Although I've been reading and reviewing books for several decades, not until Salman Rushdie's memoir, Joseph Anton (Random House, 636pp, $30), have I realized how some part of me continues to look at books through callow eyes, to assess them naively.
I admit this freely, because when I read The Satanic Verses I considered it a work of great depth. That's, of course, the Rushdie novel that brought about Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's notorious fatwa on Valentine's day, 1989. In a text considering how often men and woman can be caught between two or more worlds -- whether literally, metaphorically or both -- part of its strong effect on me was something often not stressed in response to the writer's canon: his marvelous sense of humor.
Rushdie is a funny guy, folks.
So having reacted so positively to a piece of shining, frequently laugh-provoking literature, I was startled when it caused all that somewhat belated but thunderous controversy. I was taken by surprise when it was the source of so much contempt, such an occasion for international debate, such a reason for the most passionate ad hominem assaults.
And that's where my apparent reading problems lay. You see, I regarded the book as one man's look at the religious world from which he came and its potential for becoming disorienting in a world which he'd entered. The subject matter never struck me as anything but a novelist's fair territory -- particularly as it was more than occasionally dappled with humor.
My lapse (sin?) was taking in Rushdie's exploding prose strictly from a Western viewpoint. Not a surprising reflex, since I was born, raised and educated in the Western hemisphere. But I now realize it was shallow of me not to analyze The Satanic Verses while also cognizant of how many (most?) readers in Iran and India, for instance, would absorb it. Or refuse to absorb it, as no few of its attackers did without bothering to open the volume. I now understand I devoutly believe some literature -- in making its point(s)--must inevitably hit some readers as offensive, not least when written in answer to offensive societal and cultural conditions.
Obviously, my mistake. I didn't think to take into account that if you're a reader in Muslim countries -- and, granted, also among some book-buyers in Christian and Judaic enclaves -- freedom of expression stops at that not infrequent bane of many existences: religion. The enormous and ugly hullabaloo that grew around The Satanic Verses and lingered for a dozen years or so (does it still a bit?) tells us religion is sacrosanct in no vague terms.
It also tells us that for many readers here, there and everywhere -- including, for instance, a brilliant novelist like John le Carré -- Rushdie brazenly elbowed his way past that limit, knew what he was doing and reveled in it. If he didn't know the dangers he was courting, he should have and therefore deserved everything that came to him during the period in which the fatwa remained in effect and, indeed, was renewed -- with the stakes pushed higher for well over a decade.
That, of course, is the story Rushdie relives in his tale -- in, it's more accurate to say, his adventure tale. It's a dark tale and, ironically, is a non-fiction version of his fiction. One of Rushdie's recurring themes is the difficulty of establishing an integrated identity. He'd already lived this gnawing bifurcation as an Indian who adopted, or attempted to adopt, England as his home. He dealt with its unrelenting pulls by turning it into fiction.
Then comes the fatwa, when for survival he was forced into hiding -- at enormous expensive over the years to himself and to the government. There, he had to take on the victim-protection name Joseph Anton (from the given names of favorite authors Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov). More galling to him was that the men assigned to his Squad "A," Special Branch, Metropolitan Police, insisted on calling him "Joe," a nickname he refused to get used to. On top of that, he began to think of his inner self as Salman, his public self as Rushdie and the man he had to pretend he was as Joseph Anton. In other words, he saw himself as a multiple.
Therefore, his is a case of life dictating art which, in its turn, comes to imitate art in the cruelest way. The tests he faced prominently included the travails he endured dealing with four women in his life -- divorced first wife Clarissa, American second wife Marianne Wiggins (who regularly disparaged him in interviews), third wife Elizabeth West (whose determination to remain in England when he believed he'd be freer in the United States ultimately eroded their union) and fourth wife Padma Lakshmi (who couldn't put up with his star shining more brightly than hers).
The strain the fatwa put on Rushdie's contacts with Zafar, his son by Clarissa, and less so on Milan, his son with Elizabeth, is a melancholy segment of his story. So are the problems he faced: with Viking publisher (at the time) Peter Mayer over printing a paperback version for fear of the additional peril into which it might plunge the house's staff; with Random House publisher Sonny Mehta over his next books (written in the face of intermittent writer's blocks); with governments -- and airlines -- around the globe refusing him entry or protection; with any number of homes he was required to rent at this own expense; with strangers accusing him of asking for it.
Through it all, Rushdie did have friends fighting for him (Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, to name two) and through it all he fights for what he believes he needs to continue to believe in. Because Rushdie had acquired a reputation in some quarters for arrogance long before the fatwa was imposed, there may be some who hear that arrogance bubbling up between the lines here.
But who, reading this intriguing account of a writer condemned to death at any moment, could say how he or she would react -- arrogance being the least of it -- if such a fate, such a fatwa, were to materialize? It's Rushdie's sometime grace under pressure and sometime who-knows-what-else that make his recollections irresistible, that make his compulsive reminiscing a chilling, valiant endeavor.