Valentine’s Day 1989 had nothing to do with love for Salman Rushdie. He “hadn’t been getting on with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins,” but that was nothing compared with the news from Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini made an announcement that plunged Rushdie into more than a decade of fear, sequestration and flight. “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world,” Khomeini said, “that the author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.”
Not long after the proclamation of this fatwa, the British police who had been protecting Rushdie told him that he needed an alias, not only for receiving payments and writing checks without being identified but “for the benefit of his protectors,” who “needed to get used to it, to call him by it at all times, when they were with him and when they weren’t, so they didn’t accidentally let his real name slip . . . and blow his cover.” After some thought Rushdie “wrote down, side by side, the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, and there it was, his name for the next eleven years”: Joseph Anton. These “were his godfathers now,” and “it was Conrad who gave him the motto to which he clung as if to a lifeline . . . ‘I must live until I die, mustn’t I?’ ”
Thus the title of this, Rushdie’s memoir of his entire life, but mainly of those more than 11 years of torment, years often made bearable by the friendship and love of others, yet years unceasingly under the threat of the dire unknown, while Rushdie was squirreled away in secret London hideaways and remote farmhouses. For anyone it would have been terrifying, but for this proud and passionately sociable man it was degrading as well:
“To hide in this way was to be stripped of all self-respect. To be told to hide was a humiliation. Maybe, he thought, to live like this would be worse than death. In his novel ‘Shame’ he had written about the workings of Muslim ‘honor culture,’ at the poles of whose moral axis were honor and shame, very different from the Christian narrative of guilt and redemption. He came from that culture even though he was not religious, and had been raised to care deeply about questions of pride. To skulk and hide was to lead a dishonorable life. He felt, very often in those years, profoundly ashamed. Both shamed and ashamed.”
As that passage indicates, Rushdie has chosen to tell his story in the third person: to write not about Salman Rushdie but about Joseph Anton, the person who for more than a decade was himself yet not quite himself. It takes a few pages for the reader to get used to this, but it works: It eliminates the temptations of self-pitying bathos (temptations that surely must have been severe) and allows Rushdie to maintain a certain clinical distance from himself. He further intensifies this effect by abandoning, for the most part, the elaborate, fanciful, quasi-poetic style that characterizes most of his previous work (including “The Satanic Verses”) and to write, instead, in a plain prose that by its severity makes his ordeal all the more palpable.
“Joseph Anton” is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year. Some may complain that, at more than 600 pages, it is too long, but it never seemed so to me, and as one who reads for a living I am acutely if not excessively sensitive to authorial self-indulgence. To the contrary, the length of the book, and its wealth of quotidian detail, serve to draw the reader into the life that Rushdie was forced to lead, to make his isolation and fear palpable. Other readers may complain that too many names are mentioned, or dropped, or however one cares to phrase it, but it must be noted, first, that these people are indeed Rushdie’s friends and, second, that to be honest few of their names are well known outside the little world of the international literati, indeed the even more narrow world of British and American literati. If these are indulgences on Rushdie’s part — though they do not seem so to me — then he is entitled to them. He earned them.
Early on, Rushdie was informed that “as the threat against him was considered to be extremely serious — it was at ‘level two,’ which meant he was considered to be in more danger than anyone in the country except, perhaps, the queen — and as he was being menaced by a foreign power, he was entitled to the protection of the British state.” This was extended to him at once and remained in force until the threat at last had evaporated. (The fatwa was rescinded by the Iranian government in 1998, but the threat remained very real for years thereafter.) There were times, of course, when he felt suffocated by the round-the-clock presence of his protectors, and it bothered him that outsiders came to see the police guard as somehow glamorous — “The longer it lasted, the longer he went without being killed, the easier it was for people to believe that nobody was trying to kill him, and that he wanted the protection around him to satisfy his vanity, his insufferable self-importance. It was hard to convince people that from where he was standing the protection didn’t feel like movie-stardom. It felt like jail” — but his gratitude toward these men was, and remains, boundless: “The ordinary human kindness of these men toward a fellow human being in ‘one hell of a jam,’ as [one of them] put it, never ceased to move him.”
As his time in quarantine began, Rushdie was married, albeit unhappily, to Wiggins but remained close to his former wife, Clarissa, and especially to their young son, Zafar: “He wished, bitterly, that he could be a proper father again and not miss the boy’s childhood. This was the greatest loss.” His relationship with Wiggins remained volcanic throughout — it finally ended, almost anticlimactically, in an unpleasant divorce — and she does not come off well at his hands: jealous of his literary success (her own was, and is, modest), “ranting . . . about his alleged amours and the untrustworthiness of his friends,” exacting petty and nasty revenge through interviews with the press. How much of this is plain truth-telling on Rushdie’s part and how much is his revenge I have no way of saying, but I suspect there is more than a little of both. Still, who can blame him for raw emotions and hasty judgments? This wasn’t fun:
“He was a man without armies, obliged to fight constantly on many fronts. There was the private front of his secret life, with its cringings and crouchings, its skulkings and duckings, its fear of plumbers and other repairmen, its fraught search for places of refuge, and its dreadful wigs. Then there was the publishing front, where he could take nothing for granted in spite of all his work. Publication itself was still an issue. It was not certain that he could continue in the life he had chosen, not certain that he would always find willing hands to print and distribute his work. And then there was the harsh and violent world of politics. If he was a soccer ball, he thought, could he be a self-conscious soccer ball and join in the game? Could the soccer ball understand the sport in which it was kicked from end to end? Could the soccer ball act in its own interest and take itself off the field and out of range of the booted, kicking feet?”
By that point “a familiar pattern” had emerged “in the year-old ‘Rushdie Affair’: An apparent lightening of the clouds, a moment of hope, was followed by a sickening blow — an escalation, an upping of the ante.” Surely it would have been easy for Rushdie to collapse into mere self-pity and despair, and the temptation to do so was strong, yet: “He did not wish to be poor, helpless, pitiable. He did not want to be merely a victim. There were important intellectual, political and moral issues at stake here. He wanted to be a part of the argument: to be a protagonist.” So he “became, having no alternative, in part an ambassador for himself.” With the reluctant support of his police guardians, he began to make carefully selected appearances in public, his presence never announced in advance, his sudden appearances before unsuspecting audiences occasions for an odd mixture of celebration and befuddlement:
“John Irving spoke sweetly about their first meeting long ago and read the beginning and end of ‘Midnight’s Children’ and then it was [Margaret] Atwood who introduced him and he went out onto the stage and twelve hundred people gasped and then began to roar their solidarity and love. This business of being turned into an icon was very odd, he thought. He didn’t feel iconic. He felt . . . actual. But right now it might be the best weapon he had. The symbolic icon-Salman his supporters had constructed, an idealized Salman of Liberty who stood flawlessly and unwaveringly for the highest values, counteracted and might just in the end defeat the demon version of himself constructed by his adversaries.”
No one, it seems safe to say, is more keenly aware than Rushdie of the ridiculousness of the “icon-Salman.” Yes, he was brave and determined under pressure that most of us can barely imagine, and once he started his campaign in his own defense he was both resourceful and eloquent, but he does not shy away from describing his amatory misadventures — “to be imprisoned by the need to be loved was to be sealed in a cell in which one experienced an interminable torment and from which there was no escape” — and, worst of all, the failure of courage that impelled him to declare, before a self-impaneled jury of Muslim fundamentalists, that he had “become a Muslim.” This capitulation to the enemy shamed him from the moment he uttered it — it was, after all, a lie — and causes him grief to this day, though perhaps the moment to let it pass has at last arrived.
Amazingly, he did not quit writing. He had long moments of despair in which it seemed hopeless — all the more so since the support offered him by his various publishers was largely pro forma if not nonexistent — yet he stuck to it. For his son Zafar he wrote a lovely children’s book, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” and he completed a collection of pieces, “East, West,” as well as the well-received novels “The Moor’s Last Sigh” and “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” He was back: “Slowly, slowly, his old power returned. The world went away. Time stood still. He fell happily toward that deep place where unwritten books wait to be found, like lovers demanding proof of utter devotion before they appear. He was a writer again.”
He remains that to this day. Now 65-years-old but apparently endowed with the vigor of youth, he lives in Manhattan — years ago he became certain “that when the day came it would be America that would make it easiest for him to reclaim his freedom” — where he writes, teaches and, according to all reports, enjoys the lively social life that is so central to his being. After completing “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” he promised himself “no more 250,000-word monsters. Shorter books, more often,” but “then he got to work on his memoir, and realized that he had fallen off the wagon.” Sometimes longer is better, and this is one of those times.
By Salman Rushdie
Random House. 636 pp. $30