In 1989 I worked in a chain bookstore situated in a strip mall in La
Jolla, California. The only Salman Rushdie I had read was something
a fantastical flibbertigibbet of a book. It was disappointing. Having
heard good things I had more recently considered picking up Midnight’s Children but the lingering stink of Grimus
had dissuaded me and anyway who cares about the Booker prize? It would
be years before I corrected this mistake but once I did I quickly went
on to read and enjoy many of Rushdie’s other novels. I am now a fan.
But back to 1989. In February word came to us from on corporate high regarding the special handling of Rushdie’s new book, The Satanic Verses. We were told to merchandise the book towards the back of the store, given directions on how to handle odd phone queries and told to report anything suspicious; pretty much a perfect recipe for paranoia. All because of something called a fatwa. This was a word I had never heard before.
And of course speculation ran wild. We scanned the strip mall parking lot looking for strange vehicles or men in robes. We exchanged unsettling accounts of odd behaviors exhibited by our clientele; actually this last bit wasn’t a new practice. I don’t remember who first came in wearing one of those “I am Salman Rushdie” buttons. It wasn’t me. Nor was it me who placed 3 ribbons of the book in the middle of our front window. It would be nice to say otherwise but such is nostalgia: ever the challenge is to avoid lying to yourself.
It was then with a certain sense of nostalgia that I came to Rushdie’s new book, Joseph Anton; his account of his years spent living under the shadow of that fatwa. You don’t have to be a Rushdie fan to enjoy this book. Aside from being a straight-forward autobiography and compelling account of his dark decade the book serves also as a bracing defense of free speech, and a case study of the recent history of militant Islam and the ever volatile Middle East. And of course given the fame and life style of the author we find here aspects of the ‘tell-all’. The book is rife with celebrity gossip and name dropping. Some people go for this, me not so much but the book possesses so much else of merit that I am willing to overlook this occasional shortcoming.
Much has been made of Rushdie’s decision to tell his story in the third person and for good reason. The strategy allows him sufficient authorial distance from the subject while also granting him access to the novelistic tool box. He takes full advantage. The book is fascinating, granting an inside view of the process of being taken into government protection while also providing a sense of historical and biographical scope and establishing context over the whole.
On February 14, 1989, Valentine’s Day, Salman Rushdie was telephoned by a BBC journalist and told that he had been “sentenced to death” by the Ayatollah Khomeini. For the first time he heard the word fatwa. His crime? To have written a novel called The Satanic Verses, which was accused of being “against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran.”
So begins the extraordinary story of how a writer was forced underground, moving from house to house, with the constant presence of an armed police protection team. He was asked to choose an alias that the police could call him by. He thought of writers he loved and combinations of their names; then it came to him: Conrad and Chekhov—Joseph Anton.
How do a writer and his family live with the threat of murder for more than nine years? How does he go on working? How does he fall in and out of love? How does despair shape his thoughts and actions, how and why does he stumble, how does he learn to fight back? In this remarkable memoir Rushdie tells that story for the first time; the story of one of the crucial battles, in our time, for freedom of speech. He talks about the sometimes grim, sometimes comic realities of living with armed policemen, and of the close bonds he formed with his protectors; of his struggle for support and understanding from governments, intelligence chiefs, publishers, journalists, and fellow writers; and of how he regained his freedom.
It is a book of exceptional frankness and honesty, compelling, provocative, moving, and of vital importance. Because what happened to Salman Rushdie was the first act of a drama that is still unfolding somewhere in the world every day.
Includes a prologue read by the Author.
Praise for Salman Rushdie
“In Salman Rushdie . . . India has produced a glittering novelist—one with startling imaginative and intellectual resources, a master of perpetual storytelling.”—The New Yorker
“Salman Rushdie has earned the right to be called one of our great storytellers.”—The Observer
“Our most exhilaratingly inventive prose stylist, a writer of breathtaking originality.”—Financial Timese prose stylist, a writer of breathtaking originality.”—Financial Times
“A harrowing, deeply felt and revealing document: an autobiographical mirror of the big, philosophical preoccupations that have animated Mr. Rushdie’s work throughout his career.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A splendid book, the finest . . . memoir to cross my desk in many a year.”—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“Thoughtful and astute . . . an important book.”—USA Today
“Compelling, affecting . . . demonstrates Mr. Rushdie’s ability as a stylist and storytelle. . . . [He] reacted with great bravery and even heroism.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Gripping, moving and entertaining . . . nothing like it has ever been written.”—The Independent (UK)
“A thriller, an epic, a political essay, a love story, an ode to liberty.”—Le Point (France)
“Action-packed . . . in a literary class by itself . . . Like Isherwood, Rushdie’s eye is a camera lens —firmly placed in one perspective and never out of focus.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Unflinchingly honest . . . an engrossing, exciting, revealing and often shocking book.”—de Volkskrant (The Netherlands)
“One of the best memoirs you may ever read.”—DNA (India)
“Extraordinary . . . Joseph Anton beautifully modulates between . . . moments of accidental hilarity, and the higher purpose Rushdie saw in opposing—at all costs—any curtailment on a writer’s freedom.”—The Boston Globe