Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

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Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Rushdie's memoir of the fatwa years is a must read for anyone who cares about literature and/or free speech. A fascinating insight on his life in hiding and his battle to regain his freedom. Compelling both for the issues and the portrayal of a flawed man. It's a story that is not as clear cut as it first seems.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 656 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 9780224093972

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Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Biography Award 2013

Salman Rushdie's memoir of, predominantly, the fatwa years is completely gripping - albeit not necessarily in the way the author intended I suspect. For any lover of literature it's a fascinating insight into the man. People write memoirs largely to put their side of the story. Rushdie is of course supremely intelligent and a gifted wordsmith and yet while aspects of the story remain shocking and induce both anger and incredulity that the situation was allowed to go as far as it did and for so long, it's probably not a book that will change your views of Rushdie the man, not least as he displays many of the traits that the press ascribed to him. Oh why do our heroes always have to be so imperfect?

Usually people referring to themselves in the third person is guaranteed to irritate me, although here the story is told entirely in the third person. The title Joseph Anton is the name he chose when asked to provide a pseudonym for the security services. As a result the book reads as much more like a novel and it works well.

To try to impose some structure on this review of what is a lengthy tome, let's look at three key elements: the 'crime', the 'punishment' and the 'perpetrator'.

He fails to address any intent or otherwise in the apparently inflammatory content of The Satanic Verses. If you have read the book in question, you'll know that the allegedly offending content is minimal to the overall book's structure. It's not much more than a dream sequence. Certainly it would be hard to argue that the book as a whole is an attack on Islam. And yet of course, this is exactly what happened. Did he know what sort of reaction this might evoke? Perhaps as that oxymoronic thing, a secular Muslim, he ought to have done but we never really get to the bottom of this. He even complains later in the book when the media continue to ask the questions about intent. Yes, that's because you never answered the question. Once accused, he goes straight into Voltaire mode to defend his right to say it.

The sense I got from reading it is that he was as surprised as anyone by the reaction, and his point that if a work of literary fiction such as The Satanic Verses is deemed that threatening to a major religion, then it has fundamental problems is well made. In my memory, it was Ayatollah Khomeini who started the problem with the fatwa but here he explains that there were Islamic protests before that. Khomeini admitted to not having read the book and it's hard to imagine that any of the protesters really had either. If he isn't going to address motive or otherwise in this lengthy memoir then I guess we'll never know.

In the 'punishment' content of the book, Rushdie is at his eloquent best. It's clear that to a great extent he was a victim of political posturing. Khomeini himself was probably using it as a political cause, but more difficult to reconcile is the lack of support from the British government to state sponsored terrorism who were probably slow to respond for fear of derailing hostage negotiations over the likes of Terry Waite. There's something of a James Bond fascination to learn about the inner working of the security 'prot' team who mostly come over as the good guys in all of this. While you could argue that the freedom of expression arguments are not difficult to make, Rushdie makes them powerfully and given his situation, movingly. There are also superb moments of typically Rushdie-esque black humour such as his first trip to the US during the fatwa period.

What makes the book so compelling though are the sometimes jaw dropping revelations about Rushdie the man. Rushdie repeatedly laments that his image remains unsympathetic certainly amongst the British press (who he terms The Daily Insult), and often expresses frustration that he just wants to be loved. In fairness, there's probably much of the migrant's wish to be accepted as much as loved. And this is at the heart of things: whatever you think of Rushdie's work or indeed Rushdie the man, to Western eyes the Iranian fatwa was wholly unacceptable. The British like nothing better than an underdog, and yet despite both these things, public sympathy for his plight has been surprisingly antagonistic. You'd expect his memoir to alter this view. This remember is a man who once worked in advertising. It doesn't.

He cites many good friends who indeed go to extraordinary lengths to help him out but there's a difference between how those who know him respond to him and those who don't. He attributes much of his lack of sympathetic image to the press, both the tabloids and the Independent who seem to have it in for him. And yet, he displays many of the characteristics that probably belie this image. He can be arrogant, he can be extremely hypocritical and is quite spiteful to anyone who crosses his path. He also comes over as extremely sensitive to criticism but is quick to hand it out. To illustrate this, at one point he reviews books, gets shocked that writers who are his friends object to his analysis of their books, and swears off doing any further reviews. A few pages later, he's back reviewing again.

The reader can always tell who is going to be on his side because they are always, always introduced with the adjectivally limited term 'great'. This lack of descriptive range is surprising for a man of Rushdie's descriptive powers and gets, frankly unintentionally comic. He comes over as something of a literary luvee. This might be due to the sad restrictions placed on his movements by the fatwa, but probably not.

And then we come to his relationships with women. At the start of the fatwa, he had only one ex-wife. By the end of the book, he had increased this to four, at least two of which are presented as madly dysfunctional. It's hard to believe the fault is all on one side though and to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to marry one bonkers person is unfortunate, two looks like carelessness. Consider for example that his first contact with what was to become his third wife was on the telephone discussing watering a parrot, on the basis of which he went out and bought three bottles of wine for their first face to face encounter. That's not normal.

These then are the conundrums of Rushdie: a man whose fiction is about inclusion and cultural integration has his creative and personal life disrupted by cultural conflict; and a man who has a supreme understanding of personality in his fiction can be so divisive in his own interactions in ways he does not recognize. That aspects of his character are flawed seems clear, but of course that doesn't make any of the things that happened to him any more just. They do though make for a gripping memoir.

Our huge thanks to the kind people at Jonathan Cape for sending us this book.

Midnight's Children remains one of my favourite books of all time.

Buy Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie at

Buy Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie at


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