Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Joseph Anton


Salman Rushdie's latest book is a memoir of his time living under a fatwa, which Ayotollah Kohmeini announced in 1989.  Can you imagine waking up each day for 9 years and knowing there is a multi-million dollar price on your head?  If you can't (and, honestly, very few of us can), you'll need to read through the 600+ pages of Joseph Anton.
For anyone who lived under a rock for the past 20 years, Rushdie is pretty much the bane of the Islamic world, or at least was, after the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988.  While much-loved by the literary community, Verses was seen as blasphemous by most practicing Muslims.  Rushdie answered a phone call on Valentine's Day, 1989 and asked what it felt like to have a price on his head.  From them through 2000, he hopped from safe house to safe house under the protection of the British Secret Service, paid for by the British government.  For safety reasons, he had to choose a new name; thus, Joseph Anton was born from the first names of the great novelists Conrad and Chekhov. 
As many other reviewers noted, the first half of this memoir is gripping.  Rushdie discusses his childhood spent in boarding schools in England, his tormented relationship with his father, his first jobs out of college, and the birth of his novels.  It goes about at a clipped pace, and is full of juicy details of literary giants (he was the best man at Bill Buford's wedding, and attended a tea at Buckingham Palace while Diana lived there).  Rushdie writes in the third person, which helps it read a bit more novel-y. 
Perhaps in direct correlation to his own sense of tedium at living each day under some form of house arrest, the second half plods along and goes into much detail about each weekend trip spent with friends and takeout meal.  Each passage that involves interaction with his children picks up a bit, though, as he quite clearly adores his sons.  The same cannot be said of all of his romantic entanglements, and he does not pause to breathe during attacks on his second and fourth wives. 
Why wouldn't he just apologize to the hoards of people he offended with his novel?  Free speech.  People should be able to express their opinions without fear for their personal safety, and without fear of crazed public backlash.  It would be nice if he could have said that a bit more succinctly; after page 400, my interest waned a bit.

Sidenote: Growing up, I had heard of Verses, but had not seen it or knew what it was about.  I truly thought it was a series of poems that praised the devil or perhaps encouraged readers to commit unthinkable acts.  How odd to learn, during my teenage years, that it was an allegorical tale of two men from India who crash into England.  A bit disappointing.

1 comment:

  1. How brave of you to tackle this book! Salman Rushdie occupies the same space in my mind as Faulkner--intimidating and a bit too much for me. You made this memoir sound a bit more manageable, though, so maybe I'll give it a try!