Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Random House, 2012
656 pp., $30.00
The best chapters are some of the early ones, in which our hero begins to understand that his life has been turned upside down by the fatwa. In the following passage, he describes his trip to his first safe house in the village of Broadway:
On the way to the Cotswolds the car stopped to fill up with gas. He needed to go to the toilet and opened the door and got out. Every single person in the gas station turned their heads in unison to stare at him. He was on the front page of every newspaper … and had overnight become one of the most recognizable men in the country. The faces looked friendly—a man waved, another gave the thumbs-up sign—but it was alarming to be so intensely visible at exactly the moment that he was being asked to lie low.
This is the kind of concrete detail we want. But Joseph Anton is simply too circumstantial—too lightly edited—to sustain a reader's interest for 600 pages.
In addition, the writing is uneven. On the one hand, there are plenty of well-turned passages like this one, in which our hero begins to see himself through the eyes of his detractors:
He slowly came to understand that the protection looked glamorous. Men arrived in advance of his own coming, everything was made ready, a sleek Jaguar stopped at the door, there was the moment of maximum risk between car door and front door, then he was whisked inside. It looked like VIP treatment. It looked like too much.
On the other hand, there are too many entries like this one, which sounds like an excerpt from the society pages:
On New Year's Eve the PR guru Matthew Freud and his fiancée, Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth, invited them to the Millennium Dome. He took Elizabeth, Zafar, Martin [Amis] and Isobel [Fonseca], and Susan the new nanny stayed at the house to babysit Milan. In the dome, Tony Blair stopped by to shake hands with Matthew and Elizabeth and shook his hand as well.
As this entry suggests, Rushdie is an incorrigible name-dropper. From Bernard-Henri Levy to Bono, all of his new celebrity friends are proudly introduced.
Suffice it to say that Joseph Anton is full of conflicting impulses on Rushdie's part. To his credit, he wants to thank the many friends and strangers who courageously stood up for him during his darkest days. One of those noble strangers was William Nygaard, his Norwegian publisher, who was shot outside his home in Oslo. (Thankfully, he survived.) But Rushdie also wants to settle old scores. His enemies list includes, among others, Marianne Wiggins, his increasingly bizarre ex-wife; Kalim Siddiqui, a British Islamist whom Rushdie describes as a "malevolent garden gnome"; and John le Carre, the famous spy novelist who provoked him to some nasty, British-style verbal fisticuffs.
Another interesting impulse at work in Rushdie's memoir is the desire to confess, not just to his "conversion" to Islam on Christmas Eve of 1990—a sad attempt to placate British Islamists like Siddiqui—but also to his repeated failures as a husband and father. Those curious about Rushdie's multiple marriages and love affairs will find the sordid details here. The question is, to whom does an atheist confess? In Rushdie's case, he confesses his sins—even his bondage to Mr. Nicotine—to the Great and Powerful Public. Whether the Public will absolve him after reading his memoir is, however, doubtful. Only God has that much forbearance.
Mark Walhout teaches English at Seattle Pacific University.
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