Sympathy for the devil
MEMOIR:Salman Rushdie has salvaged a brilliant book from the lost years he spent in hiding from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa
Joseph Anton By Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, 636pp. £25
WRITERS ARE ORDINARY people who, like the rest of us, wish to avoid suffering. But suppose a Mephistopheles were to visit a writer in his study and offer a deal. You will suffer a terrible ordeal, but neither you nor your family will, in the end, be harmed. In return, you will get to write a cracking book. Few writers would not give the proposition some thought.
For Salman Rushdie, of course, there was no deal. When, in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, effective ruler of Iran, issued a fatwa urging Muslims to kill him for blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses, he did not have the option of refusing what turned out to be a decade-long tribulation. But it may be some small recompense that he has at least salvaged a gripping, elegant memoir from the experience. He has managed, in Joseph Anton (the name he adopted after, as Martin Amis put, he “vanished into the front page”), to refine out much of the raw hurt and outrage of his time of trial while retaining a sense of the urgency both of what happened to him and of what it means for the wider world.
The title is telling: Joseph Anton both was and was not Rushdie, and the memoir, while undoubtedly concerned to set down the facts as clearly as possible, is written in the third person – the author is always “he”. This turns out to be a good decision: experience is kept at a novelistic distance; the sense of victimhood (fully justified but likely to pall over 600 pages) is limited. And, conversely, Rushdie is able to write with remarkable frankness about highly intimate things, from his father’s drunken rages to his fractious relationships with his wives.
Rushdie’s father was a nonbeliever who, at the same time, was so steeped in Islam that he convinced himself that he could rearrange the verses of the Koran into their “correct” order. The son did not fall far from the paternal tree. He describes himself as “his father’s son, godless, but fascinated by gods and prophets. He was also a product, at least in part, of the deep-rooted Muslim culture of south Asia, the inheritor of the artistic, literary and architectural riches of the Mughals and their predecessors.”