In 1989, Salman Rushdie became the focus of a fatwa, declared by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and was accused of being against Islam for his novel The Satanic Verses. Being a fiction writer caused him to live in hiding for years and to defend freedom of speech for writers and for all people. Joseph Anton is a complex, honest memoir of Rushdie’s life during the fatwa.
“Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before. Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever-narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became, the greater was the liklihood of conflict between them. Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like onself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war” (628).
633 pages, paperback
Rating: 4 — Recommended Reading
Read my review of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories here.
While many memoirs span a person’s whole life thus far, Salman Rushdie chooses to focus heavily on the years he was under the fatwa. Rushdie does flashback to his past, but remains mostly in the professional and personal turmoil of being forced into hiding from threats on his life. At the heart of Joseph Anton (the title being the alias Rushdie adopts for protection) is the very personal struggle of one author to assert the importance of the right to freedom of speech while simultaneously attempting to live life as well as he can.
Reasons to read
I probably hadn’t finished the first part of Joseph Anton before I started telling people that it was the best memoir I’d ever read. The main reason for this was the honesty with which Rushdie writes. He seems to present himself as he truly is (as much as a person can, especially in memoir), and presents the facts of the fatwa period of his life as accurately as he remembers them. At the same time, I felt like I was reading a Rushdie novel with a splendidly believable character who was broken and struggling but with whom I felt some common bond. Rushdie’s portrayal of himself is a memoir that feels like a fiction novel. The tone is perfect.
Memoirs are usually told fully through the author’s perspective and closely focused on the author’s life. While Joseph Anton certainly fits these criteria, it also includes more people and their perspectives than I’m familiar with for this genre. Rushdie includes (admittedly, his perspectives of) the other people around him during the fatwa like the men guarding him, the women and children in his life, his family, his friends who protect him, those who write and speak against him, and all of the government hoopla. He may not always be fair to those perspectives (who can be all of the time, especially in memoir), but he found a way to make other voices present in an otherwise very author-focused book. These additional people create a rich, detailed, fleshed-out story that is deeply human.
The discussion of freedom of speech
Freedom of speech, especially as it pertains to fiction writers, is squarely at the center of Joseph Anton. By focusing the novel on his experience living under a fatwa, Rushdie is able to explore many facets of this idea. Our freedoms are most often thought of abstractly, and this novel excellently depicts what happens when one of them actually turns into a life or death situation. Rushdie includes his missteps along the way as he defends is own novel and the larger issue of freedom of speech, so that the memoir doesn’t read as a straight hero’s tale, reminding us that standing up for ideals like freedoms is very difficult.
Aspects that could bug you
I can’t quite call it “name dropping” because he doesn’t seem to do it solely for effect, but there are SO many literary greats in here that Rushdie calls close friends, strong enemies, or just brushes elbows with. It’s impressive. If you’re a literature person, you’ll be excited to see into their lives and jealous that you don’t get to hang out with Harold Pinter, let alone experience someone “being Pintered” firsthand.
For being focused on such a relatively brief period of time in Rushdie’s life, Joseph Anton is over six hundred pages long. Some readers will certainly find this too formidable. While the fatwa is the main focus of the story, there are flashbacks and digressions to other events which sometimes highlight other themes. The novel is also not divided into chapters but rather into ten longer parts, although there are section breaks that the reader can use to break the parts up. If length is the only thing keeping you from reading this book, I say give it a try anyway.
If you enjoy fiction, writing, Salman Rushdie, or discussions of freedom, you’ll enjoy this memoir from the most harrowing time in Rushdie’s life and a difficult time for freedom of speech around the world.