Rushdie Ducked Fatwa in $57,000 Armored ‘Bimbomobile’

U.K. Jacket of 'Joseph Anton: A Memoir'
The U.K. jacket of "Joseph Anton: A Memoir" by Salman Rushdie. Source: Random House, Inc. via Bloomberg

After Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa forced Salman Rushdie underground 23 years ago, his police protection team insisted on an alias. He chose Joseph Anton, uniting the first names of two favorite writers, Conrad and Chekhov.

He lived with that name for more than a decade. Now it’s the title of a memoir in which he reports from the frontline of the battle for freedom of speech, revealing exactly what those fearful years were like.

“Joseph Anton” opens as news of the Iranian death sentence reached Rushdie on February 14, 1989. “The Satanic Verses,” the novel deemed blasphemous by Islamic clerics, had already been banned in India and South Africa, and inspired a scattering of protests around the world.

The fatwa ratcheted up the risk level, catapulting the Booker Prize winner into a plot better suited to an airport blockbuster.

In the “blaring, terrible days” that followed, Rushdie was compelled to make himself invisible, moving from address to address with a “prot” team present at all times. Glimpses of friends and family were rare and public appearances off-limits.

In the outside world, he ceased being “Salman” and became instead the “Rushdie” of news reports or “Satan Rushdy,” as misspelled placards insisted.

As if to underscore this loss of self, he tells his story in the third person, referring to himself as “the writer” throughout the memoir. That’s an off-putting choice, striking an evasive note and keeping the reader at a distance.

Good Friends

The irony of having become the focus of so much hatred on Valentine’s Day is not lost on Rushdie. Yet “Joseph Anton” is, he insists, “a tale of loving friendship.” The international literary community erected a ring of steel around him. Writers including Margaret Drabble, Paul Auster and Christopher Hitchens loaned him houses, signed petitions and leaned on publishers who were suddenly skittish about having his books on their lists.

Not everyone was on his side, though. U.K. newspapers moaned about the money his security was costing taxpayers. Certain fellow authors felt he’d wooed controversy. He names and shames some of these appeasers: Rupert Murdoch and the Swedish Academy, John le Carre and Roald Dahl, who is described as “a long, unpleasant man with huge strangler’s hands.”

As months became years, Rushdie’s anger gave way to gloom and self-doubt. He worried about his young son, whose childhood he largely missed. His second marriage, to writer Marianne Wiggins, was barely a year old and already under strain when the fatwa was declared. It broke down completely when he caught her in too many strange and damaging lies, he says.

Wife, Baby

He couldn’t exactly date, though he fortuitously met Elizabeth West, an editor 14 years his junior, while staying at an old friend’s house. She became his third wife and mother of his second child, the “prot” team’s first baby.

There were moments of farce, too. In a house in Wales, he had to cower beneath the kitchen table when a neighboring farmer popped by unannounced. Talked into trying out a wig, he heard a passerby say, “There’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.” And the bounty on his head was increased to cover “expenses.”

Rushdie’s own expenses included an armored BMW bought secondhand from Ralph Halpern, the founder of Topshop, for 35,000 pounds ($57,000). It was nicknamed the “bimbomobile” after Halpern’s racy escapades.

Meanwhile, bookstores were being firebombed in London, Sydney, Berkeley. His Japanese translator was murdered. In Turkey, 37 people were killed in what the media dubbed a “Rushdie riot.”

After Bombay

Unsurprisingly, there is an insular feel to large chunks of this long book. Not its early sections, though. They chart Rushdie’s journey from Bombay to bestsellerdom with a beguiling briskness.

His first fictions were happy letters home from boarding school, where he was miserable. At Cambridge he played croquet with E.M. Forster on the day Evelyn Waugh died.

As a history major, he learned about the satanic verses, supposedly given to the prophet Muhammad by the devil disguised as the archangel Gabriel. “Good story,” he thought.

While contemporaries like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan found early fame, Rushdie became an advertising copywriter. He also found time to write “unbearable amounts of garbage,” though his literary ambition remained fierce.

Fatwa Ends

Ultimately, it was behind-the-scenes diplomacy by U.K. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami that made it safe enough for the “prot” team to leave Rushdie’s life in 2002, though his earlier determination to begin traveling again, facing down fear and pressing for action, sent a powerful message.

Toward the memoir’s end, that message tends to get lost amid star-studded gatherings. There’s Bono, recording a song they wrote together; Bill Clinton is “even bigger and pinker” than his pictures suggest; and Madonna only wants to talk about London property prices. Then along comes Padma Lakshmi -- his fourth wife and the woman he dubs “the Illusion.”

Oddly, it is Rushdie’s weaknesses -- revealed both intentionally and unintentionally -- that highlight his heroism. He is, after all, just another male novelist. Yet while he shows himself to be at times a terrible husband and a selfish father, as a writer he does, after a wobble or two, do the right thing. He finds his voice again and he speaks up.

“Joseph Anton” is published by Random House in the U.S. and Jonathan Cape in the U.K. (636 pages, $30, 25 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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