‘An important book about an important time’ – Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

There aren’t many celebrated novelists gifted with an actual, real-life adventure as globally resonant as that which befell Salman Rushdie. Here was a man who, on the back of writing the Booker Prize winning Midnight’s Children – a book, you’ll remember, that went on to win the Booker of Bookers, the award given at the time for the Booker winner to beat all Booker winners in the first 25 years but which currently stands as the Booker of Bookers for the Prize’s first 40 years – wrote a novel called The Satanic Verses and had the very Heavens called down upon him.

Was it intended as a provocative act? A thoughtful entertainment? A mischievous trick? Does it matter? At the time it did; at the time it was a matter of life and death (or lives and deaths if we consider all of the publishers and translators and agents and defenders of free speech who were dragged into the argument). The Ayatollah Khomeini  decreed that the writing of a novel was a crime that could only punished by death. Rushdie went into hiding, of sorts. The novel was banned in various places and for the better part of a decade Rushdie argued and decried and hid and sneaked and braved the occasional light of day and despaired and traversed the very slough of despond in order to try and wrestle himself, the version of himself he recognised in the mirror, away from the version of himself he saw created among those who demonised him and, occasionally, by those who sought to apologise on his behalf or champion him as an icon of free speech, the helix twisting until his champions were his foes:

‘The gulf between the private ‘Salman’ and the public ‘Rushdie’ he barely recognised was growing by the day. One of them, Salman or Rushdie, he himself was unsure which, was dismayed by the number of Labour parliamentarians who were jumping on the Muslim bandwagon – after all, he had been a Labour supporter all of his life – and noted gloomily that ‘the true conservatives of Britain are now in the Labour Party, while the radicals are all in blue.’

His adventure makes for a fascinating read. In some senses, ironically, a memoir drawn from the pages of a John Le Carre, Rushdie swirling amidst a cacophony of police and MI5 sorts, switching from one car with an impossibly heavy door to another car with an impossibly heavy door, resisting the restrictions placed upon his movements as the threat level increases and decreases and increases all over again, as Iran appears to be looking for a way out of the fatwa even as the threats ramp up, attacks and murders looming in the distance like grisly shadows, even as friends prove themselves true. And along the way, a treatise on what it is to be a free person with a free person’s freedoms unfolds: glimpsed within the pages of the New York Times (‘Free people publish books. Free people sell books. Free people buy books.’), between the car door and the hotel lobby (‘the most dangerous zone’), ‘struggl[ing] from country to country’, witnessing the rise of a fanaticism like a ‘cancer’, ‘spreading through Muslim communities [that] would in the end explode into the wider world beyond Islam’.

Undoubtedly there is a through line from the Rushdie affair, as it was known, to 9/11 and the more recent post-Arab Spring riots – and yet Rushdie resists making the line as explicit as perhaps he could. The subtitle A MEMOIR that sits on the cover beneath the title and the author is all that remains if you remove the hardback’s jacket, and memoir is what this is, memoir in much the same vein as Martin Amis’ Experience (and readers of that particular volume who have perhaps been lamenting the lack of a good long ‘name-drop’ fest can now rest easy – Joseph Anton more than amply fulfils that requirement). You can definitely split hairs about the celebrity world in which Rushdie moves, just as you can wonder aloud, as this reader did, whether we need to be told time and again just how much Rushdie loves his sons, whether we need to be privy to the in-jokes that developed between Rushdie and his various best buds, whether a 630-odd page book might have been better clocking in at a cool 500 – but, for the most part, Joseph Anton feels like an important book about an important time.

Any Cop?: Joseph Anton tells a story that is both familiar and strange, offering perhaps the only perspective that matters on a period of time whose shadow continues to loom large over the modern world.

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