Joseph Anton: A Memoir
By Salman Rushdie
656 pp; $30
At the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, literary heavyweights such as Michael Ondaatje and Tom Stoppard rubbed shoulders with Oprah Winfrey and Bollywood stars on the lawns of Diggi Palace. All the same, the proceedings were dominated by a man who wasn’t there. Protests had forced Salman Rushdie to cancel a visit. Out of solidarity, two authors read from Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses; they were shunted offstage and out of India before they could be arrested for reading from what remains, 24 years after its publication, a banned book. There was talk that the festival might have to be shut down.
For Indians, the episode was a sad reminder of the frequent limits on free speech that persist despite the country’s formal democratic institutions. There was also something a little anachronistic about the idea that a book—a physical book, no less, printed with ink on paper—could provoke such a furor. It brought back memories of a time when literature mattered, when authors were at the center of society, often in the vanguard of political movements, and when a novel could unleash Huntingtonian clashes of civilizations that would reverberate for decades.
“Literature is a life and death matter,” Rushdie writes in his gripping new book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. The title, a combination of Conrad’s and Chekhov’s first names, is a reference to the code name Rushdie assumed when, following the publication of The Satanic Verses, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini accused Rushdie of blasphemy and called for his murder. Using the third person by which he refers to himself throughout the book, Rushdie continues: “He wanted to make it part of his mission to insist on the vital importance of books and of protecting the freedoms necessary to create them.”
Joseph Anton is full of similar pronouncements—observations that, however laudable, are somewhat quaint. And the book is, too: It offers a snapshot of literary and cultural production from a different era. The bulk of the action (the years in hiding, moving desperately from home to home, the furtive encounters with friends and family in security-sanitized spaces) takes place at a moment that now feels distant: before the Internet, before the advent of smartphones and blogs, and before the consequent hand-wringing over diminished attention spans and the end of reading.
Because so many of Rushdie’s friends were in publishing, Joseph Anton reads like an insider’s account of the book business during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of the book’s fascination stems from its juicy portrayals of various publishing luminaries. We learn perhaps more than we care (or more than we’d like to admit we care) about such writers as Martin Amis and Bruce Chatwin, agents like Andrew Wylie and Gillon Aitken, and editors like Sonny Mehta and Robert Gottlieb. In Rushdie’s telling, Doris Lessing struggles to write honestly about her many lovers, while Rushdie’s former editor Liz Calder, the legendary founder of Bloomsbury, is besieged by male suitors.
More than Rushdie’s literary output, the death sentence against him turned the author into an international celebrity. In recent years, Rushdie himself has become a fixture on the New York social scene, with a reputation for keeping the company of glamorous women half his age. Some readers, drawing parallels with the recent tabloidization of Rushdie’s own life, may cringe at how much his memoir peddles in publishing-world gossip, but like the author himself, Joseph Anton is an amalgam of high and low, salaciousness and profundity. As he has before, Rushdie proves himself a master at straddling the boundary between supermarket romance and philosophical treatise. The long rite of affairs and betrayals and divorces (entertaining in its own way, it must be acknowledged) can’t obscure the fact that this is, ultimately, a wise book about some of the most important issues affecting the world today.
Foremost among those issues are the causes of free speech and free expression. Rushdie is an absolutist on these issues, arguing (as he has elsewhere) that free speech amounts to “life itself.” He suggests that the attempt by radical Islam to stifle The Satanic Verses was really the opening salvo in an ongoing conflict that has continued through the rise of al-Qaeda and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The seeds of intolerance sown in 1989, when Khomeini’s fatwa was passed, have sprouted into a far more general—and violent—conflict between militant Islam and Western culture. Rushdie quotes the German poet Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people too.”
In this escalation of tensions, Islamic extremists have had able (if often unwitting) assistance. Rushdie, however, is mostly silent on the role played by the West in stirring the resentment and exclusion that allow terrorism and religious conflict to thrive. When he does point fingers at the West, he is more inclined to blame politicians, other writers, and the media for failing to stand wholeheartedly behind him. The Tory Party in Britain and the Independent newspaper (the “house journal for British Islam”) come in for particular ire. By comparison, the Clinton administration, which raised the Rushdie issue at international forums and advocated for his cause, comes off quite favorably.
There is an element of score-settling in Rushdie’s descriptions of those who betrayed him. He is scathing when writing about the parade of leaders and writers whose willingness to appease his enemies contrasted so unfavorably with the courage Rushdie displayed. A lot of the time, the bile seems warranted, but the vindictiveness can also come off as mean, or even self-serving. (Roald Dahl is described as “a long, unpleasant man with huge strangler’s hands”; the critic James Wood is one of the “malevolent Proscrutes of literary criticism.”)
There is no getting around the fact that Joseph Anton is at times self-indulgent and solipsistic (and, at more than 650 pages, it is certainly too long). Still, considering the hardships and indignities Rushdie bore during the darkest years, the decade or so during which he was in hiding, it’s easy to forgive the occasional evidence of lingering bitterness.
Right around the time this book was published, the Muslim world erupted in yet another orgy of protests against the West. It’s fitting that this latest round of violence was triggered not by a work of literature, but by an amateur video most protesters would have seen on YouTube. Books may have lost their power to shock; but the underlying rage, the clash of values and worldviews, remains potent.
Rushdie makes no pretense at objective analysis, but in the shade and texture he offers, in his portrayal of a man caught between the jaws of civilizational conflict, he does something far more valuable. He insists on complexity and nuance where polemic and cliché so often reign. This is what writers do. And this, ultimately, is Rushdie’s triumph. In an age of rising intolerance and diminished literary confidence, Joseph Anton—like Rushdie’s own life—strikes a blow for the continued relevance of literature.