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World’s Most (In)Famous Writer Tells All

This is what most of us know and many of us remember:  On Valentine’s day in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed the fatwa, sentenced Salman Rushie to death by accusing the author of The Satanic Verses of being “against Islam, the Prophet and the Qur’an,” specifically of vilifying the Prophet himself by making him and his wives characters in a novel and by asking Muslims everywhere to execute him wherever he could be found.  Salman Rushdie became the most famous writer in the world, someone who was immediately swept into police security, someone who would live with various forms of that protection for the next thirteen years.  Joseph Anton: A Memoir is an account of that time, a summing up of what it was like to live without freedom of mobility, without dignity or self, but above all to live with fear for more than a dozen years.

Before all this in Joseph Anton, Rushdie chronicles his childhood, in Bombay, prep school and university (Cambridge), his struggles as a writer for more than a dozen years mostly writing advertising in England, his first marriage to a woman named Clarissa and—finally—his seven “good years, more than many writers are granted.”  Those were the years of his highly successful and celebrated novels: Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983).  Then came The Satanic Verses, published in the United Kingdom, September 26th, 1988.  Quickly, on October 6th, the novel was banned in India, copies were burned, there were riots in the country; and, then, February 14, 1989, the assumed kiss of death from the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had not read the novel (as had few rioters), a dying man, who had recently lost a million Iranians in a futile war with Iraq and, as his swan’s song, needed something to rally his followers.

Salman Rushdie became his choice.  The fatwa forced the writer to hide, “to be stripped of all self-respect,” to feel “a sense of deep shame.”  Along with his second wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, he fled to a cottage in Wales.  Within days, it was obvious that the hiding would not be brief; the security forces protecting him needed a pseudonym, and Rushdie picked “Joseph Anton,” collapsed from two writers he loved:  Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. Too often—to his chagrin—in the ensuing years, his protectors called him “Joe,” something I mention because there is little levity in Rushdie’s memoir.

There were riots in numerous countries, including in England at bookstores and libraries.  Rushdie was denounced by supposedly sane men, often accused of intentionally writing a novel that attacked Islam.  He and Marianne moved from house to house, surrounded by bodyguards.  Rushdie’s nine-year-old son, Zafar, who lived with his mother Clarissa, presented enormous challenges.  How could Rushdie see him?  Marianne left Rushdie, then returned, then left again and again.  Eventually, that marriage broke up because of a young woman, Elizabeth, who would become the writer’s third wife.

The British government harped about the expense involved in protecting the writer, who throughout all the years of that security was expected to pay for the premises (hotels, apartments, houses) wherever he stayed, though numerous friends often provided Rushdie and his lover or wife places to stay.  Publishers and translators of The Satanic Verses were attacked (some were murdered), but somehow Rushdie continued to write (with intermittent writing blocks). Intermediaries proposed that the writer should recant, say that he was sorry and that he was returning to the fold—the fold being Islam.  As soon as he offered what some of us remember as an astonishing apology, he
regretted that decision. Yet, after two years, there were incremental changes in his life, i.e., his daily routine.  And he survived because of good friends, many of them other writers (Harold Pinter, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Bill Buford, and his agent Andrew Wylie to mention only a few).

In his own words—in the third person which is used throughout the memoir—“If he ever lived to tell the tale, he thought, what a tale of loving friendship it would be.  Without his friends he would have been locked up on an army base, incommunicado, forgotten, spiraling downward into madness; or else a homeless wanderer, waiting for the assassin’s bullet to find him.”  The risks kept changing as the bounty on his head was  increased, as hit squads were thought to have entered the country to murder him, as the British press continued to condemn him as being self-centered, ungrateful about everything that had been done to keep him alive.

Several trips to the United States and one to Scandinavia provided him with glimpses of freedom, of what it was like not to be protected 24/7.  There were especially positive responses to his situation from American senators and President Clinton, which helped turn the British government away from its negativism about him.  Personal matters continued to be in a state of flux.  Clarissa, who was raising Zafar, discovered she had breast cancer and later died. Elizabeth wanted a child, in part to cement her relationship with Rushdie.  As the years would pass, Zafar had his own difficulties as a rebellious teenager.  And Rushdie continued his notorious womanizing, leading in time to the end of his third marriage (this time, because of an Indian woman, named Padma, who eventually became his fourth wife).

After seven years, Rushdie gave a public reading for the first time in the United Kingdom.  Most summers he and his latest wife or lover spent in the United States.  The Indian government remained negative about him: he was not permitted entry into the country; a movie version of Midnight’s Children could not be filmed in the country (so it was filmed in Sri Lanka).  Rushdie mourned the passing of so many other writers he had been friends with—too many from cancer.  It wasn’t until 1998 that he was given permission to visit India.  After years of negotiations between Iran and the British government, the Iranians declared that the death threat from the government was over (though the fatwa would remain in force, meaning that others were free to kill him).

What did he learn besides who his true friends were?

“The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings….  Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolutionary theory, sex….  The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing.  In his worldview, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences.”

And, more eloquently about literature itself: “This is what literature knew, had always known.  Literature tried to open up the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be.  Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before.  Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever-narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing.  Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them.  Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.  There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back.  And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their lives.”

Joseph Anton is a long book but not nearly as interminable as the fatwa must have been for Rushdie during its darkest days.  There are passages, especially late in his memoir, where the lists of friends and literary events become overwhelming.  Too often, Rushdie’s four wives get beaten up in his accounts of them, especially Marianne Wiggins, the American novelist and his second wife, who was living with him at the time of the initial chaos after the Ayatollah’s decree.  To my mind, in recent years, Wiggins has published far more significant novels (especially Evidence of Things Unseen and The Shadow Catcher) than he. In contrast to the women, Rushdie’s love for Zahar (and a second son born to Elizabeth) demonstrate what is missing from the relationships with his wives, but that statement ignores the strains that would threaten the most solid of marriages from something as frightful as the fear all of them lived through during these terrible times.  That said, Joseph Anton is the book no writer should ever have to write, a story of crawling through hell but living to reflect on the ordeal.

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Knopf, 636 pp., $30

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.   

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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