JOSEPH ANTON by Salman Rushdie
On Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses. Rushdie called it his Unfunny Valentine. Twenty-three years later, in 2012, he published Joseph Anton, based on the journals he kept while in hiding.
When the fatwa was declared it did not take the Muslim world long to rise up in in favour of it – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Venezuela, all joined in. Muslims in India, Britain and America, too, thrust themselves into the wave of hate and violence and joined the frenzy: rioting, burning and demanding Rushdie’s death, not having read the Satanic Verses nor fully knowing what it was about. Several bounties too were placed on his head throughout the years he was in hiding.
Salman Rushdie was born in India. He grew up there before going to the UK to study. His father Anis, “a godless man who knew and thought a great deal about God” taught his son to think for himself. He passed down to him “an unwavering insistence on human reason and intellect against religious faith.”
As a student in Cambridge, Rushdie became interested in the “the rise of Islam”. He was fascinated with the culture and he treated the prophet Muhammad with much respect as a man. It is from the Qur’an he got the title for his book: The Satanic Verses. It confused him as to why he was misunderstood by so many, especially by Muslims. The Satanic Verses of the Qur’an refer to the time when Muhammad, the prophet, came down from the mountain and reported the apparition of Archangel “Gibreel” who had revealed to him three angels. This led the people of Mecca to include the angels in their religion and worship them as goddesses. Later when Muhammad realized their religion was moving to a monotheistic one he changed his story saying it was Satan who had told him about the three angels.
Joseph Anton, the name Rushdie took for himself while in hiding, is related in the third person. The journal spans ten years from the time the fatwa was issued to the time it was lifted, though not completely lifted. It is still in existence and there is still a bounty on his head. On 24 September 1998, Mohammad Khatami from the Iranian government issued a statement that he neither supported the fatwa nor would he stop anyone else carrying it out.
Rushdie writes of the fear of death, pain and loneliness and heartache of being separated from his wife and son, Zafar, and not being able to see his friends and the rest of his family. He lived in hiding and endured the constant threat of death. Much of the book reads like a thriller. His Japanese editor was murdered, his Norwegian publisher shot, his Italian translator stabbed, many died in riots protesting against the Satanic verses, and his effigy and his books were burned.
Freedom-loving people all over the world took up the cause of freedom of thought and freedom of the written word. Names of influential politicians, well-known writers, publishers, and famous film and theatre celebrities are generously interwoven into his story of life in hiding. The majority of them tried to help him and spoke of the need to uphold freedom of speech. The British Government remained on the fence, never officially denouncing the fatwa, but it gave him protection.
It hurt him that some writers he greatly admired were against him. The Guardian attacked him for not withdrawing the novel. Once, in 1990, Rushdie met with Muslim leaders, offering to proclaim his faith in Islam but he would not withdraw the paperback Satanic Verses nor apologize for writing it. The meeting solved nothing and later he was ashamed that he had even offered to meet with them. Rushdie tells us his mother, then living in Pakistan, received support and comfort and was never threatened. Neither were any members of his family or his friends in India and England.
During this time of hiding he also went through personal problems. He had “no one to fulfill his deepest needs.” His first wife Clarissa died of cancer, his second and third marriages broke up, his fourth to a model-actress and TV host fell apart. Reading about the behavior of the wives, I feel he had a capacity to attract some of the worst women.
On 16 June 2007, Rushdie was knighted by the Queen for his great contribution to English literature: Sir Salman Rushdie. Many of the Muslim countries were outraged. Al-Qaeda condemned the Rushdie honour. “An insult to Islam,” they screamed.
Rushdie tells us exactly what he was feeling and doing throughout his long banishment from normal life. But this work does not have the imagination and the wonderful style his writing is famous for, nor does it contain much humour. At times it is as if there is too much name-dropping. He is also quite annoyed with the pressure of the round-the-clock security that he found restricting. I felt this annoyance with his own safety arrangements was unreasonable, and a little lacking in gratitude. I was also not comfortable reading this book in the third person. The author, Salman Rushdie, whom I greatly admire, and for whose life I feared while reading the book, loomed up before me ever present, and I found it disconcerting and confusing each time he referred to himself with the third person “He”.
This 636-page hardcover volume of purple, with its suede-like cover, is pleasure to feel and to hold. The pages are well laid out and a good font size makes it a comfortable read.
The photo below is of an interesting incident. I was reading Joseph Anton in our garden and put the book down to go inside to get a drink of water. When I returned, I found that Spooks, our cat, had brought me a present and laid it beside my book.
Jo with a sympathetic friend
More Rushdie Novels
Midnight’s Children (1981)
The Satanic Verses (1988)
The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995)
The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)
Shalimar the Clown (2005)
The Enchantress of Florence (2008)
Leela Panikar ©