Sunday, 11 November 2012

'Joseph Anton: A Memoir' by Salman Rushdie - Review

Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie

Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie
A Review

When The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, it gained immediate attention –not for the reasons now known – but rather for its quality of prose.  It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in that year (losing out to Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda), and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year.  Many considered it a far superior novel to Midnight’s Children, which had won the Booker in 1981.  There was some uproar from the Muslim community in 1988, but it wasn’t until a few months into the following year, (14 February 1989, to be precise, and a date Rushdie will never forget) that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued his now famous fatwā calling for Rushdie's death.

The life that Salman Rushdie lived under the height of the fatwā has long remained secret.  He received state protection – something not all quarters of the British establishment felt he deserved – but despite the restrictions was able to find new love and raise his children.  I wondered, whilst reading his memoir of this part of his life, Joseph Anton, whether the British press’s disgust at the money being spent on Rushdie was seen as wasted as he seemed not to be suffering – he was in fact still writing, falling in love and raising a new son – and surely someone under such restrictions should be suffering… but such conjecture is not my job to make.

His memoir is named Joseph Anton after the pseudonym his protection teams made him use.  It is a name of his own construction, homage to two great writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.  Predictably the protection teams called him Joe.  Knowing that the working life of a writer is invariably dull, Rushdie spends much of this book skipping long passages of his subterranean existence – when he is writing – to focus on the key events of this long non-life.   The first week is shown in great detail – the funeral of his friend, Bruce Chatwin, the coming together of his remaining friends to help him deal with the immediate consequences of the fatwā.  One gains, from reading this memoir, a good impression of the British literary establishment in the late 1980s, early 1990s – they seem a crowd ready to fight for what they know is right, to offer support to their friend, and quite often a roof over his head for long periods.  He was certainly blessed with good friends.

Salman Rushdie

It is once life being lived under the fatwā becomes more established – a life always close to being torn apart, and lived on the razor’s edge, but where there is routine, ordinary life attempting to reassert itself from the centre – that the power of Rushdie’s strength of will really begin to shine through.  Rushdie presents himself as keeping his cool, even when those around him were losing their heads, and it makes one wonder about all those ellipses in his narrative – for sake of endearment, did he not want to show the moments when he almost lost his own mind?  The strains the fatwā places upon him and his fledgling relationship with Elizabeth West does seem to crack – there are fault lines visible from the outside, fault lines we know will break and bring about the end (but we are reading with hindsight, and Rushdie is presenting his life as if a novel, and constructing and assembling his narrative with the novelists touch, so perhaps we are reading too much into it.) 

It is the presentation of his life that provides the biggest problem in this lengthy book.  Rushdie made a decision early on, I guess, to present his life lived under the fatwā as a third person narrative – it is a tricksy decision, but one that makes logical sense: after all, during this time he was not Salman Rushdie but Joseph Anton.  The impact this decision has on the reader is to lessen the impact of events – we are shown events as they happened, viewing them from a distance, and so events as they happen feel less terrifying.  We get no real sense of what it was like to live under such a thing, emotionally and mentally and spiritually.  What we get is an intellectualisation of events, an incomplete portrait that never completely solidifies into a total image.  There is a flipside to this decision worth considering: if Rushdie had presented this material in the first person, he could so easily have slipped into self-pitying bathos, and such behaviour might have quite easily alienated some of his readers, and confirmed the worst suspicions of his detractors – that Rushdie cares only for himself and not for those who have been hurt or killed by his art.

It is also worth noting that his memoir is stripped bare – Joseph Anton’s narrative does not read like a typical Salman Rushdie novel.  Gone are the narrative games, the elaborate prosody, the poetic style typical of his novels.  This deliberate abandonment of literary style creates a stark, shocking intimacy that form a counterpoint to the distancing of the third person narrative. 

Salman Rushdi and Elizabeth West, in later days
What we get, then, in Joseph Anton is a partial portrait of what life was actually life under the fatwā, a great amount of detail into the considerations of the protection team and how they go about their business of keeping their ‘prot’ alive – but where the narrative really comes alive is in the details of the relationships surviving under this restrictions.  I’m not sure there has been a better book this year on father-son relationships, but through the course of these eleven years we see his son Zafar mature and become a man, and understand something of the relationship between father and son.   The portrayal of the relationship with Elizabeth West, made under the fatwā and lived entirely in its shadow, is moving and though it comes to a sadly mournful conclusion, it is nevertheless an important part of Rushdie’s story.

Joseph Anton is a fascinating, if not entirely complete, portrait of life lived under some very tough restrictions.  It is as much Salman Rushdie’s story as that of his family.  From its pages one will not learn very much about the mind-set that created and maintained the fatwā, or what it is to be a writer when faced with such opposition, but what you will get is an account of eleven years in one man’s life that are made more extraordinary than they should be by events beyond his control, and of his determination to beat it and live beyond it.

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