Salman Rushdie is one of the world’s most famous living writers who has written many good books, one of which he almost paid the ultimate price for. After Rushdie put out The Satanic Verses in 1988, the ruling mullahs of Iran were so angered at the book for supposedly insulting Islam, they issued an official ruling or fatwa in 1989 calling for Muslims to kill him. Joseph Anton is a memoir by Rushdie about the 10 years he spent in hiding, living under 24-hour state protection, while the fatwa was in effect.
Written in third-person form, Joseph Anton is an interesting and unnerving memoir that doesn’t draw back from showing the frustration, anger and helplessness that Rushdie lived under. This included having to withdraw from public life and move constantly, accept 24-hour protection from the British state, and even using a false name, Joseph Anton, drawn from two of his favorite writers Conrad and Chekhov, hence the name of the book.
The fatwa to kill Rushdie led to numerous threats to his life that was staggering in how vehement and blatant they were, such as public rallies and threats in not just Iran, but in the UK by local radical Muslims. Iran also did try to send out assassins, which shows just how deranged their rulers were. Having been forced to hide from public life almost suddenly in 1989, Rushdie and his protectors initially thought the whole controversy would die down soon, never imagining that it would drag on for so many years.
While Rushdie and his lover, who he eventually marries, are forced to live under circumstances that would reduce most of us to nervous wrecks, they are helped by generous and understanding friends, many of them Rushdie’s contemporaries and important figures in the literary and arts world. People do get shot, like one of Rushdie’s publishers, or die such as the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses who was stabbed to death in 1991 by a Bangladeshi in Japan.
Rushdie fights back, giving interviews and writing columns defending himself and condemning the fatwa, whilst trying to persuade Western governments and media outlets to argue his case. He also tries to regain his freedom little by little, such as flying overseas to the US or France to make short appearances at forums and meet with dignitaries. Even then, he is generally banned from flying on most airlines and visiting a lot of countries, such as his own birthplace India, which refused to let him visit until after the fatwa is lifted. Rushdie must also contend with criticisms from people in the West, such as from spy novelist John le Carre, that he brought on the trouble for himself. Rushdie is dismissive of this, saying that if this were the case, then writers should never write about anything significant or speak up for values such as free speech.
Just as important is Rushdie’s determination not to bend to the Iranian mullahs and apologize or censor his book. The core issue is freedom of speech, whether literature can be censored or silenced merely due to supposedly offending people or even religion. In these times, this debate is even more apt and at times threatened, but the importance is undiminished.
For me, personally, I read The Satanic Verses and whilst I didn’t like the book too much, I didn’t think Rushdie wrote anything hateful about Islam. It is really shameful that the Iranian leaders would use religious authority to compel the Muslim world to threaten a writer like this and make him lose 10 years of his life.
Through all this, Rushdie is frustrated, depressed, and enraged, but he never loses hope. Of course, this is helped by the fact he had state protection, a faithful lover, his son, and numerous friends and allies who secretly hosted him in dinners or let him use their homes as temporary or holiday accommodations. The whole affair really demonstrates the best and the worst of people.
Joseph Anton is a monster of a book, being over 600 pages, but it is a fine account of a valiant struggle that puts not just the life of a writer, but the sanctity of freedom of expression at the fore.