Rushdie’s life was surely more interesting than this?
In his new fatwa memoir, literature’s one-time enfant terrible somehow manages to make a life lived in fear of death sound terribly dull.
Salman Rushdie has produced a new book based on the 10 years he spent under police protection after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on him in 1988, following the publication of The Satanic Verses.
Now, you’d think this could be a real page-turner. But at 633 pages, Joseph Anton – A Memoir (the book’s title is also the alias Rushdie took on while in hiding) will make you wonder how a book about death threats can be so deadly dull.
To be fair, it has its moving moments. Rushdie’s love for his son, Zafar, comes across warmly on the page, as does his love for his first wife, Clarissa. The book’s most wrenching moments come when those two are at risk; the sweetest moments come when Rushdie is playing ball with Zafar, or commiserating with him over the strange life into which they’ve been forced.
The first few weeks of fatwa also make for compelling reading. Rushdie doesn’t really bother to plumb the depths of his own emotions; he keeps his tone simple and the action moving. He also sticks to the third person. Rushdie was never known for his straightforward style, but this memoir is as easy to read as TIME magazine. Gone are the nested sentences of Midnight’s Children, which hid all the action in the subclauses; Joseph Anton is made up of simple, declarative sentences.
This style of writing works wonderfully when Rushdie has news to report: ‘The first piece of hate mail arrived at his London home. The Evening Standard reported on a global Islamic threat to “end Penguin”. The famous lawyer David Napley demanded that he be tried under the Public Order Act. Meanwhile he and Clarissa took Zafar to watch the Guy Fawkes Night fireworks on Highbury Fields.’
But that same detached style cannot sustain Rushdie’s less gripping material. And there is inevitably plenty of mundane stuff in the book, just as there is plenty of mundane stuff in the course of anyone’s life. Rushdie has dinner with his friends, thinks of quitting smoking and broods over unflattering editorials in the newspaper. He chafes against police protection and he flies around the world trying to rally writers and politicians to fight against the fatwa. In the course of this, he meets the likes of Vaclav Havel, Bill Clinton, Thomas Pynchon and Allen Ginsberg. He falls in love and then breaks up with a series of wives. This is not an ordinariness that most of us can relate to – but it is Rushdie’s ordinariness, and after a few hundred pages it acquires a certain flatness.
It is not fair to compare anyone to Anne Frank but, well, Salman Rushdie is no Anne Frank. She, living in hiding and fear, managed to make compelling writing out of her fights with her mother, her new hairdos, and the way her hands got cold pulling potatoes out of a barrel. Rushdie, living in hiding and fear, but with much better stories to tell, doesn’t manage to be half as exciting.
Anne Frank’s writing is elastic, full of life, produced while she was in the midst of events. Her stories have an immediacy to them because she’s writing, not only about what has happened, but about her response to it; she puts all her inner turmoil right on the page and we experience it with her. Rushdie’s writing, on the other hand, is that of a trauma victim, dully recounting the memories that have plagued him.
It makes Joseph Anton feel like a kind of therapy, a preliminary sweep of the field to take the taint of secrecy out of his horrible experience. Maybe this is why all the characters feel a little bit like cardboard cutouts. And maybe this is why all the anecdotes receive exactly the same weight. Rushdie devotes the same amount of space to a squabble with his publisher as he does to a visit to speak with Bill Clinton. He also devotes exactly the same amount of space – that is, zero – to understanding his wives’ grievances as he does to understanding why so many people want to kill him.
Rushdie has every right to write a boring, self-serving book. What’s troubling is the way he has tried to position himself in history. He rails against Muslim extremism and sees his case as a harbinger of the terrorist attacks of 9/11: ‘His [Rushdie’s] story is a sort of prologue: the tale of the moment when the first blackbird lands. When it begins it’s just about him; it’s individual, particular, specific. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings…’
And yet, Rushdie is an elitist at heart. He doesn’t really like being mixed in with the rest of history. A lot of Joseph Anton is devoted to literary dinners, award nights, self-congratulatory talk about the place of literature in the world. In recent weeks, while he has been doing the interview circuit, Rushdie’s snobbery has once more been to the fore. For instance, he criticises the responses in the Arab world to the anti-Muslim video ‘Innocence of Muslims’. But he is also keen to distance the provocation of the ‘Innocence of the Muslims’ from that of The Satanic Verses: ‘[The video maker] has done something malicious, and that’s a very different thing from writing a serious novel. He’s clearly set out to provoke.’
Did Rushdie himself not set out to provoke? With all the benefit of an Oxford education in Islamic history, did he really not know that his book would cause outrage? Rushdie is trying to point out that The Satanic Verses is a greater work of art than the schlocky ‘Innocence of Muslims’, and it’s hard to argue with that. But the other point Rushdie is making is that he was addressing a different audience. He wasn’t writing for hoi polloi, he was writing for the literati. He was writing for those he perceives can cope with free speech, rather than the lesser educated who, presumably, can’t.
Well, who is Joseph Anton addressed to? Again, Rushdie has every right to write a self-serving book, to exorcise his demons and grieve over his lost years. But we, the book’s readers, have every right to demand a better and fuller book next time.
Kate Prengel is a writer and art critic living in New York.