Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton”
Voltaire is supposed to have seen wisdom in a writer living near an international frontier. Salman Rushdie notes that where once a writer may have found safety in leaving the land in which trouble was brewing, safety is less guaranteed today. Now they come after you.
I was gifted with Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton” over the holidays and thoroughly enjoyed the memoir. This was no surprise to me as the author is one whose skill I greatly admire. The book opens, on Valentine’s Day, with the author learning that the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini has sentenced him — a citizen of another country living in that other country — to death.
‘How does it feel,’ she asked him, ‘to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?’ It was a sunny Tuesday in London but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: ‘It doesn’t feel good.’ This is what he thought: ‘I’m a dead man.’
Rushdie is the author of twelve pieces of fiction (of which the enjoyment of at least two might be shared with younger readers), several anthologies, plays, pieces of non-fiction, and one screenplay. It was as the author of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, that Rushdie was sentenced to death by the Ayatollah and in conversation since there have been some (usually without the benefit of having read Rushdie) who cite mockery of Islam in The Satanic Verses. I have read The Satanic Verses (and a not insignificant amount of Rushdie’s larger body of work). In my opinion, the non-believer Rushdie engages in a thought-provoking manner with the phenomenon of revelation and I would be interested in conversing with he or she who has read The Satanic Verses and left it with the impression that Islam has been mocked.
Joseph Anton travels through Rushdie’s childhood, maturation and life prior to his literary career, but the memoir is essentially the story of his time in hiding. The reader follows Joseph Anton, a pseudonym used for the Rushdie in hiding, for the thirteen years of his life under protection and in many ways this memoir reads as a response to ways in which Rushdie has been criticized through the years. Some of those criticisms continue to surface. Baroness Shirley Williams, several years ago, described the knighting of Rushdie as neither “wise” nor “clever,” as Rushdie had “deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way” and as he had “been protected by British police against threats for years and years at great expense to the taxpayer.” Fellow panelist Christopher Hitchens, recognizing the implication of the Baroness, questioned just how wasteful it really was to defend free expression from the murderous. I am inclined to agree with him.