who is Joseph Anton?

Stevie ModernNot his real name, ‘Joseph Anton’ only half-belonged to a man half-belonging among free people.

Salman Rushdie [Photo: David Shankbone]

Nevertheless, ‘Joseph Anton’, Rushdie’s secret service alias during his over-a-decade in forced hiding, is the fully fleshed pivotal character in the West’s mortal struggle over freedom of speech, and so its identity.

Like all heroes, the Anton we read in Rushdie’s compelling Joseph Anton: A Memoir is flawed and afraid. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his very identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

Defence-less. Against a fatwa, no defence is possible. Defences are made against judgements handed down by a recognized court having “jurisdiction over him”. Rushdie writes of 1989 with tender vulnerability. A man afraid in his bed, huddled close to his wife on the fateful day from when “All Muslims” – the fatwa directed – were to “execute them wherever they find them”.

Despite the known death squads dispatched from Iran and Lebanon to London in the years that followed, (an international as well as personal violation) the memoir tells of Rushdie’s plight held too long in abeyance by diplomatic circles hoping to negotiate with the hostage-taking Iran. A particular shock comes when despite years and promises of diplomatic progress, Rushdie is face to face with Thatcher, the British prime minister, who offers wistfully that, “little can be done without a change of regime”. “That’s it?” his fiancée demands, receiving no response.

The new regime in Iran wasn’t making promising noises. A birthday message came from the new “moderate” president Khatami: “Salman Rushdie will die soon.”

Protests against novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ Jan. 1989. [Photo: Robert Croma]

The events to follow the fatwa; the threats, fatal shootings and stabbings of those involved – and in many cases not involved – in the distribution of The Satanic Verses (who did not share Rushdie’s protection) are documented with fervour. As are the bombings, book banning and burnings. Rushdie’s concern here is for that ignored broader issue, the importance the (unfairly) named ‘Rushdie Affair’ represented to freedom.

When the first blackbird comes down to roost on the climbing frame it seems individual, particular, specific… it’s just about him; …. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film.

Along with the blackbird, insults and blame fly in and roost. John Le Carre, Germaine Greer – pen in hands – write blood onto Rushdie’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury calls for ‘tolerance’ (not of Rushdie, of the mobs calling for his death), and Prince Charles, staggeringly, complains of the costs to the public purse for Rushdie’s protection.

Where only justified bitterness might be expected for censors, critics, apologists for the hate-mongers burning him in effigy, we find in Rushdie’s memoir a larger insight. There are surprising accounts of virtual imprisonment often patiently endured for the safety of family, publishers, airline passengers, audiences and foreign-held hostages. If the expected support of his government never materialises, (The Blair government sought to extend blasphemy laws) he shows gratitude for those literary and moral supporters that included Ian McEwan, Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens.

One hundred Arab and Muslim writers jointly published a book of essays, written in many languages and published in French, ‘Pour Rushdie’ [For Rushdie] , to defend freedom of speech…”We have the obligation to tell him that he personifies our solitude and that his story is our own.”

Where Rushdie brings literature, where he brings Rushdie in his memoir, are the complex layers of ‘Joseph Anton’ and his other self struggling beneath the bullet-proof surface. Hunched in getaway cars. Fitful sleeps turning him roughly in unfamiliar beds. Days away from the thing he loves most – writing stories – costing him at moments his sanity. Rushdie snatches from just above the surface of this suffocation and fear, rare and happy gulps of friendships and trust. These lighter moments cherished in peril never quite achieve normality, surrounded – even if gratefully – by armed guards.

joseph-anton-a-memoir-by-salman-rushdieIn fiction, Rushdie fused his earlier life experiences with the mixed-identity characters of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton: A Memoir is instead the story of Rushdie’s struggle for unmixed realization. Beneath the subterfuge he senses another kind of extinguishment. Have the armed protectors succeeded where the fatwa has not? As the anxious Rushdie mixes deeper with ‘Anton’, we are suspended at numerous critical moments: Which ‘character’ will overcome the other? What boundaries of control will be drawn between Rushdie and ‘Anton’ in their unhappy truce between the will to happiness and the need to survive?

When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired in a sense, free will.

Like his novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s name “disappeared into the front pages”. It disappeared into the epithets and ‘Satan Rushdy’ avatars of clerics burning for his murder. A name no longer his, free will becomes no longer an option the Secret Service is able or at times willing to accommodate.

Literary criticism of Joseph Anton has centred on Rushdie’s use of third person, the ‘he’, ‘his’, ‘him’ of Anton rather than the ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘me’ of Rushdie. Even as the author gives deeply personal unvarnished accounts of Joseph Anton’s – that is his –  troubled love life, of raising a family in a climate of fear and death, the device remains strange and discomfiting.

Critics have brittly marked this disconnection in the memoir and yet ignored how this device offers firsthand Rushdie’s dissociation from the ‘fully free society’ where he only half-existed. Rushdie has spent the period of this story negotiating anguished boundaries of identity, and the brilliance of the device preserves for the reader his unwilling masks and fugitive feet.

Ambiguous, ‘Joseph Anton’ dramatises a man not enough free to use his name. It’s a disconcerting parable for a free-society not enough brave to articulate what that freedom means. By dissociating from its principles and one of its prized authors, that society endeavoured to remain ‘free’ to avert moral combat with the broader threat brought down by Khomeini’s fatwa.

The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list: freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex…

Where Rushdie could be forgiven for his focus on a situation never more vivid and personal than saving one’s own life, he demonstrates Olympian regard of the larger picture. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing…We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love… Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorised. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Forgotten in the events following its publication were The Satanic Verses’ satiric and literary qualities. Incidental as they may be to principles of free speech, they are not to its gains. Open its cover and a hijacked jet-liner makes a post-explosion dive above the city of London, and among the flying debris of plummeting seats and trolleys, transformative incarnation in cloud-filled descent takes hold of two of its passengers. It would be hard to nominate a more pyrotechnic beginning to a tale spanning centuries and continents. The language is modern, jarring, electric, magic-real. Deep in its pages, an angel Gibreel messages an ancient prophet Mahound in mad vision, “tilting” and “panning” its locus like a futuristic camera. Just as explosively, arguments over the story’s literary quality were superseded as London (and the world) plummeted into the ensuing controversy and real life terrorism that almost forced the novel from print.

Sandakat Kadri writes that Arabic lore, which The Satanic Verses made novel use of, details a period “several Qur’anic scholars of great standing have accepted as the truth.” Legend tells at Islam’s birth of Mohammed’s acceptance of other idols. Such a story would contradict notions of Mohammed’s ‘perfection’ and an unchangeable Qur’an. Kadri observes that,

Those offended were never very likely to read them. Rushdie’s book raised hackles for reasons other than its contents, however. Its title echoed a legend known in Arabic…when the Prophet briefly faltered in his mission… [His] supposed revelations were not divine. They were the whisperings of a demon (shaitan): satanic verses.

As with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s camera widens beyond seventh century myth. In Joseph Anton, stories are to him as they were his father’s who freely mixed in bedtime stories to the young Salman. Stories belong to everyone, but were also “his, all his… to alter and renew and discard and pick up again… to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by”. 

Sacred or profane, they were ‘untrue’ but an access to other truths. These are the accounts of a Rushdie before the Anton ‘subterfuge’, before British clerics feigned promises of withdrawing the fatwa’s threat, before an anxious ‘Joseph Anton’ is pressured to sign a repudiation of his beliefs and art. It was a moment in Joseph Anton, alone, too keen to be understood, and “loved”, that Rushdie labels his “great Mistake”.

Rushdie emerged from Anton a name to renew and pick up again. Joseph Anton‘s story, if not fiction, should be ours to live in, and with, and by. Shortly after the fatwa, New Yorkers began to wear ‘I am Salman Rushdie’ badges in public solidarity. “I wished I could’ve worn one of those,” Rushdie writes. Now, with Joseph Anton: A Memoir, he does ♦

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