Joseph Anton, you must live until you die.
So Salman Rushdie tells his alter-ago – the psuedonym, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, respectively, and how he is referred to by his British protection officers – as he embarks on what turns out to be a 13-year journey under a death sentence decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on Valentine’s Day in 1989. In this book full of irony, it’s no small irony that the man whose fatwa called for the killing of the London-based Indian expat – for blaspheming Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses – died a few years later while the writer lived on.
First, a confession: I’ve never read anything of Rushdie’s until now. I read an excerpt from this book when it was published in The New Yorker in September, and I was hooked. I tried to read Midnight’s Children a few years ago, and I just couldn’t get into it. It might be time to try something again.
The memoir of his life under the fatwa – with digressions into his child- and young adulthood – is told in the third-person, which is jarring at first but quickly becomes natural. The choice reflects Rushdie’s alienation from himself during this trying period of his life. He is forced to chose the cover name so that the members of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police (in charge of personal protection in the United Kingdom) who are his constant companions during the first nine years of the fatwa can refer to him without raising suspicion about his identity; to his extreme dislike and irritation, the men on his detail shorten the name to Joe. Rushdie in other ways ceases to become Salman: He is denounced as Rushdie the apostate (by a large part of the Muslim world), Rushdie the self-aggrandizer (by one of his ex-wives), Rushdie the ungracious (by the British press). His life almost ceases to become his own — and is certainly no longer his intellectual property, as plays and movies and articles and books and stories are written about him and the fatwa. And his new world narrowly circumscribed by what he is “allowed” to do.
Rushdie writes movingly of the pain of those years. Two marriages collapse under their weight, as well as numerous friendships and relationships with colleagues. His interaction with his then eight-year-old son is severely curtailed. For the first few years, he must move every few months, and he is constantly in search of new accommodations. He is almost always afraid – less for himself than for the risk he poses to his loved ones and colleagues. While none of his family is harmed, a foreign translator of The Satanic Verses is murdered and another is almost fatally shot. His publishers face death threats, bookstores carrying his books are bombed. It is for these casualties that Rushdie feels unrelenting guilt.
But Rushdie himself has more than his fair share of trials. Support for free speech — the main issue at hand, as he sees it — does not always come from where he expects, and he feels the betrayal of his colleagues acutely. But he is not always able to confront his accusers (whether erstwhile colleagues or new enemies), which leads to the intermittent, unsent, and often hilarious letters that appear in the text. “It was a time,” Joseph Anton reflects, “where comedy had to be found in dark places.”
The British government in particular is upsetting in its silence and its general inaction on the fatwa. Under house arrest, Rushdie feels like a prisoner, and the resulting depression leads to long periods of writer’s block. His second wife, whom he married just before the fatwa, is breathtaking in her betrayal. But lest the reader began see the author of The Satanic Verses as martyr (another mistaken identity), Rushie is also unflinchingly honest about his own shortcomings: the tactical errors he made in his own defense, the affairs he had (he cheated on three of his four wives).
History plays a large role in this part of Rushdie’s life. He had the misfortune of being targeted by Iranian extremists when U.S. and U.K. citizens were Hezbollah’s hostages in Lebanon; both countries ask for his silence at various times out of fear for their safety. On the other hand, as Rushdie notes at the end of the memoir, he had the fortune of not being this target in the internet age, when the more rapid spread of information might have raised the risk of his detection. (One of the more interesting motifs throughout the book is the development of technology: It begins with him composing drafts of his work on a typewriter and ends with his purchasing of a laptop. The scene of his first encounter with a cellphone is hilarious.)
The book also brought up for me, as a future clergy member, the danger of being on the wrong side of history: For various reasons, stakeholders who by all rights should have been vociferous defenders of free speech were In addition to politicians and writers, many religious leaders condemned The Satanic Verses on the basis of “offense to Islam,” including the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Immanuel Jakobovits, who went even further, declaring that “both Mr. Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.” In one of his impossible letters, Rushdie rightly condemns his “making false moral equivalences.”
For indeed as Jews well know, in the words of Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books they will in the end burn people too.”