by Salman Rushdie
Hardcover: 656 pages
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd; First Edition edition (September 18, 2012)
Sometimes, when a writer introduces himself, he’ll receive a response along the lines of, “Can you help me write my memoirs? You should hear my story. It’s a fantastic story.” Many writers will attest to smiling politely at such a response and moving on. After all, there are more than enough works of self-aggrandizement touted as memoirs. Equally appalling are those that chronicle every detail of horror the author has experienced that makes readers question the veracity of the story. Every so often, though, a gem of a book like ‘Joseph Anton’ by Salman Rushdie comes along.
‘Joseph Anton’ is written in third person narrative and that alone makes this memoir somewhat original. As Rushdie says, ‘Now by naming himself he had turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well.’ In fact, ‘Joseph’ and ‘Anton’ are half the name each of Rushdie’s favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.
As such, ‘Joseph Anton’ is the memoir of Ahmed Salman Rushdie. It begins on the day the infamous fatwa was declared in 1989 and charts the events in his life from that moment on. It ends on the day in March 2002 when the threat level has been reduced and police protection is no longer offered to him.
There is another layer to the originality of writing this memoir in third person narrative and that is one of balance. It is part reportage, which makes ‘Joseph Anton’ an objective account of what happened in Rushdie’s life. At the same time, because Rushdie is at pains to explain his side of the story and his feelings, it’s a very subjective piece of writing.
Certainly, ‘Joseph Anton’ tells the story of a man with indomitable courage. If anything, all aspiring authors must read the story of his journey to publication for one of his novels, ‘Haroun’. In that, they will come to see that even celebrated authors like Rushdie will face rejection, betrayal and harsh criticism from all sorts of people in the publishing industry.
‘Joseph Anton’ examines the range of emotions Rushdie undergoes from his sense of pride at his sons’ achievements and his joy in the love of a woman to his inability to forgive those who have hurt him and a deep compassion he showed his son when his first wife died. No doubt, he is a master of prose and nothing says this more than this sentence: ‘He felt, very often in those years, profoundly ashamed. Both shamed and ashamed.’
One of the most satisfying things about ‘Joseph Anton’ is the discovery of how he used events in his life to craft his literary works. For instance, he writes about the people he met in Kashmir and said, ‘… he never forgot their unfilmed stories, never forgot the woodland glade of tumbling and tightrope-walking children where a next generation of ‘clowns’ was being trained, clowns who might no longer have an audience to perform to, who might even, when they were grown, relinquish the fake swords of actors and pick up the real guns of the Islamic jihad. Many years later they became the heart of his ‘Kashmir novel’ Shalimar the Clown.’
‘Joseph Anton’ is a rare book which will make you feel as though you’re reading a work of fiction that is full of drama, suspense, love and betrayal. Yet, you will know that it is the real story of one man and everything he writes about did happen. And when you read the last sentence in the book – ‘He walked out of the Halcyon Hotel on to Holland Park Avenue and stuck out an arm to hail a passing cab’ – you may feel utterly satisfied that you now have a better understanding of Salman Rushdie.
Reviewed by Moira Tan