IN HIS new book, an account of his life in hiding, Salman Rushdie is equally concerned with settling debts and scores. Most of the debts – to the police officers who protected him and the friends who gave him shelter – are large but the scores tend to be negligible.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir
by Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape, 656pp, £25
In the years when Ayatollah Khomeini blurred the boundary between literary criticism and bounty-hunting, Rushdie appears to have remembered every slight and snub. You might have thought a fatwa would put bad reviews in perspective but Rushdie has a tendency to conflate the unflattering with the unsupportive, as if he had enough on his plate without people expressing their opinions. Time has done little to dull old grievances.
No press clipping is too insignificant to escape Rushdie’s attention. The critic James Wood is described as someone “who contradicted himself according to the literary predilections of his paymasters” – an absurd description of Wood’s change of heart over Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet – though Rushdie is more forgiving of those who revised opinions of his work upwards.
When Arundhati Roy, soon after winning the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, described Rushdie’s work as “exotic”, an initial temptation to reply gave way to pacifism: “Let it rest, he thought, and moved on.” But revisiting the incident 15 years later shows that his moving-on was a pretence only, a temporary show of restraint.
Joseph Anton – the title comes from Rushdie’s Conrad-meets-Chekhov undercover codename – is an attempt to set the record straight. It reads partly like a politician’s diary, with meeting after minuted meeting, partly like a committee report, with date and fact after date and fact, and partly like a diligent literary biography, with name after eminent name (even Rushdie gets tired of this: “Sontag, Walcott, Tabucchi, Enzensberger and so on”).
Rushdie portrays with absolute clarity the boredom and frustration of the fatwa years (“Everything that was not expressly allowed was forbidden”) but his attempts at circumspection come steeped in cliché: the word fatwa “hung around his neck like a millstone”; “History was rushing at him like a truck”. He compares life under the fatwa to Kafka and Groundhog Day – widely deployed reference points for mental states he experienced. (I lost count of the number of times he described people and restaurants as “legendary”.) At one point, he recalls swearing at his friend Isabel Fonseca and then apologising immediately afterwards. It’s as if secular offence is more important than religious offence – rudeness is unacceptable while blasphemy is to be encouraged. Why hold on so strongly to the right to offend if the intention to offend wasn’t there in the first place? It’s hardly the same as apologising for your imagination – retracting your best phrases, recanting on your metaphors.
Towards the end, Rushdie celebrates his return from being “an ambassador for himself” to being a novelist but he made the choice to render his identity as a fiction writer indivisible from his cause.
Rushdie wants to tell the story from both inside and outside, to provide the personal narrative and the official history, with the result that wrenching descriptions of marital breakdown are juxtaposed with, and diluted by, long passages about who wrote what for which newspaper, or which television channel broadcast what and when.
The balance is tipped in favour of the documentary rather than the intimate. Though we discover which publications or publishers printed Rushdie’s work, and how it was reviewed, we don’t know in what circumstances it was written – how, for example, he procured the reading required for books such as The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Ground Beneath Her Feet. We find out how he continued to be a pundit and party guest but not a writer.
Rushdie is at his best when he breaks into short essays about the things he loves – cosmopolitan values, his sons, the women in his life. Out comes the distinctive voice, the tailored vocabulary, the dexterous explanations, the unstoppable intelligence. The heroine of the book is his third wife, Elizabeth West, whom he met during the fatwa, and to whose “determined, sanguine” conduct he gives a great deal of specificity. And yet even West’s saintliness is offered in counterpoint to the woman he left her for, the model Padma Lakshmi, whose vanity is described in gruesome detail – and who showed him that the miseries of his life didn’t begin and end with the fatwa.
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