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Book Review: Joseph Anton

Joseph Anton: A Memoir

by Salman Rushdie

Random House, 2012

As Salman Rushdie often points out in his stunning new book Joseph Anton: A Memoir, the exile he experienced on 14 February 1989 had the peculiar feature of being nationless. On that date, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death for writing his novel The Satanic Verses and called upon all the world’s faith-abiding Muslims to carry out the sentence as soon as they could. Rushdie was living in London at the time in a marriage that had already begun coming apart (he several times quietly rejects the version of this narrative that would have his tragedy impinge on pure bliss – that’s a skilled novelist’s insight, and it’s crucial), and suddenly the policeman’s tread on the street outside his wife’s small extra apartment weren’t random – it was there because of him. “He realized,” Rusdie writes, telling the story in third-person, “in that footstep-haunted silence, that he no longer understood his life, or what it might become, and he thought for the second time that day that there might be not very much more life to understand.”

The Iranian death-edict didn’t send him fleeing from Iran – in this case, there was no fleeing to or from: his potential executioners were all around him. The clerical fanatics who ruled the Iranian state had foundThe Satanic Versesdisrespectful to Islam, and Rushdie characterizes their reaction as self-serving:

After that the dead cried out against the imam and his revolution became unpopular. He needed a way to rally the faithful and he found it in the form of a book and its author. The book was the devil’s work and the author was the devil and that gave him the enemy he needed. This author in this basement flat in Islington huddling with the wife from whom he was half estranged. This was the necessary devil of the dying imam.

This characterization is in itself a bit self-serving (at no point in Joseph Anton is the possibility ever seriously entertained that the imams actually found the book offensive in and of itself, absent exterior political motivation), but this is to be expected in an autobiography told in the third person by a novelist – inevitably, character-building, stagecraft, begin to seep in. Rushdie doesn’t lie; this book makes every effort to be scrupulously, even brutally, honest. But the tools of a lifetime can’t be easily set aside, and when Rushdie quickly expands his story from the brief ten-year life of “Joseph Anton” (the pseudonym he took while under his death-sentence) to fifty years in the life of the man who would become Joseph Anton, memoir starts to take on the smooth surface and rounded edges of fiction:

Why did that boy decide to leave it all behind and travel halfway across the world into the unknown, far from everyone who loved him and everything he knew? Was it the fault, perhaps, of literature (for he was certainly a bookworm)? In which case the guilty parties might have been his beloved Jeeves and Bertie, or possibly the Earl of Emsworth and his mighty sow, the Empress of Blandings. Or might it have been the dubious attractions of the world of Agatha Christie that persuaded him, even if Christie’s Miss Marple made her home in the most murderous village in England, the lethal St Mary Mead?

(Almost needless to point out, this is a book-sodden memoir, joyously so)

At one point Rushdie recalls the very good advice he got from his great university teacher Arthur Hibbert: “You must never write history until you can hear the people speak.” He realizes early on that something similar applies to writing fiction as well, but a memoir written by a novelist in the third person about a pseudonym can’t help but muddy those waters. Salman Rushdie has developed into one of our greatest living novelists (the tangled, byzantine power of his prose is on full display in this book, despite his penchant for lazy rubrics like “The lessons one learns at school are not always the ones the school thinks it’s teaching”), and his ersatz alter ego Joseph Anton, cobbled together from Conrad and Chekhov, is equally literary in his own way. Between them, the other ‘characters’ in this horrifying modern-day morality play don’t have much chance to peep their lines and then sneak off stage. More so than any other book he’s written, this is very much the Salman Show.

It’s a spectacular performance. In gorgeous, imperially self-conscious prose, he unfolds the story not just of his strange exile but of his boyhood and youth, his time at university, his experiences with the psychedelic ’60s and ’70s, his rise to literary fame and the people he met along the way (the pen-portraits of the New York publishing scene are especially sharp – they’ve been notoriously unwanted in certain circles). The Iranian death-sentence hovers over everything, however, and the crisis it brings about in the man who was Joseph Anton – the stumbling but eventually bedrock certainty that being caught unsought in a battle between good and evil isn’t something a good man can shirk – is riveting. Despite its occasional twinge of narcissism (and its sometimes queasy air of score-settling), Joseph Anton is the most remarkable book Salman Rushdie has ever written – and one of the most powerful.