Salman Rushdie’s new memoir

Joseph Anton is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year.—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Salman Rushdie is in the news again. Not because he’s living under a new Muslim sentence of death, which sent him into hiding for a decade after the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, but because he’s written a memoir about the period. With the fatwa now almost fifteen years behind him, Rushdie has perspective from which to assess and portray. The New Yorker has published a long excerpt of Joseph Anton: A Memoir—Joe Anton being his self-bestowed code name, taken from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, that British cops used when he was in hiding. The excerpt is available for now on line.

It’s always thrilling when a great novelist writes a memoir: John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, reviewed on this blog (see the Favorite Memoirs page), is one of my favorites, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (also with links on that page), reviewed here once negatively and once positively, is nothing if not interesting for how he follows his aesthetic star. What you first notice in Rushdie’s long New Yorker excerpt, “The Disappeared,” is that his memoir is written in the third person. That’s an interesting and, to me, exciting choice; the third-person, though uncommon in memoir, maybe because writers fear editors will think their work is fictionalized, offers memoirists a different and perhaps keener perspective on themselves: third person in nonfiction is a distancing perspective.

The second thing you notice in Rushdie’s excerpt is that it’s non-chronological: the fatwa was issued in February 1989, and his essay procedes under these headings: 1989, at the imposition of the death decree, a section which is dramatic and scenic; 1966, when he learned about the “Satanic Verses” while studying history at Cambridge; 1984, when he began writing the novel, which took four years; 1988, when The Satanic Verses was published and began to ignite rage among Muslim extremists; and 1989 again, a long closing section that returns to the fatwa and to Rushdie’s life in hiding.

The third thing you notice after all this innovation is that he uses any memoirist’s tools: scene and exposition, seamlessly in the dramatized bits, and in the purely expository, smooth summary and reflection. Yes, he’s a good writer. Here’s the essay’s first two paragraphs, dramatic and straightforward, that set the scene and convey deftly an incredible amount of backstory:

1989

Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.

 

It was Valentine’s Day, but he hadn’t been getting along with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Five days earlier, she had told him that she was unhappy in the marriage, that she “didn’t feel good around him anymore.” Although they had been married for only a year, he, too, already knew that it had been a mistake. Now she was staring at him as he moved nervously around the house, drawing curtains, checking window bolts, his body galvanized by the news, as if an electric current were passing through it, and he had to explain to her what was happening. She reacted well and began to discuss what they should do. She used the word “we.” That was courageous.

Later that morning, after Rushdie and his wife attend a memorial service for a friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin, the police tell him he can’t go home. Too dangerous, Rushdie writes. “Although he did not know it then—so the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning—he would not return to that house, at 41 St. Peter’s Street, which had been his home for half a decade, until three years later, by which time it would no longer be his.”

Whisked to CBS’s offices in London for an interview, Rushdie depicts his disorientation: “But he also knew that his old self’s habits were of no use anymore. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was author of ‘Satanic Verses,’ a title that had been subtly distorted by the omission of the initial ‘The.’ ‘The Satanic Verses’ was a novel. ‘Satanic Verses’ were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author.”

In the next section “1966,” Rushdie flashes back to his second year at Cambridge, when he was studying Islamic history, along with Indian colonial history and the first 100 years of American history. His supervisor, a medievalist named Arthur Hibbert, whom he calls a genius, told him never to write history “until you can hear the people speak”; this turned out to be great advice for a novelist as well, for speech reveals origin, class, temperament, and “beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.”

In this purely expository section, Rushdie explains Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Koran in such an elegantly clear and simple way that anyone can understand it—and see his respect for one of the world’s great religions. In a nutshell: “The ethos of the Koran, the value system it endorses, was, in essence, the vanishing code of nomadic Arabs, the matriarchal, more caring society that did not leave orphans out in the cold, orphans like Muhammad, whose success as a merchant, he believed, should have earned him a place in the city’s ruling body, and who was denied such preferment because he didn’t have a powerful family to fight for him.”

Ensconced for the first time in cities, the early Arabs became patriarchal, and were worshippers primarily of three deities, goddesses who specialized in different realms, with Allah an unpopular fourth deity. Muhammad, a successful and spiritual merchant, rescued Allah from obscurity and elevated him over all, deposing the goddesses, who were economically important to Mecca’s elite, since offerings (taxes, in effect) were collected at their shrines. Their ouster threatened the city’s rulers. The “Satanic Verses” stemmed from a vision of Muhammad’s that restored the goddesses, and which he later recanted.

“After that,” Rushdie writes, “the monotheism of Islam remained unwavering and strong, through persecution, exile, and war, and before long the Prophet had achieved victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.”

It was a good story, the young Rushdie saw, but it would be years before he wrote it. After that digression into history, “The Disappeared” explains the novel’s composition, its earth-shaking reception by extremists who misunderstood it, and depicts Rushdie’s underground life. I found the scenic end of the first section, with Rushdie and his wife on the run for the first time, touching and powerful:

     The night in Lonsdale Square was cold, dark, and clear. There were two policemen in the square. When he got out of his car, they pretended not to notice him. They were on short patrol, watching the street near the flat for a hundred yards in each direction, and he could hear their footsteps even when he was indoors. He realized, in that footstep-haunted space, that he no longer understood his life, or what it might become, and he thought, for the second time that day, that there might not be very much more of life to understand.

 

Marianne went to bed early. He got into bed beside his wife and she turned toward him and they embraced, rigidly, like the unhappily married couple they were. Then, separately, lying with their own thoughts, they failed to sleep.

Those paragraphs provoke as much as any my fellow-feeling for Rushdie’s human plight and, admittedly, my admiration of his heroic response to the mob, which he’d just denounced in his first TV interview. As well, throughout this fine essay and concentrated here, I identified, as a memoirist myself, with this fellow writer, albeit brilliant and of historic attainment, as yet another scribe laboring with the humble tools of his craft—scene, summary, and reflection (all working here in service of more than one story being told)—to show how it was, how it looked and felt and seemed.

Just another soul, after all, suffering more than most here, who lately has patiently made art from life’s dusty remains, which he retrieved from one very lonely valley of existence.

Next: Salman Rushdie on the craft of memoir.

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10 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, memoir, NOTED, politics, religion & spirituality, scene, structure

10 responses to “Salman Rushdie’s new memoir

  1. Such a beautiful post, Richard. It serves as a sensitive review and as a writer’s reflection on the craft. Thanks for the links, also. I’ll want to sample the book since I can’t read it yet.

    Don’t you just love Joseph Anton as a name? And shortening it to Joe was a way to insert humor, which he must have needed desperately, in his “lonely valley of existence.”

    What literary name would you make up if you were forced out of your life?

    • Good question, Shirley! I realized when I impulsively tried to come up with one that it does take some thought. I do love Joseph Anton, and he mentions several others that didn’t work, were people who couldn’t possibly exist. Now, he does play Joe for humor in the essay, but in a poignant way. Having lost all control, he wanted to be called Joseph, but the cops of course called him simply Joe, which upset him a lot, for reasons he couldn’t understand at the time but implies that now he sees it was his desire for control and dignity when he had neither.

  2. I’m intrigued after reading this post, but honestly I’m not sure I will sit down with this book anytime soon. The first thing that struck me upon reading the Star Tribune’s review of it in the Sept. 23 edition is that it’s more than 600 pages! The Star Tribune review did not have a favorable opinion. But I’m eager to see what you have to say about Rushdie and the craft of memoir.

    • I too am not normally enthusiastic for a 600 page read, but I can actually imagine myself reading this one after having read “The New Yorker” excerpt–it was gripping from start to finish, even with the changes from one era to another.

    • I just looked it up on Amazon and it’s 656 pages! Wow, a whopper. I can’t help but think in such cases that an unknown writer with the same book could never get it published at such length. He’s earned it, has a track record, etc., but a major writer can do or “get away with,” as they say, what lesser mortals can’t, for good and ill.

  3. What a beautiful last sentence, Richard!

  4. Hi, Richard! Thanks for mentioning this memoir. I read the excerpt from “The New Yorker,” and now feel that I understand much better “The Satanic Verses,” which I read soon after it came out. You are very good at keeping in touch with what is happening in your own special area of the writing field.

  5. Hi, Richard! This morning I happened to mention your article and coverage of “Joseph Anton” to Caroline over at “Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat,” who is currently doing a Literature and War Readalong for 2012. She’s at http://beautyisasleepingcat.wordpress.com/ .She had mentioned that she might be interested, possibly for next year, in covering some non-fiction, and thinking back from a discussion she and I had about just how truthfully a writer can manage to convey a sense of actual presence in a war, I thought you and she are natural friends on this sort of topic and I just wanted to introduce you to each other. I hope it’s not considered unwarranted interference by either of you, it just seemed you might have a lot to say to each other, especially in the future. So, without further ado–

    • Thanks, Victoria. I went to her blog and am impressed, added it to my iGoogle page. Which Google apparently plans to kill soon! What is everyone doing about feeds?

      • Richard, I’m such a hopelessly-in-the-dark Luddite that if I even have an iGoogle page I don’t know it. I just “follow” people I like, read stuff from their site, and go through the posts they receive from me and others to comment further sometimes. Maybe it’s a difference between having your own domain or working on WordPress.org and being on WordPress.com, the way I am, or something. Sorry, you’ll have to look to your other responders for that one.