Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Random House, 2012
656 pp., $30.00
I can still recall the day in 1989 when I bought my first edition of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Some weeks earlier, the nation's largest bookstore chain, Waldenbooks, had removed the novel from its shelves because of threats emanating from Islamist quarters. Shortly thereafter, Cody's Books in Berkeley—which, like most independent booksellers, was proud to sell Rushdie's novel—had been damaged by a pipe-bomb. As I stepped into Tower Books that day, I took an involuntary look over my shoulder, just to be certain that no bearded terrorists were lurking in the shadows.
My little frisson of fear was nothing, of course, to what Salman Rushdie must have felt on St. Valentine's Day, when he was informed that the Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme spiritual leader of the Islamic republic of Iran, had pronounced a fatwa against him, calling upon Muslims everywhere to kill the blasphemer. In those days, all we knew was that Rushdie had gone into hiding somewhere in the UK, protected by Scotland Yard's Special Branch. Meanwhile, crowds were burning copies of his book on the streets of British cities and storming American outposts overseas.
The months that followed were heady times for the scribbling classes. On the one hand, Rushdie's critics shed no tears for him, declaring that he had brought down the fatwa on his own head by gratuitously insulting the founder of a major world religion. (The novel devotes several chapters to an irreverent retelling of the life of the Prophet Mohammed, or "Mahound" as Rushdie calls him, appropriating the derogatory name used by Christians in the Middle Ages.) On the other hand, Rushdie's friends lined up to defend him, insisting that a universal human right was at stake: the right of free speech.
Meanwhile, Rushdie spent the early 1990s living under police protection, moving from one secret location to another with his team of bodyguards and drivers. (Previously, the Special Branch's main job had been to protect members of the government from the Provisional Irish Republican Army.) Eventually, he was allowed to settle down in a house in London which, remarkably, was never "blown"—never revealed as the home of the hunted author. It was not until March 27, 2002, however, that Rushdie's protection was finally withdrawn following an official reduction of the "threat level" against him.
Imprisoned writers have been known to keep diaries as a means of preserving their sanity. Rushdie may not have been imprisoned, but his safe houses came to feel like prisons. And he did keep a diary. That diary is the basis of this book about his decade of life in the shadows, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. "Joseph Anton" was his official pseudonym, a name he invented for himself by combining the Christian names of two of his favorite writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. For years, "Joseph Anton" was the name that appeared on his mail and his checks; even the protection boys called him "Joe."
It was only fitting, therefore, that Rushdie decided to write about his life as "Joseph Anton" in the third person—a decision that lends his memoir, at times, a novel-like quality. Here is how the book begins:
Afterwards, when the world was exploding around him and the lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin.
When I read that sentence, I was reminded of the famous opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
As for the "lethal blackbirds," I confess that I missed the allusion to Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds until the author spelled it out for me on the next page.
Certainly Joseph Anton is long enough to be a novel—longer than The Satanic Verses itself, which, at 500 pages, proved too tall a mountain for many readers. In fact, Rushdie did contemplate a project, provisionally entitled "Inferno," in which he would give his life under the fatwa the full novelistic treatment, using Dante as his model. But he decided to drop it in favor of a more conventional memoir. As he told himself, "The only reason his story was interesting was that it had actually happened. It wouldn't be interesting if it wasn't true."
Unfortunately, the fact that Joseph Anton is true doesn't make it interesting. Salman Rushdie's memoir should have been the great literary memoir of our time, the story of a writer whose life happened to intersect with the most unexpected and hated development of the late 20th century—the rise of radical Islam. It should have taken its place next to such classics of modern prison literature as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Breyten Breytenbach's True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. Alas, Rushdie's literary judgment failed him this time.