When Books Can Kill?
Martin Amis to Jeanette Winterson, from Günter Grass to Gabriel García Márquez,
politically or socially charged fiction have in recent years redefined the memoir as a literary genre. Their memoirs, however, aren’t simple autobiographical narratives of the development of their personalities but personal attempts to define the meaning of their controversial work and lives. They want to set the record straight themselves, without the intervention of biographers and the press.
With the publication of Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Random House), Salman Rushdie, who once upon a time was the most notorious writer on the planet, has joined the memoir fray. Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s effort to control the meaning of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s declaration of a fatwa calling for his death, the 10 years he spent in hiding from Islamic fundamentalist terrorists under the protection of the British government and close friends, the books he wrote during his concealment and the events of his personal life.
I say “once upon a time” because as Rushdie himself recently said on “The Daily Show,” enough time has passed since Sept. 24, 1998, the date on which the Islamic scholar Muhammad Khatami stated that the Iranian government would neither support nor uphold the fatwa against him, for him to write as objectively as possible about his experience of the fatwa. Even though the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian state news agency have continued to proclaim that the fatwa permanently would remain in place, Rushdie now considers himself a free man, and Joseph Anton traces the arc of his imprisonment to his liberation – or, more accurately, the development of his confidence to shed his identity as a political football and activist and to live a free life, despite the rulings of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists and the protective demands of British authorities.
Rushdie, of course, provides necessary background for the uninitiated in Joseph Anton. After the British publication of his novel The Satanic Verses on Sept. 26, 1988, fundamentalist Muslims throughout the world demanded through a series of phone calls, newspaper articles and public demonstrations that the book be banned and its publication stopped for its so-called blasphemous retelling of the story of Muhammad. The opposition eventually escalated to the banning of The Satanic Verses in many countries in Asia and Africa; Rushdie’s banishment from many of those countries (including his Indian homeland); a long delay in the appearance of a paperback edition; and Khomeini’s Feb. 14, 1989 pronouncement of the fatwa against Rushdie and anyone involved in the publication of the book. Following the fatwa, fundamentalists bombed American and British bookstores that sold The Satanic Verses, killed the book’s Japanese translator, and seriously injured its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher.
Rushdie exercises narrative control over these horrific events by using his usual metamorphic method of writing. Like the story waters that feature in Haroun and the Sea of Stories – the first novel that Rushdie wrote after going into hiding – the incidents of the fatwa flow seamlessly into tales of the composition of Rushdie’s novels of the time period; his relationships and problems with his friends, children, wives, and lovers; and witty and moving anecdotes of his experiences with a long list of literary-giant friends: Amis, García Márquez, Grass, Harold Pinter, Ian McEwan, Bruce Chatwin, Angela Carter, John Irving, Peter Carey, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Umberto Eco, Mario Vargas Llosa, Nadine Gordimer, Carlos Fuentes, Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag and, yes, Thomas Pynchon. Rushdie, whom many people still perceive only as an overly serious rabble-rouser, enemy of organized religion, and proponent of free speech, succeeds in demonstrating that he’s a funny, regular guy who, during the fatwa years, lived a life very similar to ours.
So why the title, Joseph Anton? It was Rushdie’s code name during the fatwa – “Joseph” for Joseph Conrad, the “creator . . . of secret agents in a world of killers and bombs”; and “Anton” for Anton Chekhov, “whose Three Sisters believed that real life was elsewhere.” It was a name where fact and fiction, as they always do in Rushdie’s novels, meet.
The fatwa turned into reality what seemed only possible in fiction. It was an era of personal terror, during which metamorphosis into a political activist for free speech and against religious fundamentalism was Rushdie’s only option. It was the first time metamorphosis was forced upon him, and in Joseph Anton, he re-creates himself as “Salman Rushdie,” a man who’s simultaneously a great comic and tad long-winded writer, a sometimes loyal and sometimes selfish friend and lover, and a witty literary gossiper and self-important name dropper. Rushdie re-creates himself as a human being who lives in the gray areas that we all occupy, one who just happens to be one of the best writers of our time – and one who just happened to be sentenced to death for exploring those gray areas in a novel.