Home > Categories > Books > Non-Fiction > Joseph Anton: a Memoir review
On 14 February 1989, Valentine's Day, Salman Rushdie was telephoned by a BBC journalist and told that he had been 'sentenced to death' by the Ayatollah Khomeini. For the first time he heard the word fatwa. His crime? To have written a novel called The Satanic Verses, which was accused of being 'against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran'. So begins the extraordinary story of how a writer was forced underground, moving from house to house, with the constant presence of an armed police protection team. He was asked to choose an alias that the police could call him by. He thought of writers he loved and combinations of their names; then it came to him: Conrad and Chekhov - Joseph Anton.
In this remarkable memoir Rushdie tells his story for the first time; the story of one of the crucial battles, in our time, for freedom of speech. He talks about the sometimes grim, sometimes comic realities of living with armed policemen, and of the close bonds he formed with his protectors; of his struggle for support and understanding from governments, intelligence chiefs, publishers, journalists, and fellow writers; and of how he regained his freedom.
It is a book of exceptional frankness and honesty, compelling, provocative, moving, and of vital importance. Because what happened to Salman Rushdie was the first act of a drama that is still unfolding somewhere in the world every day.
Salman Rushdie is the author of ten novels, one collection of short stories, three works of non-fiction, and the co-editor of The Vintage Book of Indian Writing.
I believe that Salman Rushdie is one of the great literary geniuses of our time and he is certainly one of my favourite and most esteemed authors. I must confess to knowing that a fatwa had been placed on Salman Rushdie (as a consequence of opposition against the perceived blasphemous content of his book The Satanic Verses) but I had given very little thought at the time or in the intervening years to what this meant for Rushdie's life and his day to day ability to go about his affairs.
Joseph Anton; A Memoir will certainly give you an insight into how Rushdie, living under his chosen name of Joseph Anton for nine years, lived (or didn't live) his life. At 633 pages this memoir is not a light nor superficial read. Rushdie begins his story with his life as a child and growing up in India before moving to England to board for secondary school at Rugby. Rushdie then went to Cambridge where he read History undertaking, as the only student, the "subject about Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the early Caliphate." Pg 39.
Rushdie's studies clearly informed his abilities as a writer and he has become a novelist who writes with not only a deep and educated understanding of the issues delved into in his novels but the ability to translate these ideas into an enjoyable readable form for his readers. This Memoir covers Rushdie's life but is written in the third person. Mainly because of how fragmented he became after 1989 and having had to choose a different persona to maintain his "cover" He was to many "Joseph Anton", to his friends and family Salman and to the public, especially those calling for his death, " Rushdie". I probably enjoyed this more written in this form than I would have written in the first.
I enjoyed in this memoir the detail Rushdie gives into the writing of his books and how the stories and characters formed. This Memoir was very much an insight into the progression not only of his struggle regarding the fatwa but also the development of his writings.
Being the great writer that he is this Memoir was never going to be anything other than outstandingly and exceptionally well written but what I had not expected is the degree of openness that Rushdie gives into not only what occurred for him on the 14th of February 1989, when the Fatwa was made by Ayatollah Khomeini and a price put on his head, but the impact that this had on his personal relationships with the women in his life and on his family, friends and children. At times in this novel it seems that there is a lot of name dropping but the reality is that in the circles that Rushdie moves in there are a lot of names to be dropped. One can only but feel his sincere and utter appreciation for the love and support (even if it wavered at times from some) of his friends and associates during what was not just a short period of time but nine long years and beyond of incredible turmoil. Rushdie is incredibly frank about the day to day life he endures "under protection" and the impact his "protection" had on him. He details each of his relationships with his four wives, beginning, middle and ends and was surprisingly frank about his marriages to Marianne, Clarissa, Elizabeth and Padma. This Memoir is incredibly personal and this is its strength as it is completely absorbing.
The length of this Memoir can be forgiven for the need for Salman Rushdie to tell his whole story. It feels like there is a reason for almost every sentence in this book and to have edited this book down would have detracted hugely from the many levels of this Memoir. So whilst it felt long and over detailed at times I could see why.
Salman Rushdie fought tirelessly to have the Fatwa removed and details all of his efforts, often in great detail right down to his clothes on the day, in this. He was incredibly political and details' the political aspects of the Fatwa as well as how he managed to continue to write during this time and publish successive books.
Having read The Satanic Verses I wondered myself what all the fuss was about and Salman Rushdie's steadfast refusal to withdraw his book is at the crux of this memoir. His belief in the right of freedom of speech and the crucial role that our ability to express ourselves through the written word has on our culture and our humanity is one that should never be suppressed. If I was to take one lesson from this Memoir it would be that the world that we live in is a better place for having people like Salman Rushdie in it, not only to produce such amazing literature but to stand up for the right for any and all of us to be able to access that literature and to be able to proudly display a copy. If we cannot debate and discuss and challenge our beliefs how can we progress as a society.
If you have even a passing interest in Salman Rushdie or the "affair" of The Satanic Verses" then I can recommend this book wholeheartedly. I now want read those of his books I haven't yet read and reread my favourites. I will certainly be reading them in a new light.
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