In a recent episode of the Dinner Party Download podcast, Salman Rushdie confided that he was tired of being asked about the fatwa and that after publishing the memoir, he doesn’t really get any questions about it now. It’s true, the 650+ pages of Joseph Anton: a memoir by Salman Rushdie cover the minute details of his life, or lack of one, during the height of the fatwa. After reading it, there is certainly nothing more that I need, or want, to know about that time in his life; if anything, it was TMI (too much information) but then again that was the point.
The book spans from Valentine’s Day, 1989 to year 2001 in which attention shifted from the individual focus on Rushdie to worldwide discussions on terrorism. The Guardian has many articles curated about Rushie and the fatwa, including an article from the day after it was made. For the entire course of those 12 years, Rushdie was under the constant watch and protection of the British government and for much of that time was restricted in his travels, even being banned from certain airlines as they feared the unknown of carrying him.
To start off, even though this is a memoir, Rushdie writes about himself in the third person. Initially this seemed very stuffy and self-grandising, however, to remain hidden he did have to take on a persona and was deemed “Joe” by the officers protecting him so he decided on the name Joseph Anton so that he could set up accounts and still conduct business and pay bills while not raising concern. For the most part, once the reader gets used to this point-of-view, it is easy enough to follow although it gets a little confusing at parties or with other scenes in which “he” could apply to another person; Rushdie constantly uses either first or full names for other people so “he” usually refers to himself (Rushdie). Maybe distancing himself from his hidden persona made it easier for him to write about but part of me just wanted Rushdie to use first person for a more intimate read and experience–although I’m not sure how much more intimate it could have been considering how detailed he is in his nearly day by day accounting of the events. For me, it constantly felt like he was writing about someone else and not himself due to the use of third person which wasn’t as satisfying as if he would have used first.
The tone of the memoir is mainly journalistic and factual but there are times, either about particular topics or people, in which Rushdie’s anger is evident but that probably shouldn’t be too surprising after all that he went through for so long. At times, he was discouraged from speaking out or in defense of himself while others continued to criticize his writing and denounce him. This book was his outlet to set the record straight by telling his complete side of the story, finally.
Despite the long-windedness of some of the passages, or the rattlingly off of famous people whom he wined and dined with when he was allowed during this trying years (many of whom helped protect him and champion him), Rushdie’s writing style shines though here and there throughout the book, especially at the end. I think of him as a descriptive writer who is able to capture an essence in a poignant sentence or paragraph, packaging a gem of knowledge in an often wondrous sentiment. It is more pronounced in his works of fiction, obviously, since this focuses on a different sort of narrative and story. He wanted it to be true to his experience, rooted in reality, and he certainly pulled it off.
I have met Mr. Rushdie twice, once in undergrad and once at a library conference. At ALA, I had him sign my paperback copy of The Satanic Verses with a bookmark two-thirds in. He remarked, “People still are reading this.” In Joseph Anton, he discusses at length how difficult it was to get the paperback published, how it took years, so I appreciate my copy much more now knowing its history and struggle that went into printing it.
Recommended?: For those who are fans of Rushdie or anyone curious about his time during the height of the fatwa threat. The last chapter, which covers 2001, becomes more of an essay on the changing of the world at that time and the pivot of the event of 9/11 for everyone. The part that truly impresses me is that Rushdie was able to recover and continue writing his novels even while the threat was still looming. His book Fury was published on September 11, 2001 oddly enough and due to the events that day, came to have more meaning and nostalgia than he had meant for it. I have wanted to read more of Rushdie and I think Fury will be my next of his.