How does newness come into the world?
These are the words of Mr Saladin Chamcha as he, flailing, gasping, tugging and hugging at the air, falls from his severed plane; falling as Lucifer fell from his pinnacle of eminence and into his prison of pain. The answer to his question is, of course the title of the eponymous novel The Satanic Verses: a sprawling experimentalist, magical-realist opus that, for all of is literary prestige, was only allowed to function as a novel after ten years of being a political and religious weapon.
But The Satanic Verses are many things. Foremost they are the passages that the prophet Muhammad, when he was writing the canons of the Qur’an, once received but later revoked because they were the words of the devil, who had fooled him by adopting the guise of the angel Gabriel. They are the answer to the distressing riddle of Mr Saladin Chamcha. And for the writer Salman Rushdie, they are the reason that newness came into his world on February 14, 1989.
For any of the older generations who watched the BBC broadcasts or read the British newspapers during the years following February 1989, it was the first time that the word fatwa was heard. It was an exotic, vague, and dangerous term. Issued from a decrepit and terminally ill old imam, the 1989 fatwa was a legal decree (whose physical existence was never confirmed) declaring that Muslims around the world had the moral and ethical duty to murder Salman Rushdie for his crime of blasphemy.
Readers growing up in a world where Muslim anger is as volatile and explosive as nitroglycerin, where cartoonists are axed for their work and the simple mention of the prophet’s name can be equated with heresy, can see extremist Muslim wrath daily when browsing newspapers. The righteous indignation, fierce and full of sound and fury, has become common, and accepted. Nonetheless, Rushdie’s sentence set precedents in its ubiquity. Terrorism went global for the first time in history.
In his memoir Joseph Anton, the persecuted author speaks. He yells. He rants. He raves. He instructs. His voice is full of rational questioning, spiced with polemics, passive-aggression, and one or two withering self-degradations. This is the most honest voice that Rushdie has ever assumed and the effect is startling for those who have his tabloid visage of lazy eyelids, a thick goatee, and cruelly slanting lashes memorized as the marks of a conceited and unapologetic iconoclast and one-time playboy.
He realizes that honesty is his greatest weapon against the exaggerated truths (one cannot call them myths) about his person during his fatwa internment. He utilizes it freely; lovingly when he refers to his sons Zafar and Milan; graciously when he writes about those who sheltered and protected him during his time in need; regretfully (though sparingly) when he recounts his shameful infidelities. Of these it should be noted that while his repentances are earnest, he attempts poorly to minimize his guilt by referring to his mistress and future wife Padma Lakschmi as an “illusion” of cross-cultural perfection that duped him into destroying the relationship with his third wife, Elizabeth. In addition, his life as a decadent partier and hedonist in the 2000’s is justified, dubiously, as a prudent maneuver meant to ward off press speculation that he still feared the fatwa’s execution.
Overshadowing this honesty lurks the black and white reminder that Rushdie is the victim and that those who did not support his book are the suppressors of free speech. However, the famous Rushdie narcissism and self-aggrandizement are mostly gone, with the third person singular “he” shrewdly disassociating, if ever so slightly, the writer from the storyteller Joseph Anton.
‘ “How does it feel to know that you have been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?” ’ So writes Joseph Anton’s opening paragraph. Rushdie, nothing more than a Booker-prize winning writer in his forties, is bewildered, terrified, confused, and (we can infer) angry.
But panic is foremost when the fatwa is announced and the author doesn’t know what to do. He reminds us that he is a humble writer of novels; a rational man, an innocuous atheist whose so-called scurrilous novel had never even been seen by the Ayatollah. What can be done when volitional man chooses irrationality? the text asks the reader. Rushdie has already offered his answer, but it will go firmly rejected for over a decade.
Until that time there is the middle, and it is fraught with activity. Most of it bumbles in immediately after the fatwa in the form of Britain’s Special Branch ‘A’: a team of the Metropolitan Police’s finest who come equipped with armored cars and licenses to kill specifically on Rushdie’s behalf. His threat level, he is informed, is second only to that of the Queen, which makes him the second-most dangerous person in the country.
It’s like the opening to a John le Carré novel (the writer would object to the idea): the thrills are visceral and stimulating and in another life, the author might have made a very adequate thriller writer. When the writer’s home is compromised and he is forced flee to a cottage in Wales, a late phone call invites all the horrors of an unfettered imagination. Such horrors subsist for about a quarter of the book, at which point an army of ready defamers launch a long and ugly war against the writer. We are privy to the daily grinds and tortures, whether we like it or not.
But it is these opening moments that are most important. In their thrilling desperation, Joseph Anton is born. Out of necessity this contraction, between the two great writers: one American and one Russian, must function as a nonentity: a signature to sign checks; a safety precaution for the police, and a convenient “Joe” that the writer learns quickly to disdain.
Joseph Anton comes to symbolize much more for the writer than the submission of his freedoms. He emerges into the story as the first attack against singularity; against the great poet Tennyson’s maxim that “that which we are, we are.” Salman Rushdie cannot be ‘Salman,’ nor can he be ‘Rushdie.’ He cannot be permitted a private room or unguarded outings. He can no longer be the young man who travailed long years in order to achieve the title of novelist: the man who would declare: “until you know who you are, you can’t write.” It is this man who is under threat, and it is this man who, for 600 pages, goes into hiding, and never completely emerges.
Prodded away from but not out of the literary circle of friends such as the gushing Susan Sontag and amiable Julian Barnes, Rushdie becomes in the face of the fatwa, ironically, a polemic and a politician. He learns to extemporize on the virtues of free speech; so eloquently and forcefully in fact, that even in the wake of the lambasting media circus and spineless publishers his demands are respected. He learns how to make an objection to being treated as a political pawn, whether by the Iranian government or by the touchy-feely Margaret Thatcher. He learns the value of solidarity.
Per contra the life of the novelist, his life becomes that of the public figure: one that argues against irrefutable religion. His war cries are for the implacable bromide: It is God’s will and his slings and arrows for the corrupt leaders that marshal the forces.
This, and not the restriction of the fatwa, is the true conflict of Joseph Anton. Rushdie acknowledges his ordeal as the necessary catalyst to balkanize the tempestuous Muslims—he fights his battle on the publishing fields, in the name of mankind’s inalienable rights of expression. Though the fluctuating wars with publishers and censors are some of the memoir’s most frustrating and redundant, they also lead to some of the most enjoyable anecdotes. Any reader will appreciate the writer’s relationships and confrontations with Bono, Rowan Atkinson, Olivia Wilde, Hugh Hefner, Thomas Pynchon, and Martin Amis, to name only several.
Equally enjoyable are the debacles and antipathies that ensue during Rushdie’s war. The beloved children’s writer Roald Dahl is painted as a “big unfriendly giant” with an insistent and distasteful support for the fatwa. And, in a moment of classic literary antagonism, the author and John le Carré rip each other to shreds in a series of letters whose erudite vehemence is in the same company of that of the legendary Hemingway vs. Faulkner.
Rushdie’s argument for the necessity of free speech and for the criticism of religion is flawless. The thirteen-year persistence of the fatwa threat to everyone involved in the project, the murder of the novel’s Japanese translator, the near-fatal stabbing of the Italian translator, and the shooting of its Danish publisher, all culminate into a battle cry that is now more pertinent than it ever was and to which Rushdie gives a needed voice. And even in the midst of defending his claims to expression, he manages to produce. Beautiful details are paid towards the full germination of small ideas that later become beautiful novels.
Some of Rushdie’s row is misdirected. He attacks religion a little too readily when he should be attacking its corrupted rulers; the ones still justifying blood because It is Allah’s will. He makes the affirmation that we are the masters of our own fate, yet so much of the author’s life has been dictated by sheer happenstance and narrow circumstance that a degree of fatalism seems inevitable.
Does Rushdie believe in a personal God? Does Rushdie condemn the practices of spiritualists as well? Does he perhaps subscribe to a degree of this himself? These become the questions one is tempted to ask although Joseph Anton provides no more than a surface examination of its author’s specific beliefs. It prefers to keep its contentions focused against ignorance and narrow-mindedness, and its ammunition stocked in love and the virtue of free speech.
And these are, after all, the qualities of The Satanic Verses through which newness came into the world, and never left it. More than a right, art is a necessity. True art, Rushdie has shown us, is inviolable, integral to the expansion of universal understanding, and indelibly marked upon the conscious of humanity. Quod scripsi, scripsi, said Pontius Pilate. What I have written, I have written.