Living to tell the tale

Joseph Anton: A Memoir
by Salman Rushdie
Random House, September 2012
656 pages / $18  Buy from Amazon







On the cover of this utterly compelling book, two names belonging to five different individuals introduce the reader to a life abruptly interrupted by politics. First is that of the British author, Salman Rushdie, who deserves praise for the beautiful prose that follows. His surname was adapted by his father from Ibn Rushd, the twelfth century Muslim philosopher whose vein of Islamic scholarship had left its mark on the Rushdie family. Below Rushdie, “Joseph Anton”, a name unknown to history, is inscribed in large letters. This is an invented name which, when taken as a whole, is fictitious, but when separated into two parts, becomes a composite of the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov, two of Rushdie’s favorite authors.

Although Joseph Anton is a name invented by the author, the relationship between them is quite different from, say, Oliver Twist and Dickens. The invention here had not been the result of an artistic choice. It was necessitated when Rushdie wrote a novel, in 1989, about the origins of Islam, earning the hatred of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Khomeini accused Rushdie of blasphemy and issued a fatwa to all Muslims, informing them that the writer of The Satanic Verses as well as “all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content” were sentenced to death. The death of the author, however, had been a wish that was not granted. Rushdie survived and is here to tell the tale. (Others, though, were not as lucky: the Japanese translator of the book was murdered in 1991, the Italian translator was stabbed and his Norwegian publisher attacked at his house.)

Rushdie’s account begins when a BBC reporter calls him to ask how it feels “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It doesn’t feel good, he replies before rushing downstairs to lock the front door of his London apartment.

As the reader walks in his shoes in the course of more than 650 densely-written pages, it becomes apparent that Rushdie’s mental state was much more complicated than his initial reaction might suggest. Fatwa becomes for him an elixir, helping Rushdie to identify his friends and his foes. The event also kickstarts a public discussion on blasphemy, religious intolerance and freedom of expression, leading to numerous political stances some of which were taken at the expense of personal safety.

The day after Khomeini issued the fatwa, Rushdie was offered protection by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. Because of the seriousness of the threat, he was entitled to a level of protection only offered to heads of the British state. Under the protective wings of these police agents who inhabited his life, it became very difficult for Rushdie to make distinctions between his private and public affairs.

The death sentence had produced an extremely alienating effect on Rushdie who decided to tell his experiences in third person. Although it feels a little awkward at the beginning, his technique quickly gives an ironic tone to the narrative, allowing Rushdie to point to absurd moments in his life which wouldn’t seem so absurd had they not been narrated from the point of view of a detached observer.

After giving a fascinating, detailed account of that fateful day in 1989, Rushdie takes us back to his beginnings and a colorful portrait of the artist as a young man ensues. A sense of solitude accompanies the young Rushdie in his days at Rugby school and later at Cambridge where he grows an interest in history.

As historian of his life, Rushdie never forgets a negative review or an act of animosity. Writers as diverse as James Wood, John le Carré, John Berger and Jacques Derrida (all coincidentally sharing the letter J in their first names) alienate Rushdie in their reactions to his texts or political acts. Rushdie disjoints specimens of intolerance from the rubble of history, hanging them out to dry, as he feels he was treated likewise during his troubles.

Some of Rushdie’s politics I found difficult to agree with: I didn’t like his mocking of the term “Islamophobia” on the grounds that Islam is a synonym for intolerance. Although his personal experience might suggest otherwise, it is too broad a claim which ignores Islamophobic acts of violence in Europe and the US whose narrow-mindedness equals some of Rushdie’s extremist enemies.

His consistent advocacy for freedom of expression, and influential leadership of the American PEN, on the other hand, are admirable. Accounts of the writing processes of his books, publishing deals and the problems involved there are as detailed as book recipes: every ingredient had been carefully preserved, every step clearly described.

From the history of Andrew Wylie’s legendary literary agency to the strange internal machinations of large publishing houses like Penguin and Knopf, “Joseph Anton” approaches its subject matter with a hyper-realist’s eye. Our illusion of inhabiting the point of view of a writer under imminent threat is never broken. Unpredictable, often stained with personal and public crises and a constant sense of danger, Rushdie’s life makes compelling reading.


Kaya Genc is a novelist, essayist and doctoral candidate from Istanbul. His has work appeared in The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian Weekly, Index on Censorship, Songlines, and on Guernica, The Millions, Specter and London Review of Books websites. His first novel, L’avventura, came out in Turkey in 2008. He is currently working on a novel in English.

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  1. Don

      Great review, thanks!

  2. alan

      Great point about those writers all having J in their first names but I wish you had gone further and drawn attention to the fact that J is the INITIAL letter in those names.

  3. Caleb Powell

      Kaya, this review is troubling on two fronts. One – the book, two – your analysis.

      I read the excerpt in The New Yorker, a mighty pedestrian bit, which compelled me to avoid the book. He’s Rushdie, and he will always carry an important spot in literature, much of it deserved, but from the small excerpt he was evening scores. Not attractive in any writer.

      I wonder if he wrote about the Sivas Massacre, not mentioned here, but 37 people died in Turkey as a result of an attack aimed at one of his translators. I’d be interested in Rushdie’s two cents.

      Finally, Kaya, I’m not sure if you captured his views about “Islamophobia”, but I find your take odd. For example, the following: “Islamophobic acts of violence in Europe and the US whose narrow-mindedness equals some of Rushdie’s extremist enemies”…what the fuck???? Talk about beyond absurd. Eight countries currently have the death penalty as law for apostates from Islam (data from Pew Research), Islamic countries, one after the other, mitigate honor killings (read Irshad Manji or Rana Husseini) to the point that murder of a “disobedient” woman can be exonerated or worthy of less than a year in prison. Over 80% of the citizens in Egypt and Jordan back the death penalty for apostates (Pew Research). How can you compare the violence directed toward Coptic Christians in Egypt, Christians in Nigeria via Boko Haram, and Indonesia (Google the beheaded school girls in Sulawesi) to violence in Europe and the US? The only violence in the US of similar nature are the honor killings carried out by Muslim parents and terrorists acts by dickheads such as Nidal Hasan who get protected by mushbrains like you. There is violence in the West, and evil, and warmongering, but it’s not the same. I repeat, can you cite “equal” acts of violence, in quantity and extremity and in the name of “God/Allah”, in the West?

      No, you can’t.

  4. Caleb Powell

      PS – If you try to bring up Anders Breivik and isolated incidents of terror by fringe groups and right-wing extremists, remember, they are equivalent with Nidal Hasan in terms of moral vileness, but not in social and cultural terms. Norway immediately arrested Breivik, and the society and culture are unanimous in their condemnation. But suicide bombers in Afghanistan are looked at as heros and martyrs by the Taliban.

      I’m with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her take on the definition of Islamophobia.

      If I’ve gone on too much, man, it’s because your comment was just that unsettling in its lack of nuance. If I sound pissed, I am. Go ahead, I challenge you again, back up your statement: “Islamophobic acts of violence in Europe and the US whose narrow-mindedness equals some of Rushdie’s extremist enemies.”
      Just go ahead. Please.

  5. deadgod

      Genc himself highlights the “score”-settling aspect of the book: “As historian of his life, Rushdie never forgets a negative review or an act of animosity.”

      Genc does not make a false equivalence between “Islamophobic acts of violence” and violence committed in the name of Islam; no such “compar[ison]” is present in his equation of the “narrow-mindedness” of “Islamophobic acts of violence” and self-appointedly Islam-motivated violence.

      What he says is that he doesn’t “like” the fact that an identification of Islam with “intolerance” is the grounds for Rushdie’s dismissal of the term “Islamophobia”, and that Rushdie makes “too broad a claim” with this identification in the light of anti-Islamic extremism. (He could have added that not only is there anti-Muslim violence in the West, but there’s also plenty of “intolerance” which has nothing to do with Islam.) The synonymy does not obtain.

      Nowhere does Genc support violence committed in the name of Islam. Your insistence that he does is inaccurate and degrades only whatever point you might have been making.

      To the contrary, Genc praises Rushdie’s advocacy for the freedom of expression Rushdie and his interpreters and readers had and have been somewhat denied by violently intolerant Muslims.

      In short, Genc thinks that Rushdie’s largely admirable book is slightly marred by an exaggeration of Islam’s “intolerance”–indeed, by Rushdie’s “claim” that “intolerance” is intrinsic to Islam–, which Rushdie’s “personal experience might [have] suggest[ed]”.

      Perhaps a reader of Rushdie’s whole book will find this characterization of Rushdie’s point of view itself hyperbolic, but even then, one fair word for this kind of balanced review is nuanced.

  6. alan

      US imperialism is engaged in direct military operations in a number of supposedly sovereign Muslim-majority countries; is threatening at least a couple more with the same; supports and has historically supported brutally repressive and anti-democratic regimes in the Near East, Pakistan, and Indonesia (including that of Israel), and is largely responsible for keeping these parts of the world economically backward and thus mired in the traditional social and religious reaction you claim to be concerned about. The CIA sponsored and armed Islamic fanatics in Afghanistan against the Soviets who were there to protect a modernizing government that was letting girls go to school.

  7. deadgod

      In addition to the militarization of engagement by the West (and particularly by the US) with Muslim-majority countries–which looks reasonably to most in those countries like uncomplicatedly anti-Islamic warfare, yes?–, there are terror cells and networks in the US devoted – incredibly – to the cause of compulsory incubation.

      In many parts of the US, if women’s reproductive autonomy were argued for more emphatically, its advocates would be the targets of more–much more–lethal violence.

      Christian-superficialist America is not the “same” as, say, Taliban-dominated Muslim society, but the former is much closer to the latter than it is to anything like a community of ‘free’ agency.