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The world exploding around him: Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

– This review appears in the December edition of ABC’s Limelight magazine.

In the opening pages of The Satanic Verses, protagonists Gibreel and Saladin tumble and fall from the sky in a chaos of fire and debris. When the novel was published in late 1988, it too burst forth with an explosion of protests, riots, bombings, book burnings and deaths showering from it like the plane that combusts in its opening pages.

“To be born again…first you have to die” were the first words of the novel that sparked one of the most deadly battles around freedom of speech vs freedom from blasphemy fought in the latter twentieth century. Rushdie, of course, didn’t die. But the fatwa he received on Valentine’s Day 1989 from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was effectively a death sentence, resulting in the decade he spent in hiding that marks the course of his new memoir, Joseph Anton.

It’s fitting that the name Joseph Anton is above that of Salman Rushdie on the cover – this was his pseudonym used while in fear for his life, the man he existed as for thirteen years. Rushdie became Joseph Anton, the first names of two novelists, Conrad and Chekov – like himself, a literary combination of East and West.

“To write a book is to make a Faustian contract in reverse. To gain immortality, or at least posterity, you lose, or at least ruin, your actual daily life.” This was the note he had pinned above his desk whilst writing The Satanic Verses. He had already experienced, at a young age, separation from his family whilst at boarding school in England. Following the publication of the reviled novel, “against which the rage of Islam would be directed,” he was now exiled from his normal life in Britain too.

Rushdie curiously adopts a third-person narration for his memoir, an unconventional choice that works rather brilliantly to convey the alienation he must have felt in this time from his life and identity – the Rushdie of international condemnation, burning effigies, the horned ‘Satan Rushdy’ on placards. The device means it reads more like a fictional tale than a memoir, but Rushdie has indeed lived a life many novelists could not dream up.

Joseph Anton is a compelling, revealing work written in Rushdie’s characteristically beautiful prose. It is a manifesto, a defence, and an explanation of the novel that exploded around him, the reverberations of which are still being felt to this day in his banning from the Jaipur literary festival, and echoed in the protests against the recent incendiary film Innocence of Muslims.

“If I ever finish The Satanic Verses…there will be nothing left to write about; except, of course, the whole of human life.” Perhaps, after Joseph Anton, he has now freed himself to do just that.

– Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is available now though Jonathan Cape. RRP 35.00

– Image source

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