Reclaiming His Story, Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

“Two days earlier there had been a ‘Rushdie riot’ outside the U.S. Cultural Center in Islamabad, Pakistan. (It was not clear why the United States was being held responsible for The Satanic Verses.) The police had fired into the crowd and there were five dead and sixty injured. The demonstrators carried signs saying RUSHDIE, YOU ARE DEAD. Now the danger had been greatly multiplied by the Iranian edict. The Ayatollah Khomeini was not just a powerful cleric. He was a head of state ordering the murder of the citizen of another state, over whom he had no jurisdiction; and he had assassins at his service and they had been used before against ‘enemies’ of the Iranian Revolution, including enemies living outside Iran (Rushdie, 15).

Salman Rushdie had won the Booker prize for Midnight’s Children when The Satanic Verses came out. People respected him as an established author. After the release of The Satanic Verses, no one spoke of his books. They focused on the death sentence, the book burnings, the attempted murders, the amount of money the government was spending to keep him safe.

The title of his memoir, Joseph Anton, is taken from the pseudonym he was forced to create when he went into hiding. He could not have an Indian name because they thought it would be too obvious. So he took his name from two of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. For almost a decade, Rushdie lost his name, his home, his country, his voice, his life, his story, and for part of that time, his writing. He finally reclaims all of these in his latest work, Joseph Anton.

Rushdie’s directness is unsettling, especially because many of the people he writes about are still alive. He speaks poorly of two of his ex-wives and admits to infidelity through most of his marriages. It’s almost painful to read his pointed honesty because it’s a bit cruel and you wonder why does he write these details? Why include the nastiness of friendships and marriage betrayals? Because it’s the truth and if he doesn’t someone else will. He is a writer, kept silent for almost a decade while he was in hiding because the government feared his voice would incite more violence. A man who makes his living telling stories was denied permission to tell his own. When people badmouthed Rushdie, he was in hiding and could not publicly defend himself. His second ex-wife would fabricate stories to journalists after she and Rushdie split. She wrote short stories that were altered versions of her life with Rushdie in hiding. Gabriel Garcia Marquez briefly considered writing a novel based on Rushdie’s life. And this came at a time when Rushdie was incapable of writing under the stress of the fatwa. So not only did he lose the ability to write, he lost his own life story (later, Marquez chose not to base his work on Rushdie’s life). Rushdie spent so much time campaigning on his own behalf, that he lost “one or maybe even two novels to the fatwa” (347).

One of the most amazing revelations in Joseph Anton is that while Rushdie was indeed protected by the British government, he was in charge of finding and acquiring places to stay that the government approved of. He could not stay in his own home because it was public knowledge and would endanger his neighbors. So he initially stayed with friends. Writer friends who kept his secret. Not once was Rushdie’s whereabouts revealed by his friends. And as he said at the JCC, this was the literary world, “gossip central, these people can’t keep a secret,” but no one leaked a word for ten years because they all understood the very real danger. Everyone on his protection team volunteered for the job because it was too dangerous to be an assignment. The officers believed they were protecting something bigger than just a man, they were protecting freedom and fighting against international terrorism.

Rushdie’s sister, Sameen, said “The Iranian Revolution had been shaky ever since Khomeini had been forced, in his own words, to ‘eat poison’ and accept the unsuccessful end of his Iraq war, which had left a generation of young Iranians dead or maimed. The fatwa was his way of regaining political momentum, reenergizing the faithful” (142). So Rushdie became the device to unite a fractured enemy. And as he was symbolic of all that was wrong to the Ayatollah, Rushdie simultaneously and unwillingly became the symbol of free speech. He was no longer a writer. He became the scapegoat and bargaining chip for everyone involved. “The Satanic Verses was being used as a football in a political game that had little or nothing to do with it” (134). The British government would not publicly defend him and would not allow him to defend himself. They kept Rushdie hidden away under protective services, making Rushdie easier to keep quiet. The government feared his words would incite more riots. They took his voice away.  If he was not in the public eye, accepting book awards or speaking at literary engagements, people forgot that he was an author. He was just an Indian man the British government was protecting. No one corrected the false accusations in the press that there was a high cost to the British government when Rushdie went abroad. In fact, it cost the government nothing. Rushdie was no longer Salman Rushdie, he was Rushdie, of “the Rushdie affair,” and he was turned into an icon, but he “didn’t feel iconic. He felt . . . actual” (365). He was a real person who wanted to live a normal life but could not because terrorists called for his death over a book he wrote that they never read.

Rushdie reveals his trials and his weaknesses. He admits being broken down when he publicly converts to being a Muslim (temporarily). He was pressured to apologize for The Satanic Verses because  hostages in Lebanon and Tehran might be released if an olive branch was offered. The British government protected Rushdie, but they did not defend him. He had to campaign for his freedom and he met with many world leaders to discuss the terrorism. Rushdie met with Bill Clinton who agreed that, “the United States is joining the campaign against the Iranian fatwa and supports progressive voices around the world” (404). It was only after other world leaders showed solidarity with Rushdie that the British government worked with Rushdie to have a more public life.

Joseph Anton is Salman Rushdie’s voice and life. He has reclaimed his life story and written it for others to read. It is filled with writers, pop culture, humor, history, and cultural criticism. He explains the background of many of his novels, how they came to be, and what he meant for them to become. Reading Joseph Anton is like having the greatest professor lecture you on history, cultural affairs, public relations, politics, and writing—all with a brilliant sense of humor.

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