Book Review: Rushdie's Joseph Anton

Padma Lakshmi and Salman Rushdie
Rushdie, you rascal.  But that's why we love you.  Huge shout out to Trevor Calvert and the Marin Academy Library for letting me borrow their copy of Joseph Anton:  A Memoir for an entire semester with nary a complaint nor a "return to library immediately" notice.  Although I've been as crazy as anyone for the chance to dig into Rushdie's account of life after Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, the book is slow going.  Rushdie has taken this memoir as an opportunity to settle every score from his school days onward and record every triumph of his life, including his catchiest jingles from his ill-fated days as an ad writer.  But there's plenty of spicy bits to keep you reading.  Marriage, child, divorce, another messy divorce from a woman of questionable mental stability, child, third marriage, messy divorce while pursuing an affair with a model, divorce from model, and another notable affair or two.  One wonders how the man has any time to write.  

Rushdie has no luck with women, or an alternate reading, has no talent for a happy, settled home life.  But he loves people, he loves himself, and he tells a pretty good story about finding himself in some dicey straits after insulting the Prophet in The Satanic Verses and waking up to find extremist Muslims the world over trying to kill him.  The memoir is part spy-novel and part a who's-who of the British literary scene as he jumps from secret location to secret location.  Rushdie ends up spending a lot of time as a real-estate agent trying to find the next safe house while wasting an inordinate amount of time trying to make sure his security officers don't do something dumb like accidentally shooting loaded guns inside his various "safe" houses.  But he also has the opportunity, through his new public notoriety, to brush shoulders with some very interesting people.

The Book
Rushdie comes to know the extremist Islamic groups in Britain quite well; his most vociferous opponent (regularly calling for his death in the British press) becomes "the silver-bearded garden gnome."  He finds himself talking to the IRA and he meets Margaret Thatcher, whose "hand beginning to caress his forearm" which Rushdie, in third person, doesn't entirely object to.  Beyond Thatcher's caresses, he meets with two other British prime ministers, making a joke at Tony Blair's expense that Blair didn't find funny.  He finds Bill Clinton charming in person.  He shares the stage with Bono at a U2 concert (Bono inexplicably likes The Ground Beneath Her Feet, one of the worst books Rushdie's ever written).  Rushdie's friends publicly slam Prince Charles for insulting Rushdie while Rushdie takes down Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam for supporting the fatwa.  He spoke to Garcia Marquez on the phone (apparently both of them speaking different languages but understanding each other perfectly) and wages a public campaign against spy novelist le Carre for not only being a fool, but a bad writer besides.  He talks to Seinfeld about the episode they did featuring him.  Carrie Fisher tries to set him up with Meg Ryan.  And Rushdie, shockingly, spends most of the ending of the memoir taking down Padma Lakshmi, "She was capable of saying things of such majestic narcissism that he didn't know whether to bury his head in his hands or applaud" (606).    

It's a little dangerous for a person who writes about himself in third person to throw around charges of narcissism, but he wouldn't be Rushdie if he didn't tread on thin ice.  That thin ice, of course, being the premise of The Satanic Verses.  Rushdie writes that "Revelation was to be understood as an interior, subjective event, not an objective reality, and a revealed text was to be scrutinized like any other text... the text was to be regarded as a human artifact and thus, like all such artifacts, prey to human fallibility and imperfection" (24).  Did Rushdie know what he was doing when he wrote The Satanic Verses?  Of course he did.  He was raised an Indian Muslim and had a pretty damn good idea about what one can and can't say about the Prophet and the Koran without getting in trouble.  Did he in any way anticipate the reaction to his book?  I don't believe he did, by his frightening descriptions of his horror in learning about knife attacks on translators of his book, the death of another translator, a professional hit on one of his publishers, and a running tally of people killed in riots around the world based on his writing.

The Author, Pre-Fatwa
There's some lovely bits about Rushdie's writing while under the fatwa- Haroun and the Sea of Stories was  "the only time in his working life that he knew almost the whole plot from the beginning" (167).  The Moor's Last Sigh languished in writer's block for almost a year, to eventually become one of my favorite Rushdie novels.  The Ground Beneath Her Feet was a much needed distraction, clearly good for Rushdie but not as good for his reputation.  And Fury, written during his early days with Lakshmi in New York, released just before the Twin Towers came down on 9/11.  And amidst the long, tortured bits of the difficulty of his life situation, Rushdie does have some gem-like insights.  "Gunter Grass had once said to him about losing:  that it taught you more profound lessons than winning did" (284).  And finally, in response to all the hubbub whether or not Muslims should be able to call death threats against people who insult their religion, "I do not agree... that reason belongs to the West and obscurantism to the East.  The heart is what it is and knows nothing of compass points" (315).  

Rushdie argues long and hard for the literary merit of The Satanic Verses, in which he fails.  The book was good, provocative, but not great. Midnight's Children remains, inarguably, the best thing he's ever written. But Rushdie does make a poignant case for the importance of free speech. "At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses... was a question of profound importance:  Who shall have control over the story?  Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told?" (360).  The entire controversy over The Satanic Verses boils down to an argument of who gets to tell stories.  Should people be able to tell stories about you that you don't like?  It happens, as Rushdie learns to his great chagrin.  But the gift of a free and democratic society is that you get to tell your own stories in response.  "Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be.  Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility" (628).  In the end, Rushdie won.  He's alive, he made a killing off the The Satanic Verses (although a lot of the profits went toward his security expenses), and a grumpy old leader in Iran ended up making Rushdie the most famous writer in the world.