Any Other Name
Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Salman Rushdie’s memoir provides a fascinating insight into the life of a man who, haunted for a decade by the death sentence that hovered over his head, struggled to cobble together something resembling a quotidian existence. The event that was splashed across the pages of the national press is now recounted by the man who lived through it in bare, reflective, thought-provoking prose; Joseph Anton: A Memoir recounts the ten years Rushdie spent living under a fatwa.
The publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1988 enraged Muslims across the world, including the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who soon publicly demanded his execution. Throughout the decade of the fatwa, pronounced in 1988 and eventually lifted in 1998, Rushdie lived under an assumed identity, adopting the pseudonym Joseph Anton in a personal homage to the writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. While Rushdie’s choice to adopt a pseudonym was clearly a practical one, his use of this name for the protagonist of his memoir, recounted in the third person, leaves the reader with the distinct sense that Rushdie is telling somebody else’s tale. Perhaps this grammatical stepping-back, removing himself from the position of the first-person narrator, is the only way for Rushdie to understand and make sense of what happened to him. This retrospective distance enables him, calmly and perceptively, to analyse events that must have seemed nightmarish, monstrous, unbelievable, as if they were happening to somebody else.
This memoir feels like an exercise on the part of the author not only to recount, but also to understand, what has happened to him, drawing meaning from the tumultuous events of his past life. Indeed, he meditates on the meaning of human existence throughout this work: ”Human life was rarely shapely, only intermittently meaningful, its clumsiness the inevitable consequence of the victory of content over form, of what and when over how and why.”
This large book is not strictly-speaking a memoir: the use of the third-person pronoun separates the author from the eponymous protagonist, splitting Salman from Joseph, Rushdie from Anton. It distances the reader from the author’s account and blurs the boundaries between autobiography, literary memoir, and fiction. The account is clearly based on true events, but the reader is left uncertain as to whether it has been fleshed out with fictional detail. Have aspects been changed and added or is it in fact impossible for the author himself to discern exactly what falls into the categories of truth and fiction? Rushdie looks back on events in the past, reflecting on this time in his life. Surely the trauma must have impacted upon his memory and experience in various ways. The writing of a novel that bears any resemblance to an author’s life almost invariably raises questions regarding its veracity, as readers attempt to decipher whether or not the author has based his fictional tale on his (or her) own life, and if so, how closely the events in the pages of the novel mirror the author’s own experiences.
Autobiography, or literary memoir, should by definition be a straightforward factual account. However, in the case of Joseph Anton, things do not seem so clear. Rushdie’s various musings on the nature of truth, the role of storytelling in the lives of human beings, and the constructed nature of human identity suggest that this memoir is perhaps not intended to be an entirely straightforward recounting of the truth. If indeed, as Joseph Anton’s narrator explores, there is such a thing as truth:
To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no “real” genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him, and second, that they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father’s, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard and pick up again as and when he pleased, his to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life in return. 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 nobody could take it away.
The blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality becomes increasingly intricate when living authors are referred to by name. Ian McEwan, for example, is cited as one of Rushdie’s literary contemporaries who was part of the unwavering circle of support that helped sustain him throughout his continuing period of “imprisonment”. Rushdie writes not of his own interactions with these literary men, but of Joseph Anton’s interaction with them. He writes:
Enough of invisibility, silence, timidity, defensiveness, guilt! An invisible, silenced man was an empty space into which others could pour their prejudices, their agendas, their wrath. The fight against fanaticism needed visible faces, audible voices. He would be quiet no longer. He would try to become a loud and visible man.
Yet the continued use of the third-person pronoun throughout this memoir suggests that Rushdie still welcomes the veil of mysteriousness, the thin cloak of invisibility shrouding his words that keeps both the reader and the author himself removed from the experiences of the decade of the fatwa. His battle against fanaticism still rages on, displaced into one of Rushdie’s characters, into his fictional ‘other’. McEwan and others retain their factual identity while Rushdie (or Rushdie’s character) remains Joseph, trapped in this fictional identity just as he is trapped in the nightmarish reality of the narrative’s present. In this way, the use of the pseudonym throughout the memoir also underlines the isolation Rushdie must have felt throughout this period; it highlights the author’s constant feeling of being forced to live in a different world to that of his friends.
The pseudonym remains omnipresent as the reader turns the pages and is transported into the surrealism of Rushdie’s reality during the fatwa. Rushdie is caught in the tension between life and death: he continues to exist, but with the inescapable threat of his execution blighting his daily life. His imprisonment is comfortable, his life retaining some semblance of normality, but he is nevertheless haunted by the proximity of his execution. He has not succumbed to his death sentence, and yet he is confined to a reality that his peers, friends, and family cannot enter: an experience that they cannot quite understand. He is also caught between the past and the future. Rushdie meditates on his past actions and his present reality and is the “privileged” observer of glimpses into the future—the post-fatwa future which contains only memories of Rushdie. In one chilling anecdote, Paul Theroux mentions to Rushdie at a funeral of a shared friend that he suspects the same group shall gather again soon, but that this next gathering will be to mourn Rushdie himself.
The memoir, of course, raises issues that continue to be debated today, over two decades since the fatwa was first issued. Questions as to whether, in the face of political correctness, that key cornerstone of Western democracy—freedom of speech—is under threat. Questions as to whether videos and cartoons made by Westerners depicting Islamic tradition are permissible, and whether Muslim retaliation to such media should be pardoned or condemned as inexcusable acts of terrorism. All these are brought to the fore by Rushdie’s memoirs. These are questions upon which Rushdie meditates throughout Joseph Anton, analysing them through the personal kaleidoscope of his own experience. He interrogates the idea of religious tolerance and reflects that, just as all should be free to practice religion, all should be free to criticise it. Rushdie, or Joseph, suggests that religion, in order to show its strength, must demonstrate its ability to resist criticism, to face challenges to its integrity.
Rebecca Loxton is reading for an M.Phil. in Modern Languages at Keble College, Oxford.