On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Salman Rushdie was handed a death sentence: the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, claiming that Rushdie’s then-recent release, The Satanic Verses, was blasphemy against Islam. As such, Khomeini demanded that Rushdie — and anyone else involved in the publication of the book — be killed. He was advised by authorities to lie low for a few days until the whole thing blew over. What he could not have possibly have known at the time was that he would have to “lie low” for nearly a decade, moving from place to place in secrecy protected by teams of armed officers.
More than twenty years have passed since that fateful Valentine’s Day and over a decade has passed since Rushdie regained his freedom, but aside from interviews and a few published essays, Joseph Anton is the most complete narrative Rushdie has given of his experiences. Titled after the Rushdie’s alias from his days in hiding — Joseph for Joseph Conrad, Anton for Anton Chekhov…he wasn’t allowed anything “too Asian” — the memoir begins with the day the fatwa was issued, jumps back in time to when Rushdie left his family in India to go to school in the UK, then works its way forward as he becomes a literary darling with Midnight’s Children. The release of The Satanic Verses should have brought more of the same; it had generally been well received and Rushdie had been planning a book tour when the fatwa was issued.
Instead, of course, his life was thrown into disarray. One of the things I liked most about the book was its sense of displacement. Rushdie’s experiences as an immigrant play a large part of this: he was sent away to school when he was still relatively young, and being perceived as an Other played a big role as he matured. Once the fatwa was issued, he had to leave his home because it wasn’t safe, but it would be years before he was allowed to settle again. Simple things like seeing his son (from his first marriage) became a battle since they always had to rendezvous in secret. With his second marriage rapidly crumbling, he was alone. To make matters worse, he was banned from India because of the fatwa, and it would be years before he was allowed to return to the country of his birth.
Coincidentally, The Satanic Verses is the only other Rushdie book I’ve read. One thing I do remember from that experience is how Rushdie liked to go on long-winded — beautifully written, but long-winded — tangents. Joseph Anton was no different. Coming in at over 600 pages, the book is a behemoth that took me almost three weeks to read. It probably could have been edited down a little more, but it was never boring. Quite the contrary: I couldn’t put the book down at certain points. I’m not gonna lie: some of the problems other reviewers have had with the book — the lengthy diatribes based on petty grudges, the self-righteousness, the gossip (ohhh, the gossip) — comprised some of my favorite parts. (Though I’ll be the first to admit that Zoë Heller’s recent snark fest in The New York Review of Books — “If he hadn’t been out there, frugging with Padma at Moomba, the terrorists would have won, you see.” — was kind of awesome. And another thing: writing a 600+ page memoir in third person? Weird.)
But overall, I loved this memoir. It’s imperfect, and I do think Rushdie went easy on himself regarding his many flaws, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at the culture and political climate of that period, especially in regards to freedom of speech.
Joseph Anton was released on September 18, 2012 by Random House. These were some of my favorite passages.