Joseph Anton: A memoir by Salman Rushdie - review

Ghaffar Hussain reviews Salman Rushdie's latest release, "Joseph Anton"

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Salman Rushdie's life was changed with the release of The Satanic Verses
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 24 September 2012 10:41

There is a memorable and portentous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “The Birds”, when the protagonist, played by Tippi Hendren, sits on a playground bench smoking a cigarette whilst, unbeknown to her, a single blackbird flies into view and rests on a playground climbing frame behind her.

As she elegantly and contemplatively continues her smoke, as female leads in 1960s films did, more and more blackbirds come to rest on the climbing frame.

Eventually a blackbird in the sky catches her attention and she follows its flight until it also rests on the climbing frame behind her. At this stage, she, much to her horror, realises that the climbing frame is now swarming with blackbirds. 

Salman Rushdie, in his new memoir “Joseph Anton”, seeks to present himself as that first blackbird. The backlash that followed the publication of “The Satanic Verses” was the harbinger for a rising tide of intolerance and fanaticism that is still with us today. His was the first act in a play that is still running.

Rushdie's new memoir is eloquent, honest, and insightful. It is a journey into the mind of one of the world's most celebrated yet, in some circles, reviled writers of fiction. It is also the only work of Rushdie that I have managed to penetrate and really enjoy.

Throughout the memoir, Rushdie refers to himself in the third person. This is the memoir of his alter-ego Joseph Anton which is the name he adopted as an alias when Khomeni issued a fatwa against him. It is an amalgam of the first names of his two favourite writers, Conrad and Chechov.

We learn that Rushdie grew up in a very wealthy, liberal, irreligious yet theologically literate household in Bombay, India. He was packed off to boarding school in England at the age of 13, where he experienced more sadness, isolation, and antagonism than most of his peers, owing in large part to his ethnic heritage, keen intellect, and non-existent sporting prowess.

Whilst studying History at Cambridge, the young Rushdie took an interest in the early history of Islam and the politics of pre-partition India. These would later become themes that dominated his writings and defined him as a successful writer.

He was also exposed to a world of sex, rock ‘n’ roll, and student excess, all of which he did not shy away from whilst he attempted to remain connected and faithful to his eastern roots.

After graduating and moving to London, the young Rushdie ended up working as a copywriter at an advertising agency, where he came up with “naughty but nice” for cream cakes and “irresistibubble” for the chocolate Aero.

It was during his time in advertising that he turned to writing in his spare time and after many failed attempts and much soul searching he began to find success. With the publication of his second and Booker prize winning novel “Midnight's Children” in 1980, Rushdie really established himself as a heavyweight writer.

However, it was not until 1989, and the publication of “The Satanic Verses”, that the name Rushdie became synonymous with a great deal more than literary works of fiction.

To this day Rushdie has maintained that he did not expect Muslims to react in the way they did. His book is, he contends, a work of fiction that is not critical of Islam at all. Bearing this in mind whilst reading his memoir one can't help think Rushdie, owing to his background and social circles, was completely out of touch with popular Muslim sentiments at the time.

The most interesting parts of the memoir are those that deal with the aftermath of the life changing fatwa. Rushdie falls in and out of love, writes novels, travels, and makes friends all the while fearing for his life, his loved ones, and his sanity. His 24 hour police protection provides solace yet also stifles the writer who does his best to remain intellectually stimulated and creative whilst endeavouring to stay out of public view.

The memoir also exposes the duplicitous nature of some supposed allies. The most memorable being Keith Vaz MP, who contacts Rushdie to assure him of his support after the fatwa but is later to seen on TV rabble rousing at anti-Rushdie rallies.

I often used to think – what kind of a name is Rushdie? I have never come across an Indian or a Muslim with that name. In fact, the name Rushdie was actually fabricated by Salman's father, Anis, who renamed himself Rushdie in honour of the twelfth-century Spanish-Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd.

Ibn Rushd belonged to a tradition of Muslim rationalist that battled with the literalists of their time. He stood for reason, science, and argument whilst opposing dogma, submission, and stagnation.

Poignantly, Rushdie's memoir contains the memorable reflection “'At least' he told himself when the storm broke over his head, 'I'm going into this battle bearing the right name'”.  

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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