Aditya Sinha: Joseph and his Technicolor Memoir

Saturday, 29 September 2012 - 10:00am IST Updated: Friday, 28 September 2012 - 10:17pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

A fatwa is no fun, but Salman Rushdie’s telling of the years in hiding is entertaining, engaging and insightful. It’s one of the best memoirs you’ll ever read, says Aditya Sinha.

Book: Joseph Anton
Author: Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape
Pages: 656
Price: Rs799

If the fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, a book his condemners never read, had succeeded then the world would not have known Joseph Anton, and that would have been the world’s loss. It is a literary memoir that is also a work of literature; it traces an arc of Islamism from his fatwa to 9/11; it asserts the need for an “unfettered republic of the tongue”; it is a story of meetings with the world’s greatest novelists; it is filled with literary gossip; it tells the tale of a man’s four failed marriages (Rushdie exhausting the quota prescribed by the mullahs who excommunicated him); and it is a journey of a second self-discovery. In short, it is one of the best memoirs you may ever read.

Because there is no other book in which you will get to read of William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, “sitting with his legs splayed and wearing no pants, his treasures generously and fully on display”. Nowhere else will you get details of a dinner with Thomas Pynchon; nowhere else will you hear of Rushdie, at a Thai takeaway with Ian McEwan, being mistaken for “Birry Joel”; no-one else will tell you how he envied his close friend Martin Amis for being close to the great American novelist Saul Bellow; nowhere else will an eminent scholar be described as a member of the “Cat Stevens Stupid Party”; and nowhere else will you be taken into confidence about an afternoon tryst with the French Culture minister’s daughter, Caroline Lang.

It sounds like life was fun for Rushdie-on-the-run. It was not. From Valentine’s Day 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini fatwa-ed, till September 1998, when the Iranian government after years of negotiation decided, in a diplomatic understanding with the UK, not to pursue the fatwa, Rushdie lost his identity. (At a negotiation cul-de-sac, an Iranian angrily declares the fatwa would stand for 10,000 years, which Rushdie wryly notes would entail an extraordinarily long life.) True, he remained Rushdie; but to evade assassins he adopted a pseudonym (for cheque-writing, etc) comprising the first names of two of his favourite authors, Conrad and Chekhov. Hence the memoir’s title. A police document about the threat to him and his publishers uses bird names as code and ends up with the “magnificently titled ‘Assessment of Strength and Potential of Dotterel Protest Against Godwit of Arctic Tern’s Pigeon and Implications for Golden Plover’”. (The police, who set limits on his actions and thus his identity — he notes how they “allow” him to have dinner with friends or attend his own book launch — withdraw his protection only in March 2002, by which time the Islamists have other things on their minds.) As Martin Amis put it, Rushdie “vanished into the front page”.

Not only does Rushdie disappear (though he puts on weight), so does, in a manner of speaking, his muse: “this had been the longest…writing block of his life”. As he says, “Like everyone he had had a picture of the world in his head that had made a kind of sense…Then like a great hammer swinging the fatwa smashed the picture and left him in an absurd formless amoral universe in which danger was everywhere and sense was not to be found.”

This loss of identity came, unfortunately, at the very time that his self-discovery was gathering pace. After five failed novels, Rushdie found his voice with Midnight’s Children; he saw his true self by putting himself, as Christopher Hitchens put it, as the product of parturition and partition. The Satanic Verses was an exploration of the scepticism that his father Anis had instilled in him, an exploration that was misunderstood. He went into hiding, and in one sense, lost his way.

Yes, he wrote seven books during that time, and The Moor’s Last Sigh is a pretty good read; he might have followed the same progression of writing and books even without the fatwa, but you wonder whether he had reached what Kurt Vonnegut had warned him about: the day a writer runs out of things to say. On the other hand, it is because of the fatwa and its intensely merging of Rushdie’s personal with the political that he eventually writes the masterpiece that is Joseph Anton. (I wonder if other great living writers abstractly envy the agony that Rushdie endured, because in the end, it gave him a unique perspective on not just the contemporary issue of Islamism but also on the enduring issue of freedom.) All the books between The Satanic Verses and his memoir are arguably lesser works. And for all the exploding sentences and wordplay that have been a trademark of Rushdie’s writing since Midnight’s Children, the force of his mastery is most evident in Joseph Anton. One could even wonder, or blaspheme, whether his life was more interesting than his fiction. (Though he himself felt he had, “he told his friends, been cursed with an interesting life, which sometimes resembled a bad novel by himself”.)

A crisis opens your eyes. (By the way, Rushdie’s hooded eyes, which the British tabloid press — whom collectively he dubs the Daily Insult — attributes to his arrogant, rude and selfish personality, were a result of ptosis and are surgically corrected during the course of the hiding.) Rushdie found not just misled Muslims opposing him, but also many non-Muslims — other writers even – who should have known better. Spy novelist John le Carré, for instance, speaks out against Rushdie in 1989, and they have a bitter row in the pages of the Guardian in 1997 (Christopher Hitchens chips in mercilessly on behalf of his friend). Indeed, Iran would have annulled the fatwa earlier had it not been for the fact of British Muslims, who burnt his book in Bradford — what starker fascist symbolism exists? — and kept the temperature up for years until they too ran out of energy. Indeed, at an Edward Said event nearly nine years after the fatwa, a young man approaches Rushdie and it turns out that he had in 1989 led many demonstrations against the writer. “‘And then recently,’ Asad cried, ‘I read your book, and I couldn’t see what the fuss was about!’”

Good point. The people, as Rushdie pointed out to Asad, who hadn’t read his novel were the very ones organizing the fuss. At the time of the fatwa, Rushdie had read it as an act by a dying mullah trying to assert his control over his flock after a series of badly-received decisions (like the ruinous war with Iraq). Often, during his years of hiding, he argued that first, he did not insult the Prophet, and second, the type of inquiry he was making was an intellectual one about the methodology of transcribing from memory, many years after the Prophet passed on, of what was to take shape as al-Quran. Rushdie argued that Islam traditionally permitted independent-minded inquiry, particularly during its golden period; but that kind of tradition was now being trampled underfoot, and he was not the only victim; so were writers all over the Arab world.

Though Rushdie noted that “the rising tide of Islamic radicalism was described by its own ideologues as a ‘revolt against history’”, and though he saw it as a foreshadow of the radicalism that was to come – which is why 9/11 provides a good symbolic bookend to his story — his story also tells why this radical world view, “that disliked modernity itself — rational, reasonable, innovative, secular, sceptical, challenging, creative modernity, the antithesis of mystical, static, intolerant, stultifying faith”, took hold. It is obvious in the fact that the Labour Party decided to knight Iqbal Sacranie — a man who publicly stated that “death was too easy” for Rushdie — on the recommendation of the Blair government; the same Labour party, of whom Rushdie had so publicly been a supporter, found its MPs not just unwilling to support him but also publicly berating him, simply because they needed the support of their Muslim constituents. Political mobilisation finds it easiest to seek the lowest common denominator. (Such rabidity has its lighter side: the Pakistani film International Gorillay. Rushdie’s observations about this film about himself are ROFL funny and ironic.)

And then there is the higher concern: “He thought every day of William Nygaard and his bullet holes, of Ettore Capriolo kicked and stabbed, of Hitoshi Igarashi dead in a poll of blood by a lift shaft. Not only he, the shameless author, but the world of books – literature itself – had been vilified, shot, kicked, knifed and blamed at the same time.” (Nygaard was the Verses’s Norwegian publisher, Capriolo and Igarashi its Italian and Japanese translators.) The modern problem for Rushdie was this: “Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, towards narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.”

Naturally, this took a toll on him personally. From the memoir he clearly dearly loved his first wife, Clarissa, who passes away six pages after his jaw plunges to the floor when he first meets his to-be-fourth-wife Padma Lakshmi. Clarissa is his longest relationship, which drifts apart after the stunning success of Midnight’s Children; it produces a son, Zafar, who is a good barometer of how badly things are going for Rushdie during the fatwa years, or how he’s temporarily on the path to sanity. His second marriage, to American writer Marianne Wiggins, is a disaster even before it begins, and does not survive the tension of the fatwa.

He meets Elizabeth West during his days of hiding, and when the idea of no longer being under police protection appears (in the form of America; as Rushdie shows, it is truly the symbol of freedom) then their relationship falls apart (they have a son, Milan; and as with Clarissa, his relationship with Elizabeth eventually becomes friendly). Once he reaches America, he meets its personification in Padma Lakshmi: stunning, celebrating celebrity, but also, as he finds out, competitive with him. Thus, their marriage inevitably falls apart.

Yet Rushdie survives. Undoubtedly because of his friends, some of whom pass on during his journey. Friends with whom he plays “foolish word games”, and in a passage that echoes passages in Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, Hitch-22, he lists Titles That Weren’t Good Enough, among them Mr Zhivago, Two Days In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, The Big Gatsby, Love In The Time Of Influenza, and Snag-22. (It’s as if this passage provides a two-way portal to Hitch’s memoir.) It is truly an elixir, to play with friends in the greatest playpen of all: language. It is this love and devotion to language that makes this memoir stand out. It is a fulfilling read of a life fulfilled.

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