From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
By now, the story has taken on the air of legend: On Feb. 14, 1989, a day when most of the Western world was professing its Hallmark love for one another, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie on the charges of blasphemy against Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses.
Of course, any cursory glance at the social pages and you’re likely to find mention (or pictures) of Rushdie at various parties and premieres, so we know that this story ultimately ends well. But what exactly happened during that decade-long period of hiding from fanatical assassins and living under the (surprisingly oppressive) shadow of government protection?
Finally, we have the story in Rushdie’s own words. Well, sort of. His long-awaited memoir, Joseph Anton (titled after the code name Rushdie lived under during the fatwa years) is actually told in the third person, so that Rushdie himself becomes a character enmeshed in a tale of political intrigue and espionage, back-room deliberations and secret meetings, and assassinations both thwarted and unfortunately successful.
This decision to avoid the first-person is an interesting one. It helps dodge the pitfall of self-importance that plagues (but is an essential part of) so many memoirs. Unfortunately, it raises the stakes on having to make the “character” of Salman Rushdie more engaging and believable. It’s a curious disconnect between what we expect of memoirs and what we expect of narrative fiction.
But to be asked to follow “Salman Rushdie” instead of Salman Rushdie for 600-plus pages is a bit of a chore—even when he takes care to reveal his own flaws and even given the importance of what’s at stake here (freedom of expression, the battle against religious extremism, the important role of literature in society).
Rushdie has been known to write massive epics (Midnight’s Children, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet), but those works have always carried themselves on a whirlwind of storytelling magic and linguistic acrobatics. All too often, though, Joseph Anton feels like nothing more than a laundry list of events; a police procedural in the worst sense. “First, this happened to me. Then, this happened to me. Then this. And this.” We get the skeleton of a complex story, but none of the organs, muscles and tissues to transform it into a living, breathing tale.
And then there’s the epic laundry list of famous faces Rushdie meets during his years drumming up support for his cause and, eventually, reclaiming his life: Susan Sontag, Bono, Warren Beatty, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Steve Martin, Madonna. These and other names drop into Joseph Anton with all the subtlety of a depth charge, forming a veritable who’s who of late 20th century pop culture.
To be fair, there are some moments in the tedium worth savoring: Rushdie’s early life and birth as a writer; the insights into how he prepared for and wrote his early masterpieces (including the controversial novel that destroyed his everyday life); the call to arms from writers from around the world to stand up for free speech; that final moment when Rushdie steps back into the real world as himself and hails a cab without the suffocating presence of armed security forces.
But as a lifelong fan of Salman Rushdie and a firm believer in the magic of his storytelling powers, I found Joseph Anton to be a disappointment. As a record of events from this period in Rushdie’s life (which he considers the first stirring of the larger geopolitical war between Islam and the West that truly announced its presence on 9/11), the memoir does an adequate job. But if you’re looking for an example of what makes Rushdie so brilliant in the first place, you’re better served going back to his earlier works.
That’s what I’m doing. And I’m rediscovering just how great a writer he can be—and just how lucky we all are that he’s still around to tell stories.