Salman Rushdie. The very name conjures up derring-do and assassins, controversy and conspiracy. In Joseph Anton, the well-known author of The Satanic Verses, who spent several years in hiding and still faces threats to his life, chronicles these years of hardship. It is at one and the same time a source of important lessons about the nature of freedom of expression, and an annoying account presented in an off-putting manner.
To start out, Rushdie chose to write his memoir not in the first person, as almost all memoirs are written, but in the third person. For instance, this is his description of encountering the academic discussion on the controversial Islamic verses for which his book is named: “Good story, he thought when he read about it. Even then he was dreaming of being a writer, and he filed the good story away in the back of his mind for future consideration.” This style is immediately distracting and distances the author from the reader, since one wants some intimacy with the subject in a memoir.
After The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, it was immediately nominated for prizes and garnered a great deal of attention.
The novel is essentially a complicated tale set in modern times, with a dream sequence relating to a story about God giving the Islamic prophet verses supporting polytheism – verses later condemned as satanic.
An early sign of the unrest the novel would unleash became clear when Rushdie received an invitation from the Weekly Mail in South Africa to speak at an anti- Apartheid conference. However, South African writer Nadine Gordimer informed him that Muslim anti-Apartheid activists had warned of a “large and hostile” response: “They would kill and bomb his meetings and attack those who had invited him.” Rushdie was accused of insulting not only Islam, but the entire “Third World.” There was a feeling the debate about whether to invite Rushdie could divide the anti-Apartheid movement, with leading writer J.M Coetzee supporting him and Gordimer discouraging him.
The “Rushdie Affair” – the larger story of the 1989 Iranian fatwa ordering his death, and his subsequent retreat into hiding – is interesting because it divided so many notable personages. Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “blind sheikh” who became famous for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing, came out vociferously against the book – perhaps an early sign of the radicalism that Abdel-Rahman was preaching.
In Bradford, England, some Muslims gathered to burn his book.
“Very few of the people there would have known much about the events presided over more than fifty-five years earlier by Joseph Goebbels,” writes Rushdie, comparing himself to the authors the Nazis burned.
The Satanic Verses became a lightning rod for more symbolic struggles. Jack Straw, who later became foreign secretary, supported extending England’s blasphemy law to cover all religions, including Islam.
Bookseller W.H. Smith took Rushdie’s book off the shelves.
The author argues in Joseph Anton that the mobilization of the Muslim street in England was a way for mosques to reassert their authority after “a generation [in which] the politics of ethnic minorities in Britain had been secular and socialist.”
In a way, therefore, the “affair” presaged the radicalization that would lead up to 9/11, as well as to the riots that a YouTube film sparked in Libya this year, resulting in the death of a US ambassador.
Joseph Anton was the name Rushdie took as his cover identity.
“He thought of writers he loved and tried combinations of their names,” he writes. “Vladimir Joyce. Marcel Beckett… he wrote down the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, and there it was.”
At some points, the plodding memoir, which consists of observations about the day-to-day boredom of being in hiding and attempts to keep writing, makes astute observations. Rushdie wonders who makes all the American flags that are burned in the Muslim world. But much of his book is full of lists of those who supported him and those who did not, of letters he received and events to which he was invited.
He claims to have gotten on well with the security detail assigned to him, but notes that one former bodyguard claimed “they would lock him in a closet and go off to the pub and drink.”
Although Rushdie was married during this period, his second wife, Marianne, is usually mentioned in a negative, condescending light, as when they attend a dinner party at Buckingham Palace and she wears a dress of which he disapproves: “He walked around the gardens of the palace with his braless wife in her undergarment.”
This may not be surprising, as Rushdie has since had two more marriages, but one assumes that for reasons of decorum he could have exhibited more noblesse oblige.
Rushdie is a passionate defender of freedom of speech. He believes that the attack on him represented a threat to enlightenment values, and declares that “the modern was being turned against itself by the medieval.” He argues in favor of opening up Islam to the same critique to which other religions have been exposed.
“Did they know that after the Prophet died there was, for some considerable time, no canonical text?” he asks. “The Ummayyad inscriptions from the Dome of the Rock were at odds with what was now insisted upon as holy writ.”
The main problem is that Joseph Anton isn’t only a polemic about free speech, nor is it a truly personal account of the years on the run; it is a sort of in-between book, full of name-dropping and endless mentions of relatively unimportant events, that fails to separate the wheat from the chaff.