Review of Joseph Anton: A Memoir

I recently listened to Salman Rushdie’s memoir, entitled Joseph Anton (Amazon affiliate link), which is a general overview of his life with a particular focus on the time he spent hiding from a fatwa declared against him by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Salman Rushdie landed himself in controversy with his novel The Satanic Verses. I’m not at all familiar with Rushdie’s work. It seems like it might be my cup of tea in the sense that I like difficult literary fiction and magical realism. I definitely enjoyed his writing style here, but I’ve also heard that some of the content might be a little explicit for my tastes (I am, after all, a stodgy English teacher rather than one of the more free-spirited ones). I’m planning to read his YA fiction book Haroun and the Sea of Stories shortly and will post a review, since I’m probably a little too Puritan to enjoy some of his other work and it fits my field of interest.

However, I can say that nobody’s writing should earn them persecution, and I feel a need to Rushdie on principle even without particular knowledge of what he has written.

However, I wish to evaluate Rushdie’s memoir as a book, not merely make a statement of political support for marginalized voices.

I found it to be quite enjoyable, and though I’m not particularly picky when it comes to memoirs and biographies (I like them all, unless they’re truly execrable) I do have to say that it might be one of my favorites, taking a close second to the historically significant work of Elie Wiesel. It’s written in a third-person style, which is quite interesting. I don’t know what thought process went into that, but it seems to permit a very objective perspective, and Rushdie avoids going off on tangents despite the distance it could otherwise enable, which is not something that can be said of every memoir writer. It also is more willing to stray from the author’s own perspective than many memoirs, presenting information that he found out later and explaining its sources.

Only part of the introduction of the audiobook was read by Rushdie, with Sam Dastor reading the rest. I have no complaints with either reader, as the audio is clear and crisp and the enunciation is perfect. There was more emotion, albeit subtle, than I’ve heard in most other recordings, which really helps to draw one in more than some of the dry readings. The third-person presentation helps to lend a more emotionally detached atmosphere in general, so this isn’t underselling the work.

Salman Rushdie is able to talk a lot about some of the issues of the day in a refreshingly clear manner. Even though I’m tangentially a literary type (after all, my favorite read of 2019 so far was written by Kazuo Ishiguro) I often think of that social circle as snooty and detached (courtesy of my background), but Rushdie is personable and humble.

As a tragic figure, he goes into the darkest moments of his life and takes responsibility where he deserves it (namely, his marriages which ended unhappily, though there are other examples), but he also examines the circumstances that led to issues beyond his control: the places where he was subject to mistreatment by the world.

One of the things that I found most interesting is how he depicted many of the people he was around. He avoided gossip, though he would admit to not liking certain people, and you get an insight to some famous people that you don’t get to see in their public persona. For instance, as someone from a religious background I’ve always thought of Christopher Hitchens as a bit of a jerk, but Rushdie paints a picture of him as someone who was willing to put his skin in the game to help his friends in need: certainly an admirable trait.

And that’s part of what makes the memoir so meaningful as a read. Rushdie doesn’t hold back: he shares his questions about God (and whether or not God exists) and the universe, as well as the life lessons that he often learned though painful and embarrassing failures. It’s so tangibly honest that one would almost assume its author to be a saint, were he not confessing to his occasional (and sometimes predictable) moral failings, like his infidelity.

There’s real intimacy, and not just in the flaws. He describes his relationships with his son and his ex-wives, which are often less rocky than one might think. While he often demonstrated a certain amount of short-sightedness, one can never accuse him of lacking earnest affection for his son Zafar, or not sticking by his ex-wife Clarissa in her battle with cancer.

Rushdie’s connection to India, a country which he loves dearly as his motherland, is a key factor in his life. It is India which first banned The Satanic Verses, perhaps creating enough of a controversy to spark the fatwa (whether or not the political debate that was sparked in India was truly responsible is uncertain, but Rushdie mentions it as a potential cause), but it is also where he was born and spent much of his youth. As a writer, he often focuses on India, especially its independence movement, and he retained such an intimate understanding of the country that he was able to write a later novel set in India without returning to the country. This earned messages from acquaintances asking how he snuck into the country.

Joseph Anton is a long book, but it doesn’t drag on. It’s detailed, but it doesn’t get lost in a quagmire. It’s also a book that could be of great interest to those interested in current affairs surrounding the Middle East and the relationship between the West and Islam, and Rushdie speaks with an expertise that few laypeople can claim to have.

The experiences that Rushdie had while in protective custody (Joseph Anton was the pseudonym he used during the period he was in hiding) make up another core element of the book. Rushdie humanizes the people that he met during that period, giving them intimate pictures as well as talking about his experiences in hidden houses and clandestine meetings. It’s not quite a thriller, but if you want some pulse-pounding moments scattered in with reflections and a life story that would be interesting enough without them, you won’t go wrong here.

You can tell that Rushdie is tremendously smart without being condescending about it, and the memoir feels like a conversation with him about himself. I highly recommend Joseph Anton, with the caveat that there is some harsh language in it (not terribly gratuitous), because it just checks so many boxes. It’s funny, informative, has real meaning, and puts it all together with a narrative flow worthy of a great novelist. I don’t like giving a numerical rating to books, but if I did Joseph Anton would consistently get perfect scores in all categories.

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