Salman Rushdie has in some ways, become something more than a novelist. Khomeini’s fatwa ensured that. History will judge him not just for the overblown, over-rich, over-everything style of writing he brought into being, but also for being the polarising Galileo figure of the last few decades of the twentieth century.
I am a fan and I read Joseph Anton as one. Even if I could never finish his Satanic Verses, the book at the heart of all the controversy, having lost interest in it midway, I loved some of his others – Midnight’s Children, The Enchantress of Florence, Haroun, Fury. I suppose it makes a difference. I can forgive almost anything of anyone, if he or she can tell me a good story. Rushdie can most certainly do that.
Joseph Anton is the name Rushdie went by in his years of hiding – a coming together of the names of two writers he admired – Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. And this is an engrossing memoir, written surprisingly in third person, of all those years of dodging a bullet or a knife, a story told only the way Rushdie can –no holds barred, candid, humourous at times, starkly cruel at others. There is name-dropping of the highest degree – Thatcher, Blair, McEwan, Pinter, Hitchens, Clinton, Styron, Pynchon, Roy, Le Carre among others. There is intensely personal stuff – his four marriages and their coming apart, his love-hate relationships with his father and sisters, his love for his children and his fear for them, his own cowardice at times of great fear and stress. And then there is his sense of himself as standing for something more than himself, standing for a principle, representing the good fight, the fight against tyranny and fundamentalism, the fight for human heterogeneity and multiple identities, and the right to tell stories any way we want.
Rushdie makes that fight the base storyline that runs through the book. And anyone who stands on the other side of the line- Le Carre, Cat Stevens, The Telegraph, the British Government - come in for contempt and criticism. And that is as it should be. For Rushdie, as a story teller, there is nothing more fearsome than attempts to block the wellspring from which the stories spring – the myths of our race, the ability to see reality through different perspectives, the flexibility to twist our stories into whatever shape that is most interesting. Any religion’s or any ideology’s wont to suppress this is what he believes the world of art should fight against. Some people see this as another example of a rigid ideology too – an inability to see the side of people with faith, who believe in the absolutism of the One True God. And there have been not-so-flattering reviews of the book in this light.
But it is a good fight that Rushdie fights. There can be no two ways about it, in my book. The moment we agree to let someone else censor our words, we let ourselves create an Orwellian world. Joseph Anton should be read if only to keep that fight alive.
But there are other reasons to read it too. Prurience, for example. Salman Rushdie writes of his encounter with William Styron – “His main memory of that trip would be of William Styrons genitalia. Elizabeth and he visited the Styrons at their Vineyard Haven home and there on the porch was the great writer in khakhi shorts, sitting with his legs splayed and wearing no pants, his treasures generously and fully on display. This was more than he had ever hoped to know about the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, but all information was useful, he supposed, and he duly filed it away for later use.” Or the insight it gives into the writer’s craft – “”You must never write history,” Hibbert said, “until you can hear the people speak.” He thought about that for years, and in the end it came to feel like a valuable guiding principle for fiction as well. If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t – you shouldn’t – tell their story.” Or prurience again, the instinct for gossip all of us carry in our hearts. Here is Rushdie talking of Padma Lakshmi, his fourth wife “…and as he watched her pose and pirouette for the human wall of screaming photographers, burning with the bright flame of her youth and beauty, he looked at the expression on her face and suddenly thought, She’s having sex, sex with hundreds of men at the same time, and they don’t even get to touch her, there’s no way any actual man can compete with that.”
But beyond it all – the gossip, the encounters with famous people, the flaws in his own personality - Joseph Anton needs to be read for the passionate defence of free speech that it truly is. “Compromise destroyed the compromiser and did not placate the uncompromising foe… The greatest danger of the growing menace was that good men would commit intellectual suicide and call it peace. Good men would give in to fear and call it respect.” It is a thought worth remembering, especially for us liberal sorts, who can be quite apologetic about individual responsibility in the face of religion and the rage against America.
Joseph Anton is more than a memoir of a famous man.