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Bookends: How to survive a death sentence with a lot of help from your friends February 6, 2015

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Bookends: How to survive a death sentence with a lot of help from your friendsRusdie - Anton

By Dan Davidson

August 27, 2014

– 970 words –

 

Joseph Anton – a Memoir

By Salman Rushdie

Vintage Canada

636 pages

$22.00

 

In 1988 Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. After several novels dealing with life on the Indian subcontinent, he had decided to write a book about the immigrant experience. Since he himself had been shipped off to school in England in his teens he had a lot off personal perspective to bring to the questions of cultural dislocation that people from his home country have experienced after such transitions.

Rushdie’s style at that point tended to be heavily influenced by the “magic realism” of such writers as Jorge Luis Borges, in which mystical elements are interwoven with the mundanity of the every day world. The two central characters are Indians of a Muslim background who are trying extra hard to fit into British society. They are involved in a plane crash from which they are magically rescued and, after that, their lives take strange paths.

Both of them take on supernatural characteristics; one is angelic, the other devilish. One of them, wracked with guilt over his rejection of his culture and faith, has a series of bizarre nightmare visions in which the life of the prophet Muhammad (called Mahound in the novel) is reinterpreted in the light of the so-called “satanic verses”, which are based on accounts by Muslim historians.

The book was well received and was runner-up for the Booker Prize, but trouble soon began as conservative Muslims began to attack it as blasphemous. The book was burned. Rushdie was threatened and in February 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini (who is transparently referenced in the novel) declared a fatwa, or death sentence, on the writer and his publishers. At one point the bounty offered for his death was in the millions of dollars.

Over the next few years his Japanese translator was murdered and his Italian translator stabbed. His Norwegian publisher was shot three times and a plot against his Turkish translator led to the massacre of 37 people in Turkey.

Rushdie was placed under the protection of the British security service. They provided the operatives and vehicles, but he had to bear the cost and the chore of finding safe houses in which to live and, of course, cover his own living expenses during the decade. It is indeed fortunate that he was able to generate enough income to do so in spite of the constraints and turmoil in his life.

During this time he also had to live under an assumed name. Joseph Anton was chosen from the first names of two of his favorite writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. This memoir is the story of the Joseph Anton years, presented to us in the third person, as if Anton were a real character in another novel.

The first couple, of the eleven chapters in the book, provide us with Rushdie’s earlier life in brief and give us some context for what he thought he was writing about, as opposed to what some other people thought he was writing about.

Reading the book gives one a real sense of what it must have been like to live under constant peril (as assessed by the secret service) of being killed, to have live-in protection, to have the strain destroy not one, but three, marital relationships and come between the author and his son by an earlier marriage.

Rushdie struggled with his publishers, who were justifiably frightened after a spate of violent demonstrations and bookstore bombings, to keep his work in print, both for practical reasons (he was having to finance his own seclusion) and for matters of principle. The book returns again and again to the efforts he and his friends made to keep The Satanic Verses in circulation and to give it life as a paperback edition once the normal hardcover period came to an end.

In addition to that, Rushdie had to find within himself the strength and vision to continue as a writer, not to mention finding publishers for any new books he managed to finish. It took him three years to produce his next book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written for his son, Zafar, and another five to write The Moor’s Last Sigh. He has produced four more adult novels, a second children’s book and several non-fiction books since the beginning of the fatwa, and has received conspicuous honours from all over the world.

This is a moving and somewhat exciting book. While one might complain that Rushdie/Anton is too focused on his own reactions to events, it is hard to imagine that anyone in this situation could be otherwise. While he is sometimes hard on his detractors and sometimes laments the motives of others of his acquaintance, he is no less hard on himself and does not portray himself as a steely hero. He comes across as a flawed individual suffering from what might be a form of PTSD, except that, for him the stress has continued for decades. This book was one way to deal with some of that.

While it was eventually decided that his protectors and special arrangements were no longer necessary, he still receives a sort of “Valentine’s card” from some people in Iran every February 14, just to remind him that his death sentence is still valid as far as they are concerned. Apparently, a fatwa can only be rescinded by the person who declared it, and Ayatollah Khomeini died the same year that it all began.

I have read a number of Rushdie’s books, and reviewed The Satanic Verses the year it came out. On the whole I think I like this book better. It’s much more down to earth and straightforward in its style and content.

 

-30-

 

 

 

 

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