Joseph Anton: A Memoir
by Salman Rushdie
Published September, 2012
In late May 1968, a few weeks after the riots in Paris and a few nights before Salman Rushdie was due to graduate with a History degree from Cambridge University, a vandal with Dadaist tendencies accessed his rooms at King’s College and redecorated the walls, furniture, his record collection and clothes with a bucketful of gravy and onions. Despite Rushdie’s protestations of innocence, ‘King’s instantly held him solely responsible for the mess, ignored all his representations to the contrary, and informed him that unless he paid for the damage, he would not be permitted to graduate.’
He paid up. But the injustice stuck in his throat and so, a few days later, in a calculated gesture of defiance, he turned up to his graduation ceremony sporting a pair of brown shoes – strictly proscribed. Plucked out of the parade by an eagle-eyed official, he was told that if he did not return, tout suite, shod in regulation black footwear, he would be debarred from the ceremony. Again, he gave in, sprinted to his freshly scrubbed rooms to change, and made it back in the nick of time to join his fellow graduands, queuing for their turn to beg the Vice Chancellor, on bended knee, for a degree. Ever afterwards, Rushdie reflects, he was
appalled by the memory of his passivity, hard though it was to see what else he could have done. He could have refused to pay for the gravy damage to his room, could have refused to change his shoes, could have refused to kneel to supplicate for his BA. He had preferred to surrender and get the degree. The memory of that surrender made him more stubborn, less willing to compromise, to make an accommodation with injustice, no matter how persuasive the reasons. Injustice would always thereafter conjure up the memory of gravy. Injustice was a brown, lumpy, congealing fluid, and it smelled pungently, tearfully, of onions. Unfairness was the feeling of running back to one’s room, flat out, at the last minute, to change one’s outlawed brown shoes.
This unhappy vignette from Rushdie’s later days at Cambridge comes early in his memoir of the thirteen years he spent living under police protection in the shadow of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. The passage maps the moral landscape of that experience, laying out what he regards as the only possible response to injustice or intimidation: stand up for what you believe in, live out your values, and change your shoes for nobody. Indeed, this was the advice he gave to the graduating class at Bard College in 1996 – this is how I live my life; this is how I have faced up to my personal struggle: here is the recipe for a principled existence.
It is, of course, possible to live by one’s principles, but it takes a superhuman effort to guard them from any taint of compromise and, as Joseph Anton demonstrates in excruciating detail, it inflicts a heavy toll on those compelled to share the burden of such unbending rectitude. Whatever his grandstanding to the graduates at Bard, Rushdie is no superman. Though he may have professed an adherence to a samurai code of honour, his memoir details one painful compromise after another: with his family, the police, the government, and above all with his espoused values. He emerges from the book less as a titan of principle than a compromised everyman, coping as he can with a nightmare experience, while averting his gaze from the gravy slopping over the sides of his pantomime-sized brown brogues.
On Valentine’s Day 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini broadcast a fatwa informing ‘the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the “Satanic Verses” book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.’ It is often forgotten now that the fatwa was less the catalyst for hostilities against The Satanic Verses, its author and publishers, than the most significant escalation of an existing international campaign. Within 10 days of its British publication on 26 September 1988, India – the country of Rushdie’s birth – had prohibited the book’s importation. By early February 1989, it had been burned in Bolton and Bradford – the latter before a crowd of more than 7000. It had been banned in countries from Egypt to South Africa, Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, and was the focus of violent demonstrations and fatal clashes in Pakistan and India. It was, however, the Ayatollah’s fatwa and Iran’s solicitation of Rushdie’s murder that brought the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch into the picture and ushered the writer into thirteen years lived in the half-light of official protection. The day after the fatwa was announced, Rushdie attended the memorial service for Bruce Chatwin. Sitting in the pew behind him, Paul Theroux remarked: ‘I suppose we’ll be here for you next week, Salman.’ He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Overnight, the fatwa made Rushdie one of the most famous people in the world, transforming him from a man of letters into an embodied semiology, an icon, an effigy, a cause, the living battlefield on – and over – which free speech advocates, multiculturalists, secularists and religious fundamentalists struggled for moral supremacy. Paradoxically, Rushdie’s explosive celebrity also diminished and all-but atomised him. His memoir details how the sudden glare of international attention and the shadow world of surveillance to which it consigned him destroyed his professional routines, denied him the intimate creative space, the psychological certitude, within which he could fully be himself and from which he could write. In one sense, this is the largest account ever of an incredible shrinking man, though its more apposite literary forebears lie somewhere between Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871) and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). It can also be understood as a protracted auto-obituary, an extended elegy to a lost self. Little wonder, then, that Rushdie opts for a third person narrative to recall these tumultuous years as, over time, the ‘Rushdie’ he encountered in the media – the burning effigy, the ingrate biting the hand that shields him, the reluctant hermit, the calculating blasphemer – seemed increasingly separate from the Salman he knew and with whom he continued to identify.
Yet there are entrances to celebrate as well as deaths to mourn. The protection protocol required Rushdie to adopt a new identity. Never lacking confidence about the literary company he belongs in, he anoints himself ‘Joseph Anton’, taking the forenames from two of his literary heroes, Conrad and Chekhov. Intended both as a cloak of disguise and a statement of ambition, the name proves more revealing than he might have intended. The Conradian journey that Rushdie may have hoped for, the voyage towards a climactic test of his moral mettle, never eventuates. He scarcely leaves port and, though marooned mostly in London, he disdains the poetics of tedium that Chekhov mastered and rails against his exile from the shiny world of book launches and prize-giving. Indifferent to his literary pedigree, his Special Branch protection officers refer to him as ‘Joe’. It is this quotidian self, the sloppy Joe who shuffles about the house all day in his pyjamas, the frustrated creator, hitting the bottle and snarling at his loved ones, whom Rushdie must escape and ultimately eliminate if he is to truly recover himself.
The question of who he is and how this identity has been shaped by what he does, lies at the core of the book. For Rushdie, writing has been a lifelong journey of self-realisation, as much a painstaking process of archaeology as an effort of imaginative invention, and the greatest damage inflicted by the fatwa and the security provisions it imposes on him, is the estrangement from the core self that they bring. Like a man in quicksand, the more he struggles against suffocation by speaking out, the faster he is dragged below the surface. As the political momentum builds behind his cause and he spends more of his time meeting politicians and opinion leaders, Rushdie ruefully acknowledges that he has all but ceased to be a writer and become a professional lobbyist.
His psychological disorientation is exacerbated by the starkly contrasting worlds he inhabits. At various points he is flown aboard military aircraft to the US to meet distinguished Senators at the Capitol Building and, at a later date, President Clinton at the White House. Police close the Place de Concorde as his motorcade streaks across Paris. He lectures the Swedish Academy in the Stockholm room where the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded, appears on stage with U2 at a stadium show in London, presses his case with ministers from governments across Europe, presses the flesh with Hollywood A-listers, and rubs shoulders with a roll-call of literary legends. In between these journeys, he is spirited back to one or other borrowed house or ghost tenancy where he is compelled to mislead his landlords, hide from visiting tradesmen, deal with the quotidian dramas of family life, and fight a constant battle with the police for the freedom to give readings, defend his work and live like a writer.
Rumours of Rushdie’s friction with Special Branch occasioned a virulent backlash against him in the media and brought out a cross-party conga-line of politicians, who lined up to heap disdain on him and his book. Rushdie certainly lacked delicacy in his dealings with others and he was often his own worst enemy, but his regular run-ins with the establishment and the media can also be accounted for by the peculiarly public nature of his torment. In the 26 years that Nelson Mandela spent on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor Prison scarcely a word was heard from or about him, beside the occasional gnomic utterance via third parties. As the ANC’s campaign against apartheid gained global traction, Mandela’s immurement and the anonymity it brought made him the repository for every moral and political principle the movement might embody. Denied physical presence, he could readily be remade as a symbol. By contrast, his then wife, Winnie, enjoyed no such abstraction. Subject to constant harassment by the authorities, she was compelled to deal with their Mephistophelean operatives on an almost daily basis, to make choices and to act. On occasions, she made ill-advised choices, acted poorly, and did lasting damage to her reputation. In this regard, at least, Mandela was better off in prison than Winnie was out in the community.
I make no comparison between Rushdie and Mandela here; my point is that after the fatwa, thanks to Special Branch and Fleet Street, Rushdie, in Martin Amis’ phrase, ‘vanished into the front pages’. He was both captive and free, visible yet invisible. This put him in an impossible position. While the press portrayed him as the arch-villain of the piece, as the man who had brought his problems on himself and now expected others to risk their lives protecting him, he also had to act as chief witness for his own defence. Invisibility and silence might have brought him respite from press vilification, but he needed media coverage to advance the case against the fatwa and to remind his critics of the principles he was upholding. Every time he spoke up, he dug himself deeper into trouble. In fighting Special Branch for a little more freedom of movement, he was taking on the only enemy he could identify and confront. It did him no favours, but it was the one battle he could hope to win. There was little to be gained from appealing to the public. The press campaign against him transformed him into a tabloid hate-figure, as he discovered one evening in London. Persuaded by his protectors that he should change his appearance, Rushdie consented to try a wig. When it arrived, ‘in a brown cardboard box looking like a small sleeping animal’, he agreed to ‘take it for a walk’ around Sloane Square, despite his misgivings. Dropped off at the front of Harvey Nichols, ‘every head turned to stare at him and several people burst into wide grins or even laughter. “Look,” he heard a man’s voice say, “there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.”’
The memoir is punctuated by letters that the isolated and aggrieved Rushdie drafted, but never sent, to newspaper columnists, radical Islamists, canting politicians – even God. In them, as he tediously anatomises the moral and intellectual shortcomings of his antagonists and condemns the injustices they have heaped upon him, he comes to sound less like an avenging angel of justice than an impotent ratepayer decrying the council’s failure to keep the streets clean – Yours, Outraged, of no fixed address.
One minute the living emblem of free speech is rubbing shoulders with heads of state and Nobel Prize winners; the next he is a recalcitrant child who won’t accept that he can’t go to the shops on his own. No wonder Rushdie’s grasp of who and what he is became increasingly tenuous. This had a powerful effect on his relations with those nearest, and supposedly dearest, to him. The negative outcomes of this loss of moral compass are reflected in his treatment of the women in his life, all of whom, at one time or another, suffer the sort of pitiless evisceration he spares none but himself. His first wife, Clarissa, is divorced from Rushdie by the time of the fatwa, and lives with their son, Zafar. Through the periods of greatest threat she carries on regardless, without police protection and courageously ensures that the boy enjoys a normal a life. Rushdie repays her unstinting support by portraying her as a miser and a gold-digger, detailing the financial demands she makes of him many years after their separation. Rushdie may have felt at times – not without merit – that half the world was against him, but this callous disregard for those whose most intimate secrets he shares, and selectively divulges, is gratuitous.
The principal case for the prosecution, however, is his portrayal of his second wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, who steps straight out of central casting for the mad woman in the attic, arriving on the scene like a tooled-up Joan Crawford with a ‘mad glint’ in her eye and an axe to grind. According to Rushdie, she steals his first editions, purloins his family photographs, blows the cover on one of his safe houses, feigns serious illness, trashes him in the press, and sleeps with his best friend. She makes the Ayatollah look like a cuddly old uncle. A little under twenty years after their separation, he recalls how, at one point, ‘Marianne was upset because her just-published novel, John Dollar, had sold exactly twenty-four copies in the preceding week.’ It is telling that Rushdie can so readily recall the precise number of the novel’s dismal sales and shows so little empathy for the discomfort of his wife who, whatever her personal issues (and boy oh boy!), had hardly bargained for a lifetime in witness protection.
‘When he looked back at the record he had made of his life,’ Rushdie acknowledges in one of the memoir’s few moments of disarming honesty, ‘it was easier to make a note of an unpleasantness than a moment of felicity, easier to record a quarrel than a loving word.’ There is an undeniable truth in this that stretches all the way back to Aristotelian understandings of the forces that make a narrative tick. But that does not excuse a solid vein of moral miserliness that runs through this overstuffed memoir. His good friend, John Diamond, dying of oesophageal cancer, makes a funny farewell ‘speech’ with the aid of a pen, a projector and a white wall, at a dinner to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his marriage to Nigella Lawson. Though the speech’s ‘most remarkable characteristic was that it made the assembled company laugh a great deal’, Rushdie proffers not a single word from it. Maybe you had to be there. By contrast, he has an elephant’s recall for the smallest slight from others and a tart response ready to hand. Where others see a glass half-full or half-empty, Rushdie is convinced that somebody spat in his: he wants the whole world to know who did it and to give us all a lecture on why it isn’t fair.
Despite its regular displays of intemperance, the keynotes of this narrative are boredom, banality, and an often-explicit rejection of crafted narrative. As he reflects on the sheer tedium of his days and the numbing sameness of routines over which he could exercise so little agency, Rushdie at times allows his plotting to collapse into a simple enumeration of succeeding events – he did this, then this, then this … After more than 600 pages, one feels that one has had more than a fair taste of the tedium of captivity. While this bare representation of the bones of his days may reflect a brave endeavour to render the tonelessness of his experience, other parts of the book are just plain poor. A brief affair with Robyn Davidson – another standard-issue Valkyrie – comes to light when his wife finds a piece of paper in his pocket inscribed with Davidson’s name and the words ‘excites me like no other lover’. What is this? An unsent love letter? An aide-memoire? Later, when vacillating over leaving his third wife, Elizabeth West, for the woman who becomes his fourth, Padma Lakshmi – a spoiled brat who dresses ‘like Pocahontas at Halloween’ – he moves from The Beatles to Macy Gray: ‘He tried to say goodbye and he choked. He tried to walk away and he stumbled.’ Rushdie’s recourse to song-lyrics betrays a man for whom love and its travails rarely excite genuine feelings of amity and are best delineated through clichés. Indeed, this is a book with a great deal more spleen than heart. Rushdie’s best moves are in attack, not defence, and as the above suggests, his occasional excursions into warmth have a distinctly tepid quality about them, as if his heart is never really in it.
As a consequence, the book leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, reducing its subject to an all too-human scale. Preoccupied with the defence of principle, Rushdie loses sight of the humanity of those closest to him and diminishes his own in the process. We live in a world where we are forced to tailor our principles and accommodate ourselves to injustices small and large, a world in which the art of compromise is an essential survival skill. Everybody’s moral wardrobe harbours a well-worn pair of brown shoes, but we all have to swallow our fair share of gravy. Rushdie’s endeavours to portray himself as a man of iron principle, focused on the defence of fundamental rights against ignorance and intolerance, only amplify the sound of the gravy slopping over the sides of his shoes. But what else did he expect? It’s the soundtrack to real life.