Review

Joseph Anton: A Memoir

by Salman Rushdie

It was on Valentine’s Day in 1989 that Salman Rushdie awakened to a phone call from a BBC reporter who asked him how it felt to be sentenced to a Fatwah by the Ayatollah Khomeini. He, growing up in the Muslim culture, had never heard that wordnor had the rest of the Western world. He soon learned that it means an irrevocable death sentence that lasts through eternity as he was notified that the London police were stepping in to protect him and his family. He is advised to either go into witness protection or adopt a pseudonym and live with around-the-clock protection by a team from the Special Branch of MI5 Believing the situation will be short term, he opts for the latter and chooses as an alias Joseph Anton, derived from the first names of two favorite authors: Joseph (Conrad) and Anton (Chekhov).

His life becomes one of a celebrity/fugitive as he is “allowed” --- a term he soon grows to detest --- to be driven only in bulletproof cars by threatening-looking armed drivers and to live around the clock with no fewer than two beefy, armed but amiable members of his select protection team in his residence. His mail is delivered by courier only after being cleared by authorities looking for incendiary devices. He and his family are often forced to scuttle for cover to hastily arranged bolt holes as threat levels rise or fall. Any time MI5 learns of a new bounty on his head --- as much as $1 million or, once, a 100,000-man mob in Tehran, each vouching to sell a kidney to raise money for his death, or suspicion that his current location has been blown, often requiring departure in a matter of minutes. What he thought would be a relatively brief period of inconvenience turns into an 11-year nightmare. It destroys two marriages and a few friendships, although it is through the world of writers that he finds his greatest friends. He refuses to recant or apologize, which costs him and the British government millions of pounds.

"Powerful and thought-provoking, JOSEPH ANTON celebrates the First Amendment and a devotee's determination that censorship will neither crush nor kill him or his family."

The book begins with an introduction to Salman Rushdie, the Bombay Indian boy raised in Pakistan in a non-practicing Muslim family who becomes an award-winning novelist and writes a somewhat whimsical book about how Islam was created, never knowing the furies it will unleash. THE SATANIC VERSES so inflames the Muslim world even as most of his detractors never read the book, including the madman who sentenced him to death.  He concludes the brief autobiographical sketch with this statement as the book goes public: “Throughout the writing of THE SATANIC VERSES…a note to himself (was) pinned to the wall above his desk. ’To write a book is to make a Faustian contract in reverse,’ it said. ‘To gain immortality or at least posterity, you lose, or at least ruin, your actual daily life.’”  This memo would prove profoundly prophetic --- an irony in itself, as he later states that he has had quite enough of prophets in his lifetime.

JOSEPH ANTON evolves into a sometimes terrifying, occasionally Keystone Cops chronicle. He describes as preposterous his first visit to New York as riding in a seven-car cavalcade complete with sirens and motorcycle outriders to pick up a writing award. Later he finds the only peaceful respite from the intense security is on United States soil as he and his family seek refuge in rented homes of friends.

1989 was the year of Tiananmen Square, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War. George HW Bush was inaugurated, and Margaret Thatcher ruled in the UK. The Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Rushdie, a master of the metaphor, borrows from the opening scene of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Birds. He likens the advent of world terror to the first blackbird. One bird appears as a personal messenger on the climbing frame outside a school, joined by a few more, then tens of thousands fill the sky to devour the world. Religious intolerance on a world-wide scale arrived as a single condemnation of a writer who dared to speak plainly. He compares the Fatwah to a harbinger of what was to come by the turn of the century as the black cloud hovered over the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Rushdie says, “As to the battle over THE SATANIC VERSES,it is still hard to say if it was ending in victory or defeat. The book was not suppressed, nor was its author, but the dead remained dead, and a climate of fear had grown up that made it harder for books like his to be published, or even, perhaps to be written.” 

Powerful and thought-provoking, JOSEPH ANTON celebrates the First Amendment and a devotee's determination that censorship will neither crush nor kill him or his family. Thus is the life of a novelist who unintentionally gains notoriety as he lives or attempts to live in a world where state-sponsored terrorism continues to clash with the innate human desire for freedom. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has spread across the Middle East, raising the hope for freedom among repressed peoples. Sadly, current events find a brave Pakistani girl near death because she dared to write a blog about educating young girls. She is the victim of a Taliban assassination attempt as her would-be killer vows to finish what he began.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 12, 2012

Joseph Anton: A Memoir
by Salman Rushdie

  • Publication Date: September 10, 2013
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812982606
  • ISBN-13: 9780812982602