“Art was strong, artists less so. Art could, perhaps, take care of itself. Artists needed defenders. He had been defended by his fellow artists when he needed it. He would try to do the same for others in need from now on, others who pushed boundaries, transgressed, and, yes, blasphemed; all those artists who did not allow men of power or the cloth to draw lines in the sand and order them not to cross.”
“When life was a series of crises and emergency solutions, it was normality that felt like a luxury—infinitely desirable, yet unobtainable.”
On Valentine’s Day 1989, British Indian author Salman Rushdie received not a valentine or a love letter, but a death sentence in the form of a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini because his novel, The Satanic Verse (1988), had been deemed blasphemous by the Iranian theocracy. What followed was a decade under the protection of British special police, moving from house to house in armoured cars in constant fear of his life. The author Salman Rushdie disappeared into the persona of Joseph Anton, the alias he was forced to assume even in his own home. A combination of the names of Anton Chekov and Joseph Conrad seems appropriate, as Rusdhie takes us into his own personal heart of darkness. In the outside world, Salman Rushdie the author also disappeared, as the press constructed alternate images of a blasphemous infidel and cultural traitor or a brave hero struggling against censorship. Joseph Anton chronicles Rushdie’s struggle to hold on to his identity as a writer, even while his daily life was being consumed by the details of living under protection, fighting with the British government for assistance in having the fatwa lifted, and coping with his crumbling personal life.
The fatwa threatened to steal Rushdie’s voice, both as a writer and as his own defender. As a novelist, he struggled to continue writing when his hours were absorbed with the search for his next safe house, or struggling to arrange his next visit with his young son. Both he and his book were banned from his native India, the source of much of his inspiration. He feared that writing about India when he could not travel there would cause the setting to ring false. In terms of his self-defence, Rushdie was advised by many to keep silent, since his “unrepentant” attitude towards his novel was perceived as aggravating the situation. However, as chronicled in the pages of Joseph Anton, Rushdie came almost uniformly to regret those decisions which erred on the side of silence or compromise. Joseph Anton is unabashedly honest, even in the places where it reveals Rushdie’s darkest moments from blackest rage to morbid humour. If Rushdie is sure that he was right, he is equally certain that he was not always good during these years. After so many years of silence and repressing his opinions, they flood out here in full force. Some are vitriolic and uncharitable, but perhaps needed to be said.
As discussed in The Storytelling Animal, humans have a strong tendency to impose narrative order on our lives through storytelling. Rushdie performs this act quite deftly, demonstrating the split between Salman Rushdie and Joseph Anton by writing his memoir in the third person, in effect novelizing his life. Joseph Anton is a vast document, chronicling Rushdie’s early life in India, his British education, and his rise as a novelist, in addition to the years living under the fatwa. In size and scope, it is similar to many of his novels, broad and brimming with detail. The fatwa dragged on for many years, and it weighs, not inappropriately, on the narrative momentum as the days and years slip into one another. Real lives are messy and do not easily fit into the forms we prescribe for fiction. From a remove of twenty-plus years, Rushdie is also able to contextualize the events that followed the fatwa into the larger political and cultural conflicts that followed, noting that “the wars of ideology and culture were moving to the center of the stage. And his novel, unfortunately for him, would become a battlefield.”
What Joseph Anton decidedly is not is story of espionage. Although the security precautions and risk assessments—in the early years of the fatwa Rushdie fell only one level below the queen herself—necessarily play a part in the story, they are not as central as those outside the protection might expect. Rushdie notes that while the memories of his friends during that time were all of police officers and safety measures, the moments he clung to were the few bits of normalcy he was able to glean. Joseph Anton is a darkly affecting chronicle of a man who chose to be a father and writer, but who was also cast into the roles of villain, heretic and free speech advocate.