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» » Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Joseph Anton: A Memoir


Salman Rushdie


Joseph Anton: A Memoir


Politics & Social Sciences

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Random House; 1st edition (September 18, 2012)




Politics and Government



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Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY San Francisco Chronicle • Newsweek/The Daily Beast • The Seattle Times • The Economist • Kansas City Star • BookPageOn February 14, 1989, Valentine’s Day, Salman Rushdie was telephoned by a BBC journalist and told that he had been “sentenced to death” by the Ayatollah Khomeini. For the first time he heard the word fatwa. His crime? To have written a novel called The Satanic Verses, which was accused of being “against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran.”   So begins the extraordinary story of how a writer was forced underground, moving from house to house, with the constant presence of an armed police protection team. He was asked to choose an alias that the police could call him by. He thought of writers he loved and combinations of their names; then it came to him: Conrad and Chekhov—Joseph Anton.   How do a writer and his family live with the threat of murder for more than nine years? How does he go on working? How does he fall in and out of love? How does despair shape his thoughts and actions, how and why does he stumble, how does he learn to fight back? In this remarkable memoir Rushdie tells that story for the first time; the story of one of the crucial battles, in our time, for freedom of speech. He talks about the sometimes grim, sometimes comic realities of living with armed policemen, and of the close bonds he formed with his protectors; of his struggle for support and understanding from governments, intelligence chiefs, publishers, journalists, and fellow writers; and of how he regained his freedom.   It is a book of exceptional frankness and honesty, compelling, provocative, moving, and of vital importance. Because what happened to Salman Rushdie was the first act of a drama that is still unfolding somewhere in the world every day.Praise for Joseph Anton  “A harrowing, deeply felt and revealing document: an autobiographical mirror of the big, philosophical preoccupations that have animated Mr. Rushdie’s work throughout his career.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times   “A splendid book, the finest . . . memoir to cross my desk in many a year.”—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post   “Thoughtful and astute . . . an important book.”—USA Today   “Compelling, affecting . . . demonstrates Mr. Rushdie’s ability as a stylist and storytelle. . . . [He] reacted with great bravery and even heroism.”—The Wall Street Journal   “Gripping, moving and entertaining . . . nothing like it has ever been written.”—The Independent (UK)   “A thriller, an epic, a political essay, a love story, an ode to liberty.”—Le Point (France)   “Action-packed . . . in a literary class by itself . . . Like Isherwood, Rushdie’s eye is a camera lens —firmly placed in one perspective and never out of focus.”—Los Angeles Review of Books   “Unflinchingly honest . . . an engrossing, exciting, revealing and often shocking book.”de Volkskrant (The Netherlands)   “One of the best memoirs you may ever read.”DNA (India)   “Extraordinary . . . Joseph Anton beautifully modulates between . . . moments of accidental hilarity, and the higher purpose Rushdie saw in opposing—at all costs—any curtailment on a writer’s freedom.”The Boston Globe
. I have always admired Rushdie for the brilliance of his writing, and I confess, for his occasional appearances on TV talk shows where his smoothly sardonic interjections often stir the latent intellects of other participants. But never so much as in reading his third person memoir which treats his life with a primary focus on the Satanic Verses controversy. His dedication to reason and fierce rejection of fundamentalism is a tribute to the philosophers whose ideas advanced civilization. After the success of his first book Midnight’s Children, Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses which contained the thoughts he shared with his irreligious father about Islam. His interest in religion was cultural and historic, something that didn’t fit with the zealots and passages of the book were hotly denounced by Imams throughout the Muslim world and ended up with a fatwa by the Ayatollah against Rushdie. A fatwa is a religious edict authorizing Muslims to kill the heretic. With threats on his life, Rushdie was put under the protection of the Special Branch of the Municipal Police and the next eleven years of his life were constrained by moving him from house to house (it was incumbent upon Rushdie to locate residences that he could rent or borrow from friends), his name was changed to Joseph Anton after two of his cherished writers Conrad and Chekhov, his marriage disintegrated, he could rarely see his son, the literary community was divided among those who strongly supported his stance for freedom of the press and those who felt he had brought trouble upon them. Some translators and publishers of his books were murdered or wounded by Islamic assassins. Rushdie was prevented from attending conferences and award ceremonies, though he finally rebelled against those strictures. He found a new love and fathered another child. He also discovered who his true friends were and who was craven in the face of threat. One criticism leveled against the memoir is the number of names he drops, yet I believe that may be to give credit to those who stood up against repression. In spite of the travails of hiding accompanied by the protection teams who became his saviors and personal friends, he managed to continue writing, producing the books Haroum and the Sea of Stories, written for his son, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and others, as well as a wealth of criticism, essays and responses to the Islamic threat.
Ultimately, the pressure on him was reduced and he was able to resume a somewhat more normal life—and has continued to produce remarkable books. His is a story of resistance despite many of his supposed supporters urging him to compromise. He found that to do so, even to a small degree, was seen as a sign of weakness and simply invigorated his foes. While all of this certainly took a personal toll on Rushdie, he stands as an icon of refusal to bend to the fascist tactics of those who seek to repress free thought.
Up front: I am a huge fan of Salman Rushdie’s writing. You know that question that’s asked every year, which writer who hasn’t yet won should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature? Rushdie is one of the writers on my list. That said, having heard Mr. Rushdie speak and/or be interviewed on a number of occasions, for what it’s worth, I can’t say that I’m a fan of the persona he presents. He often comes across as arrogant and small-minded. Though this autobiography did not change that opinion significantly, it did make me appreciate much more how difficult his life has been.

For some readers, I am sure that Mr. Rushdie’s third person approach to writing this autobiography highlighted his arrogance; however, I understood his desire to tell his story in this way. Dealing, as it does, primarily with the years he was under the fatwa, I am sure that he feels disconnected from that person now. The third person writing is simply a reinforcement of the understanding that Salman Rushdie is not truly “Joseph Anton”, a name he chose from Conrad and Chekhov as his security code name. It is a tragedy when anyone has to hide behind a fake name out of fear. For someone like Rushdie, whose persona is built upon the name that appears on his books, it is a double tragedy that he is all too happy to leave behind when he is finally freed from the threats on his life.

As one of the earliest victims of radical Islam, Rushdie’s situation is a small version of what has played out in New York, Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere. His surprise at being placed under a death sentence by Islamic clerics for a book published in England is real. The years he spent moving from place to place, hiding under police protection, is a terrible story, compounded by a section of public opinion that wanted him left to his own devices. As a part of the public that supported his fight for freedom of speech and literal freedom during these years, I was sympathetic to his plight and its inherent difficulties.

The two most revealing things to me in this story are how he dealt with the various relationships in his life and how he tried to keep writing. I liked how Rushdie maintained good relationships with his guards even as he pushed back against his handlers higher up the command chain. I was happy to see how he tried to maintain a relationship with his children, particularly his older son, who was old enough to be seriously affected by the fatwa. On the other hand, I was disappointed by his ability to go through wives. His rationalizations as he entered into affairs and broke up marriages were not very convincing, even to himself, I think. Of course, even at the time he published his follow-up novels to The Satanic Verses, I was impressed at his ability to create so well under such stress. This book gives a clearer view of what that struggle was really like.

I feel in love with Rushdie’s writing in college, around the time that the furor over The Satanic Verses broke and I’ve followed him ever since. Rushdie is at his best when he writes big books. Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh (my personal favorite), and The Ground Beneath Her Feet are magnificent, Dickensesque achievements. As a rule his shorter novels, though often decent, do not have the power of his other stories. With its novelistic style this book, though nonfiction, is reminiscent of his best novels and is, without a doubt, the best book he’s written in the past 15 years.

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