So why is it that I feel I have to defend liking this book? Almost all reviews I’ve read – from New York Times to Goodreads – have been rather negative, attacking and blaming Rushdie. So I will just come right out and say that I really liked this book. Yes, he namedrops on every page. Yes, he of course paints a (mostly) positive picture of himself (but who wouldn’t?). Yes he knows his own worth and uses this opportunity to settle a few scores. But still, I enjoyed every page of this and read and read and read.
This of course is the story of the famous fatwa. On February 14th, 1989, Rushdie receives a phone call, informing him that Ayatollah Khomeini has sentenced him to death because of his novel, The Satanic Verses. This book details then his life for the next 12 years, trying to live as normal as possible while being under constant police protection, moving from house to house, relying on the kindness of his friends, driving bulletproof cars and trying to survive, both mentally and physically.
He writes about his private life, his childhood, his years in school, his marriages, his children, his attempt to be a father in these most extraordinary circumstances. He constantly struggles against people – both official people and the public – believing he doesn’t deserve to be protected because he has brought this on himself. He doesn’t agree with this – and neither do I. A leader of a state does not have to right to condemn the citizen of another state to death. So Rushdie struggles with Government officials, ministers and the leaders of his protection service to get them to continue to protect him and to allow him to live as free a life as possible so he can be a father, be a man and a writer, and do the publicity necessary to promote his books.
A strange thing with this book is that even though it is a memoir, it is written in the third person. Rushdie never writes I but writes he, even when writing about his own thoughts. I actually really liked this because for me, it felt like Rushdie was standing outside his life, looking in, trying to make sense of what happened to him. For me, it worked! He is also juggling with various identities through this – there’s Salman, the private man his friends knows; there’s Rushdie, the hated man, the demonstrators are renouncing on the streets; and there’s Joseph Anton, his alias, created out of the names of his two favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. So in some ways, it must be hard to see these years living like this, split into three, as his life instead of someone else’s life, a fictional life.
The book really shows what kind of man he is. Intelligent, well-read, knowledgeable about both the classics and modern (pop) culture (JK Rowling, Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, Super Mario, various sci-fi etc). He writes about his process when writing books, about getting ideas and using things from his real life experience in his books. And he writes about all his books in a way which makes me want to read them. And I love that while he shares all the famous writers, actors, politicians etc he meets, he also writes about how proud he is to complete his Super Mario game and how he thinks Birkenstocks is the uncoolest footwear, except for Crocs (p. 342). I really enjoyed how he shows his humor throughout the book even though he battles depression throughout these years, living with a constant death sentence over his head.
‘Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third. As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to the question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power.’ (p. 360)
Of particular interest to me, was of course the times he mentioned Denmark and the Danish reaction to the fatwa. Overall, it seems his Danish publisher wasn’t afraid and not only published the paperback – which was a big deal – but also compared the risk of publishing it to crossing the street. It is sobering to read about how hard it was for him to get the paperback published in UK and US because if that paperback hadn’t come out, his attackers would have won.
When I began reading this novel, I had to come to terms with something. I was 12 years old when the fatwa was issued and I don’t remember anything about it from back then. But I’ve always believed that he was in the right to publish that book and that no one had the right to attack him for that. But at the same time, I was against the so called ‘Danish Cartoons’, the caricatures of Muhammad posted by Jyllands-Posten back in 2005. Of course I didn’t want anyone attacking Kurt Westergaard, one of the drawers, but I didn’t like the idea of these drawings. Now, how could I reconcile supporting Rushdie and believing him to be in the right while not supporting these drawings? I thought about that for a while and for me, the answer is, that Jyllands-Posten did it intentionally to cause a disturbance while Rushdie didn’t set out to do anything but write a novel. Whether you agree or disagree with someone, they should always be allowed to talk, to say their mind. You have to use words to defeat words, not guns or bombs or knives.
In Denmark, we have just had another case of a journalist known for criticizing Islam being attacked and attempted assassinated. Now I disagree with this man but you can’t go around shooting at people you disagree with. But what this shows is that Rushdie’s case is still current. We still have to fight for freedom of speech. Rushdie survived the fatwa and lived to see it being put to rest. He views his case as a prologue to all that happened after 9-11 and even though we all should have become wiser, we haven’t really. Unfortunately.
The value of art lies in the love it engenders, not the hatred. It is love that makes books last. (p. 316)
- Title: Joseph Anton – a memoir
- Author: Salman Rushdie
- Publisher: Random House
- Year: 2012
- Pages: 636 pages
- Source: Own Collection
- Stars: 4 stars out of 5