I perforce begin with a confession: I couldn’t finish Salman Rushdie’s two most notable novels, Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. I don’t love magical realism generally—I hated García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—and Rushdie’s version struck me as particularly heavy-handed, jejune and, worst of all, unilluminating. If you’re thinking that this disqualifies me from reviewing Rushdie’s new memoir about life under a death-penalty fatwa—the thought also occurred to me before I started the book. But writers, thank goodness, can surprise us. I found Joseph Anton to be an impressive achievement: readable, thought provoking (always a commendable activity) and, I daresay, important. And the story it tells is extraordinary.
When Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988, many people around the world took it much more seriously than I did. The book is about the clash, if not of civilizations, then of cultures: immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh trying to make lives in present-day Britain. (Rushdie, incidentally, was raised to have a “secular Muslim identity.”) The author wanted, in his words, to describe “how the world joined up, not only how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East, but how the past shaped the present while the present shaped our understanding of the past.” To enrich his narrative, Rushdie included episodes featuring Muhammad and the dawn of Islam. (The prophet he depicted, Rushdie writes, “was not called Muhammad, lived in a city not called Mecca, and created a religion not called Islam.” I think it’s safe to say that this is coyly disingenuous.)
The “satanic verses” of the book’s title refer to an apparently real moment when Muhammad affirmed that three pagan deities were, in fact, genuine deities. Joseph Anton, unfortunately, is rather vague about why Rushdie’s addressing this subject sparked a frenzied crusade against him and his novel. I had to turn to an odd but interesting little book, Daniel Pipes’s The Rushdie Affair (1990), to discover that Rushdie’s theological “crime” was to suggest that Muhammad’s endorsement of those deities was an example of cynical realpolitik.
To this day, Rushdie doesn’t believe that his novel is offensive to Islam or Muhammad (for what it’s worth, I agree with him). “The material derived from the original story of Islam was . . . essentially admiring of the Prophet of Islam and even respectful toward him. It treated him as he always said he wanted to be treated, as a man (‘the Messenger’) not a divine figure (like the Christians’ ‘Son of God’). It showed him as a man of his time, shaped by that time and, as a leader, both subject to temptation and capable of overcoming it.” Rushdie further explains that his prophet “flirted with compromise, then rejected it; and his unbending idea grew strong enough to bend history to its will.”
Of course, Rushdie’s conception of his work meant nothing to those who targeted him for destruction. (They weren’t all religious fanatics. Any number were shrewd, cold-blooded rabble-rousers and politicians.) “The match that lit the fire” began in India, after India Today ran an excerpt from The Satanic Verses and an accompanying article. By the time the Rushdie affair played out all too many years later, the novel was banned in a number of countries (including India, as well as throughout the so-called developing world); riots erupted in Islamabad (five demonstrators were killed by the police) and Kashmir (one killed); bookstores were bombed in London, Sydney and Berkeley; Penguin, the book’s publisher, was constantly threatened; the book’s Japanese translator was murdered, and its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher were almost killed. A British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, claimed that Britons didn’t love the book. The pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the British chief rabbi expressed sympathy for Muslims who felt maligned by the novel (a perverse example of ecumenism if there ever was one). The Satanic Verses was publicly burned in Yorkshire. Early on during the crisis, a Gallup poll reported that “four in five British Muslims … believe that some sort of action should be taken against [Rushdie].”
The cynosure of the berserk, brutal turmoil was poor Rushdie. On Valentine’s Day, 1989, Iran’s religious-political autocrat the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death-penalty fatwa (generally, a fatwa is an Islamic religious edict): “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Qur’an, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.” For the next thirteen years, Rushdie would be guarded by the British security services, particularly the Special Branch, an elite unit of Scotland Yard. For most of those years, his life was pure hell.
The police insisted that Rushdie have a code name. So he created “Joseph Anton,” which combined the first names of two of his favorite writers, Conrad and Chekhov. The name came to irritate him, but that was the least of his problems. I can only touch briefly here on what Rushdie had to endure while facing a death sentence. For years he had to borrow domiciles from friends and acquaintances, or purchase or rent homes (he was damned lucky that, unlike most authors, his writing was highly remunerative).
Everything he did was closely monitored by his bodyguards. They often discouraged him from travelling anywhere, or even meeting with his son and the woman who would become his third wife. And while many friends and colleagues were incredibly supportive and altruistic, he knew that there were important individuals in the British intelligence and security forces, and in the government, who disdained him, who believed he was responsible for his plight (he wasn’t), and would have been happy to cast him adrift to fend for himself.
The lowest point for Rushdie probably came in late 1990. Overwhelmed by despair, he was manipulated by a group of British Muslims into declaring that he was a believing Muslim. (At least I think that’s what he declared; again, Rushdie’s description of this episode is somewhat obscure.) His cooperation (whatever it entailed) inevitably didn’t relieve the pressure. (Today, the writer is a proud atheist.)
Rushdie eventually came to realize that to withstand the bestial campaign aimed at him, he would have to assertively reclaim his life, and he slowly and diligently set about doing so. He visited friends, attended writers’ gatherings, managed to find airlines that would fly him to points abroad, remarried twice (his third and fourth wives), and fathered a second son. And he wrote: three novels and numerous short stories and nonfiction articles.
The United States, I’m pleased to say, was in some ways more politically and morally sympathetic toward Rushdie than his own country and government. He summered in the Hamptons and spent time in New York City in relative freedom. President Bill Clinton and members of his administration were supportive.
In 2002 the Special Branch informed Rushdie that the threat level had been substantially lowered. Perhaps the nightmare, like a disease, had simply run its course and disappeared. Perhaps the Iranian government—or elements within it—decided that it wanted better relations with the West and the fatwa was an impediment. Perhaps even fanatics reach a point where they just want to move on. The writer and the British government decided that the security precautions were no longer necessary. After thirteen years, Rushdie got his life back. Joseph Anton became Salman Rushdie again. Ironically, I think it likely that the many vocal haters of Rushdie and The Satanic Verses never read the novel. This leads me to believe that Rushdie and his book were almost irrelevant to the Rushdie affair, except as convenient symbols of what actually prompted the controversy and mayhem: the Occident, which the Muslim masses and their demagogues profoundly hated.
In Joseph Anton, Rushdie refers to himself in the third person, which can sometimes be confusing, but for the most part the book’s prose is precise and clean. And naturally, Rushdie’s tale is so shocking, so sublimely bizarre, it easily eclipses the magical-realism tropes of his fiction. A New York Times reviewer complained that Rushdie uses his memoir to settle scores. And it’s true that two ex-wives and sundry politicians, government bureaucrats, publishing world figures, and other writers are deprecated (or worse) by Rushdie. Moreover, there are times when I found him somewhat unctuous. When he’s finally allowed to return to India, he calls it “a homecoming party.” Was it really? Though born in India, Rushdie was educated in two of Britain’s most eminent, exclusive schools, Rugby and Cambridge, and he’s lived most of his life in the United Kingdom. Anyone who has heard him lecture or interviewed knows exactly what Rushdie is: a British intellectual and nob. And it’s curious that a serious writer should be so enamored of hobnobbing with the likes of Will Smith, Madonna, and Bono.
Know what? That sort of carping is probably mean-spirited and silly. Rushdie has earned the right, after his appalling ordeal, to be occasionally waspish in his book, to vent, to be sometimes sanctimonious and starstruck. And after all, it’s his memoir. I hope the rest of his life is tranquil, happy, and very productive. Zei gezunt, Salman Rushdie.