ON RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM, which was the first of innumerable inaccurate descriptions of the book’s contents, and, in another headline, ascribing a quote to him – MY THEME IS FANATICISM – that further misrepresented the work. The last sentence of the article, ‘The Satanic Verses is bound to trigger an avalanche of protests...’ was an open invitation for those protests to begin.