The prospect of a hanging may, per Dr. Johnson, “concentrate the mind wonderfully,” but the prospect of ritual execution by an Iranian death squad evidently has the opposite effect. On the morning of February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini announced Salman Rushdie’s death sentence for The Satanic Verses, and Rushdie made his final public appearance for years. At the funeral of the travel writer Bruce Chatwin in London, he listened to Greek Orthodox monks groan out their liturgy while swinging thuribles of incense. Already he was stunned, his mind preparing to unravel. Paul Theroux — an exemplary defender of Rushdie over the next several years — at the time hissed unhelpfully from the pew behind him, “I suppose next week we’ll be here for you, Salman.”
Rushdie has taken over a decade to tell the full story of his subsequent descent into mental vertigo, panic, fear, paralysis, and depression. His memoir Joseph Anton — which touches briefly on his pre-fatwa years before he was whisked away by British cops and sheltered by a network of literary luminaries — derives its title from Rushdie’s fugitive alias, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. (It perhaps has an echo, too, of Kafka’s Joseph K., that other victim of interminable persecution.) His British police bodyguards, provided somewhat controversially at public expense, referred to him on daily basis as “Joe.”
Joseph Anton is a book written from the security the present day, but it rattles with the terror of the moment and is unique among literary memoirs, if only because its author is unique among authors. Others have incurred death threats (“a most extreme form of literary criticism,” said V. S. Naipaul at the time, archly and also unhelpfully), but Rushdie’s came from an especially dangerous source. And it reached him at a time before the world was well acquainted with tempers of Islam’s most fanatical representatives. The grisly novelty of this mafia hit, ordered from a cleric’s deathbed a continent away, hit with a Sputnik-like shock, suddenly making what seemed like a far-off threat present and real.
Among the many virtues of the memoir is its ability to conjure both the stress and mechanics of the author’s own flight to safety, as well as the ignorance and cowardice of much of the world at the time. It’s easy to forget how readily the public — especially the vast demographic of people who don’t read fiction but do watch the news and do bristle instinctively at the word “satanic” — conceded that Rushdie was surely at least an evil man. And then there were public figures, some of whom (like Yusuf Islam, the cretinous singer formerly known as Cat Stevens) who actually endorsed his murder, and to whom it then seemed plausible that the Devil himself walked the earth in Booker Prize-winning form.
From London, Rushdie fled to various bucolic settings in rural Britain, including cottages owned or rented by the novelist Margaret Drabble and Granta editor Bill Buford. There he had to dodge not only Iranian assassins, should they show up (they never did), but also curious local shepherds and neighbors, who if they saw his distinctive droopy lids and bodyguard detail could not be trusted to refrain from tipping off the tabloids. Rushdie says a Daily Mail reporter had checked into the hotel where he spent his first days on the run, but since the reporter was there purely for an assignation with his mistress, he never left his room and missed the scoop.
What follows is a horror: frightening revelations that Iranians had a task force set up solely to exterminate him and a harrowing episode in which his nine-year-old son Zafar and ex-wife Clarissa went missing for an hour, during which Rushdie expected to hear of their “brightly lit rag-doll corpses” chopped to bits on the floor of their London home (they were out at a play and hadn’t let him know). Worse, non-hypothetical terror soon manifested itself through the murder of his Japanese translator (stabbed in the head next to an elevator shaft), and attempts on the lives of his Italian translator (beaten and stabbed at home) and Norwegian publisher (shot three times outside his office).
This emotional torture takes turns for the even-worse when his then-wife, the distinguished American novelist Marianne Wiggins, goes from “courageous[ly]” supportive to frankly crazy, with delusions of CIA plots and hysterical accusations of torture-by-lit-cigarette against Rushdie himself. Among villains in this story she ranks somewhere just below Kalim Siddiqui — the preeminent British campaigner for Rushdie’s execution — and Hashem Essawy, the Egyptian dentist who reneged on a promise to win Rushdie forgiveness from an all-star panel of clerics (or Star Chamber?), in exchange for a degrading affirmation of return to Islam.
The “Paradise Regained” section of the book goes on a little long, and consists largely of Rushdie’s (quite rightly) haranguing airline executives into letting him fly on their planes, and more generally asserting for himself the rights of free travel and speech that no one had any right to deny him in the first place. He transforms from a pre-fatwa novelist, laureled but largely unknown, to the best-known writer anywhere, and finally — upon settling in the United States and the effective lifting of the fatwa — the only literary figure since Arthur Miller to date supermodels, and the first ever to have his real estate acquisitions examined in the tabloids.
There’s much here to love: a marvelous writer who finds his freedom again, and who gets to watch his dead tormentor become a widely hated figure in his own country; a tale well-told, with humor (after an expert wig-fitting, he goes outside cautiously, only to hear the first person who sees him say “Look, there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig”); and a reminder, now that Muslim mobs are baying after filmmakers, that in the face of previous threats to freedom of expression, those who have espoused free-speech absolutism have won out, because they have been made of sterner stuff than their opponents.
There’s also some to dislike. The trick of using “he” instead of “I” throughout is perhaps a stylistic choice, and one must be allowed an idiosyncrasy here and there. But since the author uses “he,” and never “Rushdie,” or the title’s “Anton,” every scene that involves another male character threatens to be a bit of an antecedent jumble.
And more seriously, one wishes Rushdie said a little more about the fatwa’s toll on his literary work. His last great novel was The Moor’s Last Sigh, and even it did not match the greatness of The Satanic Verses, or Midnight’s Children before that. (I am setting a high bar here. But still.) At one point in this memoir, Rushdie quotes a Yeats poem, “The Choice,” about being forced to decide whether to focus on one’s work or one’s life. Rushdie himself, after so much drama during the fatwa years, has lived a life that is in many ways enviable, containing as it does plenty of partygoing, lunches with Warren Beatty, and endless demand for paid writing and speaking. I don’t begrudge him the good times, but I do wonder to what extent he thinks serious literary work is compatible with living a public life — whether by choice or not.