Salman Rushdie (Knopf Canada 2012, Hardcover) 636 pages $34.95 cover price
I have never read The Satanic Verses; not for any reasons of religion or an aversion to Salman Rushdie's writing style. I am at the very least deeply skeptical on the former and an avowed admirer of the latter. It is simply a book I have never got around to reading. And there it sits on an imaginary shelf next to Thomas Pynchon's masterwork Gravity's Rainbow, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and several other works by Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov and E.M. Forster, all of which I'm quite sure I would love but there are only so many hours in the day now aren't there?
I state all that at the outset so that you know I did not approach Joseph Anton with any prejudice for good or ill based on the book The Satanic Verses. The phrase, 'the book The Satanic Verses' is not a redundancy for the title bears two different weights. It was first the book, then it became the controversy with the infamous fatwa death sentence declared by the dying Ayatollah Khomeini on the grimly ironic day of February 14th 1989. Happy Valentine's Day, I demand you die.
Khomeini never read the book either.
Rushdie does go into considerable detain in Joseph Anton about the conception and writing of The Satanic Verses to the point where I did not feel that I needed to have read it in order to appreciate this memoir of the 10 years he spent more or less in hiding with a permanent around-the-clock security watch in place. In Martin Amis' famous phrase, 'Salman has disappeared into the front pages'.
No, you don't need to have read the novel, for Joseph Anton is not so much about the book as it is about the controversy. How did the author survive? Who took what side? How does one lead a life when literal mobs of people demand one's death?
Let us get two factual matters out of the way before getting into the meat and drink of this analysis. First, what was the controversy behind The Satanic Verses? Essentially it all begins with a re-write; not by Rushdie, by Muhammad.
There were two versions of what collectively became known as the Qur’an. In the first, Muhammad embraced the concept of polytheism – specifically three winged goddesses, the 'exalted birds' which were already known and loved by the people of Mecca. This pronouncement by Muhammad ceased the persecution of the early Muslims by the local merchant class. (Oh how the religious love to persecute anyone who begs to differ.) Later, Muhammad recanted and the fellow the late George Carlin memorably referred to as 'the nice old man who lives on a cloud', the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad became the one and only God. Accept no imitations.
Those first set of withdrawn pronouncements became known as Satanic, for as Rushdie quotes in Joseph Anton, '(T)he Qur'an spoke of how all the prophets had been tested by temptation. “Never have We sent a single prophet or apostle before you with whose wishes Satan did not tamper,” it said in Sura 22.' So what did Rushdie think of all this when he was a student at Cambridge, the only student to take on the offered selection of 'Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the Early Caliphate'? He says (the italics are Rushdie's and throughout Joseph Anton he refers to himself in the third person):
'Good Story, he thought when he read about it. Even then he was dreaming of being a writer, and he filed the good story away in the back of his mind for future consideration. Twenty years later he would find out exactly how good a story it was.'
In short, what happened to make Muhammad change his mind? Being a novelist, Rushdie applied his imagination. Islam did not respond well to imaginative interpretations and so it was that all hell broke loose
Because Rushdie was a British citizen under threat of a foreign government, in this case Iran, Her Majesty's Government was compelled to provide protection. And so came a long list of Special Branch bodyguards, surreptitiously rented houses (at Rushdie's own expense) or hiding away in homes offered up by trusted friends. As well, much like Superman or The Green Hornet, Rushdie needed a secret identity and so he became known as Joseph Anton, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. The Heart of Darkness meets the rotting civilization of The Cherry Orchard. Nicely chosen, I must say.
What might surprise you is that much of Joseph Anton is delightful to read. I suppose it is Rushdie's ability to look back and find not only the anger but also the warm and the humorous that kept him sane. The reactions of other writers are some of the best anecdotes in the book. For instance, one of the very first times Rushdie dared to appear in public, driven to his destination in a bulletproof and heavily armored vehicle, was a lunch put on by Graham Greene. Greene himself knew the dark side of controversy, having been banned from various publications for an early film review he wrote about Shirley Temple, wherein he stated that her box office magic was likely born from a spell of paedophilia. And so of course the great man wanted to hear from the source what was going on. When Rushdie arrived in the back room where Greene and a handful of other invitees were present, 'the tall angular frame' stood up and said, 'Rushdie! You've caused even more trouble than I ever did. Come, you must tell me all about it!'
The value of Joseph Anton is that the 636 pages force you, and I do mean force, to consider your opinions on freedom of expression. Was Rushdie right in insisting that the book not be withdrawn and that a paperback edition should be produced? Was he right that censorship never ever should be tolerated? Was he right within the context that his Italian translator was assaulted, his Japanese translator murdered and his Norwegian publisher shot three times (he survived)? My apologies for being utterly trivial, but as the dying Spock said to Kirk at the end of The Wrath of Khan, 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one'.
And that's the hard nut to make. How does one define 'the many' in the first place? Is or are the many a religion mortally offended by any slight against their defined and divined Prophet; or are the many the broader secular vision of a humanity which needs to hear or read things sometimes which may hurt but are truthful or at the very least artistic?
It must be said that Rushdie did not intend The Satanic Verses to piss off a sizable population. He does not pretend to naivete; as a scholar he knew that there would be some offence taken, however the degree of that offence was beyond even his creative imagination. One of the ludicrous claims made at various times by the 'anti-Rushdie camp' was that the author had somehow deceived his original publisher Viking Penguin by not telling them that his novel would be controversial. To which I can only say that if major publishers just threw manuscripts between covers and offered them for sale without careful combing and consideration, well then you, me and a whole lot of friends of ours would be raking in the royalties today.
Where I do have an argument with Rushdie is when he looks at Viking Penguin backing away from publishing the paperback edition as a weakness and betrayal. I believe that is setting much too high a standard for human behaviour, a standard of heroism. Yes, a consortium of independents, led by Bill Buford of Granta did put out the first paperback of The Satanic Verses and they are heroes. Sonny Mehta of Random House agreed to take on Rushdie's future books and published the larger trade version of the paperback; and so he was a more cautious hero. But to place metaphorically the white feather of cowardice on the desk of Viking Penguin, when there was a very real danger of bombs going off and employees being exploded into death? That is not reasonable. In a sense it is like being a citizen of a nation fighting a so-called Just War. One might believe wholeheartedly in the cause, yet be unable to pull a trigger.
The other thing that made me most uncomfortable is the absolute flogging Rushdie gives to his ex-wife, the novelist Marianne Wiggins. Their marriage was falling apart at the time of the fatwa although Marianne did stay with Salman through those early months until the end finally came. I certainly do not think it would have harmed Joseph Anton one bit if we were spared the detailed explanations of how and why Rushdie came to believe that a woman he once loved (remember he has had 13 years to think about this book, so its words are not rashly chosen) was a fabulist, liar, cheat and likely a thief of his precious photo albums. Perhaps every word of it is the truth, yet the character assassination is both ungentlemanly and unnecessary.
I believe too that Rushdie makes the same error as his late friend Christopher Hitchens in viewing Islam as a monolithic force bent on stifling secular and artistic freedom. Indeed, Hitchens frequently used the fatwa against Rushdie as an example proving the theory. This may be personal, and I do understand that a man who has faced a death sentence for half of his adult life may well see paranoia as justified, however I do not believe in monoliths either religious or nationalistic. Given that Rushdie himself was raised in a Muslim family in India, does not his own intellectual independence indicate that not all Muslims are bent on destruction?
Through it all we have the complete workings of a man badly injured emotionally by a narrow-minded if not indeed mindless mob of religious gangsters, so bent on preserving their version of the nice old man who lives on a cloud that they publicly call for the death of one of their fellow men. By and large, the politicians in the book do not come off well; Vaclav Havel being an exception. They are for the most part cowardly and evasive. Rushdie is neither of those. And he still remains one of the greatest, most imaginative and colorful writers of his generation. Thank God...or at least thank the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police he survived to tell the tale.
Be seeing you.