Monday, September 24, 2012

Joseph Anton

A new book by Salman Rushdie is always an event, not because he’s controversial, which he is, but because he’s a genuinely good writer, despite the fact that his recent books were not as great as the earlier ones, like, the Luka book is nothing like ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’, or the Enchantress book is nothing like ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’. And, I couldn’t even read ‘Fury’; yet, a bad Rushdie book is better than those abysmal “bestsellers.”

And, ‘Joseph Anton’ is a special case. It’s not a novel, but a memoir, especially of the time when Rushdie went on a hiding following the death threat, the infamous fatwa. Joseph Anton is the alias he assumed during those dark days.

The issue becomes all the more pronounced when Islamic Fundamentalism continues to dominate headlines. Recently, there was a riot in Mumbai, and then, riots everything, when a trailer for a alleged ‘anti-prophet film went viral.

Meanwhile, Mr Rushdie continues to dominate the headlines, especially in the context of India. While, in ‘Joshep Anton’, Rushdie mentions how an early India Today review, “the match that lit the fire” that started the whole thing, culminating in the fatwa, Indian novelist Manu Joseph asks in a The New York Times write-up: “Is Rushdie the voice of the billion?” Joseph writes:
India, where the protests against the book began, was the first country to act against the book. This was done not through an official ban, but through a government order making it illegal to import copies of the book.

As Indians could not read “The Satanic Verses,” they bought or borrowed “Midnight’s Children.” The impact of this novel on a generation of young writers was extraordinary. In Madras, now Chennai, where boys were preordained to become engineers and literature was considered the refuge of the handicapped or the effeminate, the news of a rock star “Indian” writer made literature suddenly look respectable.

The first burst of Indian pride in response to the fame and infamy of an Indian-born writer erupted in a simpler age. Over the years, even though Mr. Rushdie has said several times that he does not need a visa to visit India, the writer, who continues to create political storms and needs state protection whenever he visits the country, has come to be considered a high-maintenance foreigner by the very people who once claimed him as their own. He has also become a reminder of that uncomfortable question: Among migrant artists, is identity actually a euphemism for branding?
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The 'Salman Rushdie' website describes the book:
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.

How do a writer and his family live with the threat of murder for over nine years? How does he go on working? How does he fall in and out of love? How does despair shape his thoughts and actions, how and why does he stumble, how does he learn to fight back? In this remarkable memoir Rushdie tells that 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.
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Salman Rushdie speaks to India Today:
Joseph Anton ( Jonathan Cape; 636pp; Rs.799) , perhaps the only memoir written in the third person, is the story of a novelist banished by the extraterritorial tyranny of religion, a price tag hanging from his neck. And it is a memoir that uses the art and architecture of fiction. It could not have been otherwise, for the memoirist here is a writer who has challenged the limits of fiction, a writer who has translated the big whirl of an interconnected world into words resonant with the joys and sorrows, the magic and madness, the passions and pathologies of a merciless history. Joseph Anton is a different Rushdie at work: An overpopulated thriller based on true events, but powered by ideas and emotions, and as combustible and expansive as a vintage Russian novel. The Rushdie who animates the pages is a writer playing out his multiple roles, the script often being ghostwritten by a pitiless outsider. So we have Rushdie the son in an intimate, posthumous conversation with his father; a young failed novelist struggling for that breakthrough moment; a writer on the run in the shadow land where the clock is frozen and solitude is invasive; a storyteller who regains the lost word through a promise he made to his son; an incorrigible romantic rebuilding his life on the wreckage of failed marriages; an endangered fabulist who is eternally indebted to the kindness and solidarity of friends. "Until this episode of The Satanic Verses happened, I had no interest in writing an autobiography. The reason I became a writer was to write fiction, not about myself," he says.
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Indrajit Hazra reviews 'Joseph Anton' in Hindustan Times:
Reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir – 636 pages long and without any index to facilitate matters – and then batting out a coherent, moderately informed review in 72 hours was not going to be easy
for the reviewer. But then, there was already a heavy downpour of information about the book and the author’s views in the media. Even before he lovingly touched the purple cover with its title etched on the hardcover, the buzz around Joseph Anton had been louder than words.

Instead of trying to conjure up a supra-narrative around what was being said about the book and what Rushdie himself was saying, the reviewer decided to heed Rushdie’s own words from the book: “When friends asked me what they could do to help, he pleaded, ‘Defend the text.’” So he set out to judge the text that was Joseph Anton: A Memoir, and not go into the non-existent Salman-namas that fluttered outside as ‘current affairs’.
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Margaret Drabble says Salman Rushdie's account of surviving a fatwa is brutally honest and profound:
One of the heroes of Rushdie's memoir is a handsome, tennis-playing, gun-carrying police protection officer called Stan, which may or may not be his real name. His first reaction to the fatwa was simple. "It can't be allowed… threatening a British citizen. It's not on. It'll get sorted." As we know, it took years to sort and arguments against the dying ayatollah's death sentence span out of control into impassioned and often intemperate debates about the blasphemy laws, freedom of speech, the nature of fiction, cultural relativism, Islam, the narrowing of national identities and the alleged cost to the British nation of Stan, his colleagues and Operation Malachite. Rushdie's bold, complex and literary novel, The Satanic Verses, was hijacked by the exterminating angels of wrath, a wrath that still flames around us. Some were killed, many were threatened. It continues.

Rushdie has now told his version of events and it is more gripping than any spy story. Having resisted commercial attempts to fictionalise his life, he has attempted to tell his own truth. It cannot have been easy. He kept a journal, but, being a clever and would-be honest man, he knows we deceive and bowdlerise even in our journals and admits it. Doris Lessing urged him to tell the whole truth, like Rousseau, but he failed, as she did.

For his double life, he was obliged to turn himself into a fictional character and he became Joseph Anton, after Conrad and Chekhov. The former he describes as "the trans-lingual creator of wanderers… of secret agents in a world of killers and bombs, and of at least one immortal coward, hiding from his shame". The reference to Lord Jim (which could also apply to Razumov, in Conrad's novel of anarchy and terrorism, Under Western Eyes) is suggestive and Rushdie (an authority on Shame) is not afraid to show himself as a coward and a clown, hiding from a sheep farmer behind a kitchen dresser in Wales, shutting himself into bathrooms in north London to avoid a plumber or a cleaner. He turns himself into an almost Falstaffian figure, shabby and overweight, letting himself go, smoking, at times drinking too much and quarrelling with a succession of wives.
More here.

A N Wilson on Salman Rushdie's memoir, 'Joseph Anton'
Even as this book appears, the Islamic world is once again in a fever of violence, with mobs being encouraged to take offence – this time at the making of some tenth-rate amateur film vilifying their Prophet. Salman Rushdie is in a position to give us some interesting reflections on the extraordinary condition of the Islamic world, but clearly he needed to get this memoir off his chest first.

It really is a most peculiar book, written like the works of Julius Caesar or General de Gaulle, in the third person. If this comparison seems grandiose to you, it would not necessarily do so to the author, who in the first 20 pages has compared himself to King Charles I – who, like Rushdie, did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the judges who condemned him – and Voltaire. At a Hampstead dinner party, held at the house of Michael Foot during Rushdie’s years of seclusion, he is introduced to John Mortimer, Neil Kinnock and Tony Harrison, who compares Rushdie’s plight with that of Socrates, Jesus Christ and Galileo. The title refers to the nom de guerre he adopted while in captivity, taken from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. Alas, Rushdie possesses neither Conrad’s sense of moral irony, nor Chekhov’s gift of brevity.

As the book galumphingly unfolds, the cast of characters becomes enormous. Special Branch men, politicians and famous writers crowd its pages, yet very few of them come to life. One notable exception is Margaret Thatcher, met at a party, and her caressing of his forearm as she says, “Hello, dear, how are you getting along?”, does somehow convey what it was like to meet her. (It is followed by a diatribe against Thatcher for not doing more to get the Tehran government to lift the fatwa.)
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