Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Reviewed by: Pagun
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – One instinctively wants to like Salman Rushdie; moreover, one is inclined to open one of his books with a predisposition to like his work. His remarkable life story has the effect of inclining people in general, liberals in particular, secularists especially, and liberal anti-religionist writers like your faithful correspondent most of all, to want to celebrate his work and show solidarity with him in his struggle against religious fundamentalism and its associated violence.
Everyone who lived as a sentient being through the last several decades is familiar with at least the broad strokes of the Rushdie saga. Rushdie is the British author of Indian descent who wrote a book, The Satanic Verses, and published it in the UK during the regime of the Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. The book was deemed by some Muslims to be offensive and an insult to Islam, and was brought to the attention of various Muslim leaders, including the Ayatollah. The book was banned throughout Islam; violent protests against its publication were staged; people died in the furor. So fashionable was the condemnation of the book, which most Muslim protestors proudly acknowledged they hadn’t read, that in February 1989 Khomeini issued a fatwa (an Islamic religious decree) that declared anyone who killed the author a religious hero and guaranteed entrance to paradise. The Ayatollah backed up the fatwa with a million dollar bounty on Rushdie’s life.
The British government determined that the threat to Rushdie’s life was serious, and the intelligence services caught wind of plot after plot to assassinate the British author, raising the level of protection necessary to Level 2, one level below that required by the Royal family. Rushdie went into hiding at government expense and for the next several decades lived with a special highly trained and (in Britain!) heavily armed detail of bodyguards. He led a peripatetic existence, moving from one rented (by a surrogate) house to another and never went anywhere without his protection team preparing for his arrival, much as they would for a visiting head of state.
Looked at from one perspective, the events that are described in the pages of Rushdies’s memoir, Joseph Anton, could form the outline for several novels and perhaps make up the raw material for dozens of meditations and dissertations on Rushdie’s central focus, the nature of religious intolerance. It was with the anticipation of my four year old on Christmas morning that I approached Rushdie’s latest and most personally revelatory book. On that basis, it’s only fair to say that my son had a better Christmas than I did.
Since a memoir is intended to be self-revelatory and is an invitation to the reader to examine and make judgments about one’s character and personality, one can’t help but ask, as one reads a celebrity’s self-analysis, whether one would personally like to hang out with the author. Rushdie succeeds in persuading this fellow liberal anti-religionist author that he would rather undergo an unnecessary colonoscopy than spend the same amount of time socially with Salman Rushdie.
There is no question that Rushdie is a profoundly gifted author; his Booker prize for his second novel, Midnight’s Children, was entirely deserved and The Satanic Verses, his fourth, was a powerful and deeply insightful novel. Rushdie is certainly entitled to the honours that have been bestowed upon him before and since the fatwa was issued; his acknowledgement as a public intellectual is earned and far from being only ceded as the result of his abrupt catapulting into the public eye.
Nevertheless, Rushdie, the person, comes across as self-absorbed, egocentric, whiny, ungrateful, and insufferable.
It is important to Rushdie that we all recognise his superior intellectual capacity and he rarely pauses in his campaign to keep us reminded of his brilliance and wit. From his recounting of his experience at one of Britain’s premiere “public” schools, Rugby, in Warwickshire and the racial discrimination to which he claims he was subjected, to his recounting of social evenings with high-profile luminaries of today’s arts and letters, he is focused entirely on letting us know that he is above the mundane concerns of mere mortals and is aloof from daily non-intellectual life. (One of the games he and his fellow men and women of letters apparently enjoy playing is the serial suggesting of alternative, less successful titles for great literary works. Snag 22, he offers, doesn’t have the resonance of Joseph Heller’s title. Moby Richard was improved in the second draft. They also like to point out that some great works might have been entitled differently had today’s publishers been the final authority; Hamlet, they suggest, would have been retitled The Elsinore Ultimatum and Romeo and Juliet, the Verona Sanctions. I can’t remember if that last one was one of his, one of his friend the late Christopher Hitchens’ or one that popped into my mind, but you get the idea. An amusing game, and frankly, one that cracked us up as undergraduates in campus pubs.)
The memoir reads like an ingrate’s list of complaints about the amenities offered at a resort to which he was given a guest pass. He acknowledges in a patronising sort of way the dedication and thoroughness of his personal guards…men and women who would have taken a bullet for him regardless of his merit as an intellectual, but bitches that the government was reluctant to pick up the tab for the various charter flights he needed to take to destinations all over the world where he was invited to attend awards ceremonies and to receive various honours and honorary titles and degrees. And of course the list of honours is cited in excruciating detail.
The title of the memoir is derived from a code name or alter ego he developed during his underground years. He chose Anton as the first name of Anton Chekhov, one of his favorite authors, and the Joseph is derived from Joseph Conrad, the Polish turned British author who was remarkable, among other things, for being such a successful writer in his second language, as English is Rushdie’s second language, lest we forget. As the book plods on from mansion in the Cotswolds to townhouse in London, from one television appearance in Australia to another book reading in New York (at all of which he arrives in motorcades of Presidential proportions), he begins to distinguish between himself, Salman Rushdie, and his publicly known persona to whom he refers as Joseph Anton. He even derisively describes his long suffering bodyguards as referring to his alter-ego as “Joe”, because to him it demonstrates their lack of class; he misses the fact that they most likely referred to him that way precisely because of his overweening superiority and pomposity.
Salman Rushdie is deservedly recognised as one of the finest authors in the English language of the last fifty years. What he fails to take into account in his rosy self-assessment, however, is that his fame, much of his name recognition, and good number of those awards, some of which he derided and contemptuously refused were not simply recognitions of his skill and talent but rather benefits bestowed largely because of the fatwa…not the quality of his work. To suggest that he is a far, far better known writer than he would have been on his merits alone is not to disparage his abilities but to recognise the realities of fame and celebrity.
While I find a great deal of sympathy for the indignities he suffered as a result of his cocoon-like existence, while it is easy to pity him for the loss of freedom, the restraints upon his movements, and the anxiety for his life and the lives of those close to him, I reserve some sympathy for those of us who forced ourselves to keep reading until we were finally able to close Joseph Anton: A Memoir.