Rushdie memoir casts a spell

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January 25, 2013

Joseph Anton
By Salman Rushdie
Random House
636 pages, $30

Reviewed by Arnold Kopecky

“Where they burn books they will in the end burn people too.” If you could boil Salman Rushdie’s quarter-million-word memoir down to a single phrase, that would probably be it – though it wasn’t him who said so, nor was it Joseph [Conrad] Anton [Chekhov], the name Rushdie assumed for the last decade of the 20th century. No, it was the German writer Heinrich Heine, writing a century earlier, his words borne out first by the Nazis and later recalled by Rushdie in light of his own experience.
In 1989, soon after the Ayatollah issued the fatwa and the government of Iran started sending assassin squads to England, Rushdie/Anton watches a mob burning The Satanic Verses on television and shouting for the author’s death. This is happening not in Iran, but in Bradford, England; twelve years later, the same mob’s mentality is now incinerating 3,000 thousand people in the twin towers. Rushdie’s private hell has become the world’s war on terror.
Perhaps it helped that I had two weeks in the Mexican sun with nothing better to do than absorb over 600 pages of prose, but Joseph Anton cast a spell on me. I suffered just the slightest bit of detail-burnout near the end. Rushdie kept an immaculate record of every conversation, thought, emotion and social transgression (both his own and those of his friends and acquaintances) throughout the fatwa years, knowing that one day, if he lived, it would be him who wrote them down. The writing is less drunken, more crisp – more accessible, as he would probably hate to hear – than in his fiction; in both substance and style, I’m reminded of G.G. Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping, the riveting account of ten prominent Colombians held hostage for a year by Pablo Escobar.
For a while, Rushdie says, he thought he would turn his fugitive years into a novel, as he’s done with every other aspect of his life. Saleem Sinai’s Methwold Estates in Midnight’s Children, we learn, is a precise replica of Rushdie’s childhood home; the opening scene of The Satanic Verses was inspired by the Air India flight that Qaddafi blew up, with one of Rushdie’s relatives aboard. But when it came to writing about the fatwa years, he eventually concluded that “the only reason his story was interesting was that it had actually happened.”
Interesting, too, that a writer whose best fiction was written in the first person should choose to cast his memoir in the third. Perhaps it has something to do with the surreality of those fatwa years. These were years consumed equally by trying to gain entry into “the halls of power” in order to convince the world’s governments to help him, and by trying to remain a writer of fiction. Throughout it all, Rushdie endured astonishing displays of antipathy from the British public, compounded by the petty squalor of shuffling from one house to another at the behest of an oft-grumbling Scotland Yard. One moment he’s having tea with the Prime Minister of England, the next he’s hiding behind a kitchen sink so that the plumber won’t recognize him.
The memoir reads like a bookish Jason Bourne movie, with a cameo from every writer you ever heard of – good guys and gals include Eco, Fuentes, Sontag, Mailer, Grass, Marquez; John le Carre and Roald Dahl come off as surprisingly bad. The cast expands beyond the world of letters to embrace the likes of Bono, Gorbachev, and Bill Clinton, who – predictably but hilariously – is ever the slut.
Some readers may feel Rushdie’s record of these remarkable years veers into A-list gossip, occasionally even revenge (think twice, reader, before divorcing a famous writer); but a hundred years from now, when everyone in the narrative is dead, what will remain is an intimate portrait of the absurd ends to which religious fanaticism can take not just a life, but humanity.

Arno Kopecky is a travel writer and journalist whose stories have appeared in The Walrus, Foreign Policy, Reader’s Digest and the Globe and Mail. His first book, The Devil’s Curve, is a literary travelogue about his journeys through South America.


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