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article imageReview: 'Joseph Anton' by Salman Rushdie Special

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By Steve Hayes     Sep 21, 2012 in Arts
Salman Rushdie's memoir opens with the moment he became aware that he had been sentenced to death and it ends with the moment he realised he would write the novel that would be the catalyst for the fatwa.
Joseph Anton, the title of the memoir, is the name Salman Rushdie used during his years of hiding. He took the names from his literary heroes, Conrad and Chekhov. Perhaps, it is less than surprising that his recollections and reflections are expressed in a highly literary manner.
The book is written in the third person, as though Joseph Anton is a character in a novel that Salman has written. This choice of narration is ostensibly a distancing device, but it lends an awkward, artificial, almost surreal feel to the description of events. This is, perhaps, well illustrated by the very opening sentence, which focuses attention on "the lethal blackbirds" gathering on the school playground climbing frame, like a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds. A literary reference that within a few paragraphs is made explicit.
The book, in many ways, is an illustration and a demonstration of Rushdie's claim that literature and history and politics cannot be separated. This was, of course, his theme, so wondrously expressed in Midnight's Children. It is inevitably the theme of Joseph Anton. An early anecdote concerns the reaction of Keith Vaz, Member of Parliament, whose immediate response to the fatwa was to describe it as appalling, but who would soon be a high profile denouncer of The Satanic Verses, seeing demonstrations against the novel as "great days in the history of Islam".
Yet the memoir, being memoir, is also, equally inevitably about purely personal history and, being by Rushdie, its intersections and connections with literature and stories. The stories his father told and retold him as he was growing up; stories of the East; his mother's gossip and her later complaint that he put the things she told him into his writings. As Rushdie says, the first thing he learnt from these tales is that stories are not true. The second lesson he learnt is that all stories belong to him and to everyone else. And even more importantly, steeped in these stories, the young Salman learnt that stories being untrue reveal a truth that truth itself cannot disclose. As he says:
Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright and no one could take it away.
The memoir is full of details, details that are marshaled to explain a life that revolves around The Satanic Verses. Even his name, Rushdie, is construed as a flag. The memoir relates how the name Rushdie was not the family name, but had been invented by his father. And as he found himself at war, he took consolation in the fact that he bore the name, the flag of Ibn Rushd,
which stood for intellect, argument, analysis and progress, for freedom of philosophy and learning from the shackles of theology, for human reason against blind faith, submission, acceptance and stagnation.
The war that Salman is engaged in, by no choice of his own, is the war for freedom of expression. It is, therefore, fitting that his flag should be the flag of Rushd. Ironically, as Rushdie eloquently records, often that war has involved battles against the Western establishment. Iqbal Sacranie, who was given by the media all the airtime and column inches he might wish for, said:
death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him.
In 2005, Mr. Sacranie was elevated to the knighthood at the behest of then Prime Minister Tony Blair for his services to "community relations".
Salman Rushdie's life, as recounted in Joseph Anton, is living proof of the veracity of the feminist slogan: the personal is political.
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More about Salman rushdie, Literature, nonfiction, Memoir, The Satanic Verses
 

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