The saddest thing about most readers in India picking up Salman Rushdie’s 631-page memoir is how a majority will have access to just half the picture he has so meticulously put together. They will, for reasons known only to the government of India, have no way of gauging just why The Satanic Verses compelled the author to exchange his life of relative normality for one of subterfuge and exile.
They will also, on account of never having been in the kind of position he has been in for decades, fail to acknowledge his act of bravery during the first interview given in the aftermath of the fatwa. It was, ironically enough, on Valentine’s Day, 1989. “I wish I’d written a more critical book,” he said on air. Irrespective of what happened later - his backtracking and shambolic apology, which he describes in these pages - it is his eventual (and continual) defiance that makes Rushdie so compelling, and polarising, a writer.
The title comes from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, two of Rushdie’s favourite writers used to create the alias during his years in hiding. He begins at the moment Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, sentenced him to death for perceived insults to Islam. Writing in the third person, Rushdie makes it easier for himself to speak from a distance, as it were, taking on the persona of an unidentified and uninvolved person merely reduced to conveying a story. That the story itself is so unique, so unprecedented in our time, is what gives the narrative its power.
In the ancient Greek world, exile was seen as a fate worse than death. To this critic’s mind, the only writer comparable to Rushdie in stature who was forced into exile was the French novelist Victor Hugo, who ran afoul of Napoleon III. Interestingly, his life in exile prompted some of his best work, including Les Misérables. Rushdie admittedly didn’t reach quite those dizzying heights with The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) or The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), but did eventually win the Booker of Bookers Prize for Midnight’s Children and was knighted for services to literature in 2007.
For long-time fans of his work, Joseph Anton offers plenty of anecdotes starring famous writers, musicians, intellectuals, former wives, supporters and detractors. There are intriguing comments about India’s role in his life, as well as gratuitous name-dropping that doesn’t annoy simply because he is such a consummate storyteller. It speaks of a time before 9/11, when fundamentalism wasn’t taken as seriously as it is today. There are also moments that shock, details that illuminate and a passionate plea for tolerance that demands to be heard today more than ever.
Earlier this week, the Khordad Foundation added $500,000 to a bounty that now totals $3.3 million, on Rushdie’s life. This was done in response to a film made in America that has incited acts of violence across the Muslim world. Intolerance is a crime. We need more people like Rushdie to bear witness.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Salman Rushdie, Random House, R799. Available at leading bookstores.