Tidewater Review - December 2012

Joseph Anton - A Memoir by Salman Rushdie
reviewed by
Anne Stinson

Joseph Anton, A Memoir by Salman Rushdie. Random House. 633 pages. $30.

Salman Rushdie, the India-born British citizen who enraged the Islamic world with his 1998 book, The Satanic Verses, has produced this latest best-seller. It is a memoir of his life during the nearly 13 years of protection from assassination. Rushdie had committed the unforgivable sin of criticizing branches of the Islamic religion in which fanaticism and total control ruled its adherents. One of the fictitious characters in the Verses had a remarkable likeness to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Ayatollah was unhappy. In fact, he was enraged. He announced that the author and all those involved in producing the book were sentenced to death. “I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them,” he ordered. In brief, before long, nearly the whole world was familiar with the word “fatwa,” generally known as an Islamic death sentence.
Thus began Rushdie’s long period as a marked man, alive only thanks to the skill of English law protection teams. Rushdie was asked to suggest an alias to keep his identity secret, thus the creation of Joseph Anton, the first names of two writers whose work he loved, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.
Henceforth, he was “Joe” to his guardians, the armed policemen who slept on the first floor of his houses, as well as the two drivers assigned to take him to all approved appointments and meetings. Every step outside of his current safe house had to be vetted in advance by a battery of officers responsible for his safety. Permission often included frequent briefings at the Home Office, Foreign Affairs specialists, the myriad ladders of Intelligence spooks, bigwigs in Parliament, the Tory Prime Minister and later, as the years stretched on and on, Labour’s man at Downing Street.
Most of the time Rushdie was very grateful for his protectors, but it became grating to have to get permission for every movement outside of the “safe” house. Often his requests for a bit more breathing room were stymied with the brief response, “Sorry. We can’t allow that.”
As the covert years added up, Rushdie’s frustration erupted as his guardians cautiously ruled his captivity. Several times, they confided when a crisis was over that intelligence from their allies confirmed their own evidence that likely assassin squads were on the move. Relaxation was a luxury that neither the hunted nor his protectors could afford.
Rushdie continued to write books as time crept by. His oeuvre grew, although finding publishers who would handle his books was difficult. The warning of the fatwa was quite specific. It included anyone associated with publication of his work. Ettore Capriolo, the translator of the Italian edition of Verses was attacked with a knife and nearly died. A worse fate befell the Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi. He was stabbed repeatedly and died of his wounds. Next in line was William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher who barely survived two bullets into his head and one through his chest.
As if the stress was not keen enough as his third year of hiding loomed, his marriage with wife number two was crumbling and headed for divorce. Unfortunately, his soon-to-be-ex was doing her best to injure him with interviews and frequent quotes that made the newspapers. She attacked him at every opportunity, She described him in various unattractive words - untruthful, egotistic, selfish, unreliable, self-centered, arrogant and conceited, etc. etc. The Salman Rushdie Defense Organization, she said, was supposed to be about freedom of speech and tolerance, but it was really all about his self-aggrandizement.
After furtively moving from place to place - dark apartments, short stays in friends’ houses or basements or wherever he could find a haven approved by British Security - he was permitted to buy a house that met their specific requirements and was as inconspicuous as possible. “And tone down trying to keep the free press in your news,” he was lectured.
The British public was tired of his problems and was beginning to seriously resent the cost of keeping Rushdie shielded from harm. One of the complainers was Charles, Prince of Wales. In response to the public grumble about the price to the British exchequer, a supporter of the author retorted that the bill was nothing compared to the cost of keeping the prince and he couldn’t even write.
After wading bravely through the first 300 pages of this tome, the reader notes that the author’s writing style lightens and becomes amusing, even gossipy at times. Security is emphatic as before, but the routine becomes more smooth at the inconspicuous new house. No one seems to wonder about the new neighbor behind the tall hedge and pretty garden, with the friendly looking lady who is sometimes seen trimming the flowers. Elizabeth, wife number three, is kept absent from pictures of her husband, so she can safely go shopping, or to lunch with a woman friend, without being connected with that awful man who’s such a nuisance.
And Rushdie’s continuous output of new books over the following years in hidden “exile” continues to bring more literary prizes and awards. As always, the threats to publishers in the Ayatollah’s fatwa frightened all but the bravest.
Rushdie is invited to prestigious conventions in the United States and all over Europe and manages to get permission to attend many of them. He and Elizabeth are permitted to attend parties or dinners at the homes of old friends, occasionally dining out at restaurants and to the theater, always accompanied by discreet security teams.
The trips abroad to be present to accept the medal on a silk ribbon or a decorative statuette were welcome breathers from constant danger, although his attendance had to be secret until the last minute lest the assassins were tipped off.
Another awkward problem in planning his trips was the refusal of many airlines to allow Rushdie to fly in their planes. Having so familiar a target aboard was a deterrence to other passengers’ safety, they argued.
Restrictions and stumbling blocks were tiresome, but the memoir is also a calendar of pleasant living, in spite of the possibility of sudden death. Rushdie is an unabashed name-dropper. He has remarkable access to a wide range of friends and their glamorous entertainment in elegant country houses or London apartments.
The theater is not ignored, neither are the top restaurants and catered parties. Rushdie seems to love listing the guest lists with familiar names - Harold Pinter, Bono, U2, Christiane Amanpour, Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, Gunter Glass, etc, etc,.etc. The maddening habit of later referring to the celebrities by their first names only, assuming that the reader is just as chummy with them as the author, is a bit much.
On the other hand, Rushdie has a loving side that he illustrates as the years of captivity roll on. His affection for his first wife and adoration for the son from that marriage are touching. His effort to paint the second wife as less than a shrew is fruitless. The third wife is praised and admired for her comfort and unfailing love during the long years of hiding. They married after the birth of his second son, only to be divorced over how to spend his pending freedom. She wanted more children and a quiet life in England. His keen desire is to move to the United States where he has basked in open freedom unlike any he has experienced in England. It was an insoluble dilemma.
At the book’s end, Rushdie is settled in New York, flitting back and forth to Los Angeles, writing novels and screenplays, and married again, this time to a glamorous, incredibly beautiful young actress who was born in India. It was destined to be a disaster. It was.
This book with the misleading title (Joseph Anton?) is long. Very, very long. Six hundred plus pages of drama, frustration and high spirits. If the reader hangs in past the halfway mark, Rushdie’s intellectual gifts shine alongside his loosened humor. He’s slightly wicked and slyly funny. It’s like visiting Confucius sneaking off and on a whoopee cushion.
And remember the words that grated in his ears, ”Sorry. We can’t allow it.” That was the frustration he felt all the nearly 13 years he was, as he called it, “in a cage.”
Now he’s allowed to howl with joy. He’s earned it.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.