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Joseph Anton: A Memoir

Salman Rushdie’s autobiographical account of his years under the fatwa that followed Satanic Verses is a powerful insight into the literary cause celebre of the late 20th century.

Here’s a quick test of your age and literary engagement: what’s your first memory of the name Salman Rushdie? If you are over 40 and of a literary bent, your first memory is probably the author of the Booker prize winner of 1981, the magnificent Midnight’s Children.

 But if you are younger or less bookish your first association will no doubt be the author of The Satanic Verses, the notorious Salman Rushdie who was sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day 1989 for a novel accused of being ‘against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran’.

In the first case, you are remembering Rushdie. In the second, the man in your mind is the character called Joseph Anton.

 For most authors it would be pretentious to write a memoir in the third person, let alone creating a different persona as your subject. But in the extraordinary circumstances of Rushdie’s life the technique is powerful and revealing.

Joseph Anton (the first names of Conrad and Chekhov) was the name Rushdie used when his Secret Service protection officers asked him to create a pseudonym in his years in hiding. This man – although born from the novelist Rushdie – vacillates between the identity of an author defending his fiction and that of a fugitive afraid for his life.

 Through this long, highly detailed but tremendously engaging memoir, Rushdie tells the story of Joseph Anton in hiding; a man riding a rollercoaster of fear, hope, despair and defiance. Most of us know fragments of this story – the fatwa, the campaign for freedom campaign, and fragments of Rushdie’s sometimes scandalous personal life (he works his way through four wives in the course of the memoir). But it’s well worth reading the book to get a sense of the context and the revealing details of his life story.

What is most fascinating about Joseph Anton is the ways we see the personal and political interact. Behind the public protests and diplomatic machinations is a man trying to maintain a relationship with his growing son, trying to hold together a marriage (or four!) and, in the early part of the memoir, simply trying to find somewhere to live out of sight of an assassin.

The death of the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses and stabbing of the Norwegian publisher are stark reminders that his is not some dark fantasy or hysteria. Rushdie was clearly in danger and, in a sense, the memoir argues that during that dark period, Rushdie did die and Joseph Anton took up residence in his body.

For all of us whose knowledge of Rushdie comes from newspaper reports – both front page and gossip column – this memoir is an opportunity to gain context and understanding of the real story. Rushdie is often painted as arrogant and selfish, a shallow ‘quick bite’ portrait for profile writers.

 Readers are unlikely to come away thinking of him as particularly humble or easy to live with but we certainly understand him and respect what drives him. We cannot help but be appalled by the circumstances that forced him into hiding and the failure of the British government to fight loudly and clearly for a British citizen. (Rushdie, though born in India, has lived in Britain since he came to boarding school at age 11.)

 Along the way we gain a rare view of the workings of the British secret service and the interactions between diplomacy, government and police, and the differences between Britain and the US. Many readers will also enjoy the titbits on the social life of the literati. Rushdie’s close circle included Martin (Amis), Angela (Carter) and Ian (McEwan).

 For all the extraordinary circumstances, at no point does the reader ever forget that Salman Rushdie is a writer. Both the skill of the writing and the rationale which drives it, remind us constantly of the power and importance of fiction.

 Joseph Anton may be a hunted man and political football but his biographer Salman Rushdie is a great writer who maintains a wry sense of humour and a sharp eye. This is not only an important book but also an enjoyable read.

 Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Joseph Anton: A Memoir
By Salman Rushdie
Trade paperback, 656pp, RRP $35.00
ISBN: 9780224093989
Random House