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.”
Rushdie writes that even his real name was an invention, chosen by his father in homage to Ibn Rushd, the 12th-century Islamic philosopher whose rediscovery of Aristotle was an important influence on the Renaissance. Ibn Rushd is a reminder that Islam is not innately obscurantist, that its traditions of free and enlightened inquiry stretch back at least as far as Khomeini’s fanaticism. Rushdie may have been naive to think that he could engage with Islam as a friendly unbeliever. But his view of Islam was actually far more benign and hopeful than that of his would-be killers.
This, indeed, is the irony of the whole affair. No indifferent atheist could have written The Satanic Verses. It is an Islamic book in the same sense that Ulysses is a Catholic book. Rushdie’s mistakes, if such they are, were actually rather flattering to Islamic culture. He believed that Muslims would be capable of understanding the nature of fiction (the whole campaign against him was based on the insistence that views expressed by his characters, even when those characters are obviously obnoxious, are the author’s), and he believed that the liberal, open, questing traditions of Islam were still strong enough to support a book that sought a place within them.
These are hardly great sins. And, in any event, the attacks on the book were motivated by politics, not by wounded religious sensibilities. Rushdie simply had the bad luck to come along at a time when reactionary forces were looking for a cause with which they could establish a narrow, hysterical, neofascistic version of Islam as the only authentic expression of the faith. This happened first in India (it is often forgotten that India was the first country to ban The Satanic Verses), which in turn brought the book to the attention of the clerical regime in Iran, then under pressure because of the end of the disastrous war with Iraq.
The fatwa, then, was not just a religious edict. Nor was it simply a threat to an individual. As Rushdie reminds his readers, Khomeini was “a head of state ordering the murder of the citizen of another state over whom he had no jurisdiction”. This was significant in the history of literary and intellectual freedom. Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, writers could flee persecution. Voltaire could be safe in Switzerland or Brecht in California. Rushdie could be safe nowhere. But the fatwa was also an open act of international terrorism – a flagrant declaration by one state that it would seek to murder a noncombatant beyond its own borders.
Some people stood up to these threats and some didn’t. (There are some Irish heroes in the tale. One is Carmel Bedford, who acted as secretary of the International Rushdie Defence Committee; others are the anonymous builders who, Rushdie was told, slipped a copy of his book into the foundations of a big new mosque in Birmingham.) Writers as diverse as Roald Dahl and John Berger suggested that the fatwa was all essentially Rushdie’s fault. Some Labour politicians behaved abysmally. Rushdie notes of the egregious Keith Vaz that he called him on the day of the fatwa to offer his “full support”, then, when he sensed the direction of the wind, addressed an anti-Rushdie rally that he described as “one of the great days in the history of Islam and Great Britain”.
Such behaviour might justify self-pity, but Rushdie is a good enough writer to know that if that was all he had to offer, he’d have been better writing a country-and-western song. Instead the book shows him, as he puts it at one point, “in many moods, depressed, belligerent, judicious, self-pitying, controlled, weak, strong, petty and determined”. He is brilliant on the break-up of his marriage to Marianne Wiggins, hastened but not caused by the fatwa. His relationship with his young son Zafar – close, troubled, guilt-racked and fiercely protective – is the human touchstone of all the momentous action.
Above all, the book’s theme is the absurd distance between his day-to-day experience – the banal and humiliating business of having to live in the shadows – and the epic conflict that surrounds him. The style – sometimes gossipy, sometimes reflective – mirrors this divide. The juicy titbits and score-settling stop the reflections from becoming too portentous; the essential seriousness of the story keeps authorial self-obsession at bay.
And, no, of course, the ordeal is not worth the book. The whole affair was a disaster – for Rushdie, for those who were killed in riots and assassinations, for a rich Islamic culture that fell into a stereotype of hysterical intolerance, for the citizens of cruel regimes that used hatred of the satanic Rushdie to shore up their own power. The one good thing that came out of it is that Rushdie is still alive. Joseph Anton proves it.
Fintan O’Toole is Literary Editor