Joseph Anton: A Memoir
by Salman Rushdie
Random House, 2012
$ 30.00, 656 pages
Published in September 1988, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses remains great. A high-wire juggler that never bobbles its multiple stories, the novel memorably argues that people cannot truly remake themselves without making peace with their roots. One of the stories the novel juggles is the birth of Islam. Since it told that story slant, some Muslims demonstrated loudly against The Satanic Verses shortly after its publication. Never one to shun the spotlight, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran and jolly good fellow who no Iranian could deny under pain of death, weighed in on the matter. On February 14, 1989, he ordered Rushdie’s murder (let’s not sanctify this last thuggish grasp at political relevance by calling it a fatwa); without reading it, he concluded that The Satanic Verses blasphemed against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. This edict forced Rushdie into hiding until the Iranian government effectively set it aside in 1998.
(Let’s be fair. Khomeini probably wasn’t the first or last critic to pan a book without reading it. Moreover, his funeral, during which mourners treated his body like a crowd surfer at a Sonic Youth concert, inspired one of the more memorable images in Mao II. So the man wasn’t completely hopeless.)
Told in third person, Joseph Anton recounts Rushdie’s life under the shadow of Khomeini’s call to glory. To dispense with the basic requirements of a mainstream book review: structured like one of his novels (digressive, story-stuffed, leisurely, and less-than-linear) Joseph Anton poignantly depicts Rushdie’s plague years, particularly the toll they took on his family, career, and psyche. Most readers will savor the cloak-and-dagger details, the grotesques who populate the book (including two American ex-wives: the novelist Marianne Wiggins and the only person who believes Padma Laxmi is prettier than Aishwarya Rai, Padma Laxmi. These two misbehave exuberantly, and the reader can’t help but applaud), and Rushdie’s penchant for skewering his adversaries. Four stars, two thumbs-up, 9 out of 10, start reading the book today.
Most readers will savor the cloak-and-dagger details, the grotesques who populate the book...
Now, let’s talk about me. When I was young, I dreamt of becoming a novelist (before misguided attempts at playing the white knight, auteur, and bon vivant smothered that dream. But that’s a digression for another review). Rushdie’s novels served as a lodestar; I devoured and struggled not to imitate everything he wrote from Midnight’s Children to Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Moreover, his book reviews exposed me to writers like Calvino, Gordimer, and Kapuscinski. Therefore, I read Joseph Anton primarily its portrait of Rushdie as a “teller of tales, a creator of shapes, a maker of things that were not.” Wait. Let me be more precise. Rushdie’s an approval junkie (he claims to have kicked, but littering Joseph Anton with personal and professional testimonials would suggest otherwise), and his habit has inspired him to write an absorbing defense of his life’s work.
For starters, many writers observe opacity on the issue of artistic influence, as if a frank discussion would tar them as epigones. Rushdie is refreshingly free of such hang-ups.
... his father at bedtime told him the great wonder tales of the East... To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn to unforgettable lessons: first, that the 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 truths that the truth could not tell him ...
The writers who had always spoken to him most clearly... understood the unreality of “reality” and the reality of the world’s waking nightmare, the monstrous mutability of the everyday, the irruption of the extreme and improbable into the humdrum quotidian. Rabelais, Gogol, Kafka, these and their ilk had been his masters ... .
Granted, none of the influences that Joseph Anton cites will surprise anyone who qualifies as a casual Rushdie follower. However, its sections on influence illuminate his literary thinking, and could serve as a guide to readers less familiar with his work (while the uninitiated are unlikely to pick up this memoir, one can always hope). Moreover, by carefully framing the nature of their influence, Rushdie summons his masters not to pay homage, but to deploy them in a sly defense of his brand of magical realism. This is humblebrag done right.
Joseph Anton also offers the literary equivalent of a director’s commentary track. Rushdie chronicles the birth of his prose style and the discovery of his overriding theme, the condition of the immigrant. He details, with warm charm, the process of writing his first seven novels (the exception being Shame, which receives only two paragraphs. Knee-jerk iconoclasm compels me to say it’s my favorite Rushdie novel, which makes it no less true). He sharply crystalizes his “a-ha!” moments. Thus, he elevates what could have been a never ending “And then I wrote” yawnfest into a collection of meta-stories so intimate that the reader no longer feels like a witness to Rushdie’s creations, but a co-conspirator.
Finally, Rushdie’s detractors have criticized his novels’ busy and noisy natures, cartoonish characters, and overheated prose. Joseph Anton takes on these long-standing criticisms.
The storyteller stirred stories into one another, digressed frequently from the main narrative, told jokes, sang songs, connected his political story to the ancient tales, made personal asides, and generally misbehaved. And yet the audience...roared with laughter, wept in despair, and remained on the edge of on the edge of its seat until he was done.
He believed in pushing language, making it mean as much as he could make it mean, listening to the meaning of its music as well as its words...
...More typically, all hell was breaking loose, as people dealt with their angry fathers, drunken mothers, resentful siblings, mad aunts, lecherous uncles, and crumbling grandparents. ... The families in the novels he later wrote would be explosive, operatic, arm-waving, exclamatory, wild. People who did not like his books would sometimes criticize these fictional families for being unrealistic — not “ordinary” enough. However, readers who did like his books said to him, “Those families are exactly like my family.”
He believed in pushing language, making it mean as much as he could make it mean, listening to the meaning of its music as well as its words; but now he was supposed to speak plainly. ...Did it matter if a writer was denuded in this way, stripped of the richness of language? Yes it did, because beauty struck chords deep within the human heart, beauty opened doors in the spirit. Beauty mattered because beauty was joy and joy was the reason he did what he did, his joy in words and in using them to tell tales, to create worlds, to sing.
There is much to quarrel with in these passages. For example, the more sober-minded prose style of Joseph Anton, which manages to be playful and evocative, undermines Rushdie’s blanket dismissal of such a style (although it must be admitted that the prose occasionally sinks into a flatness better suited for book reviews). Moreover, he mistakenly universalizes his colorful family background. And I still feel uneasy that, generally speaking, all his characters sound alike. Nevertheless, his fierce apology may persuade skeptics to reconsider the novels, and remind a generation of writers that aesthetic value matters more than site traffic statistics.
Salman Rushdie was my first literary hero. Time may have tempered my enthusiasm for his work, but Joseph Anton
reminds me why I cared so deeply in the first place.