Cover of Joseph AntonJoseph Anton
by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)

When he was a child Salman Rushdie’s father read to him “the great wonder tales of the East” – the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, the animal fables of the ancient Indian Panchatantra, “the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara”, the famous 11th-century Sanskrit collection of myths, the “tales of the mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama”, that tell of the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, uncle to the Prophet Muhammad, and the ancient Persian classic, The Adventures of Hatim Tai. Rushdie’s father “told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way”.

To grow up “steeped in these tellings”, Rushdie writes, “was to learn two unforgettable lessons”. First, that “stories were not true… but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him”. And, second, that all stories “belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else”. Most of all, the young Rushdie learnt that “Man was a storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away.”

Except that by the time Rushdie was old enough to read these stories to his own son that was exactly what many people wanted to do. And to take away not just his birthright but his life too. When the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Valentine’s Day 1989, for the “blasphemies” of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was in effect sentenced to death for writing a story. Many were to be killed for translating and publishing that story. Bookshops were bombed for stocking it. It is a measure of the strangeness of the world in which we now live that storytelling can be such a hazardous craft. It is a world far stranger than any imagined in Rushdie’s tales. “It would be absurd to think that books can cause riots”, Rushdie told an Indian journalist shortly before the publication of The Satanic Verses. In today’s world, we know that not just books but films, plays, cartoons, ideas, images – all can cause riots. Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir, is the story of how that world came to be.

The book is, in many ways, as disconcerting as the story itself. The title comes from the name that Rushdie was forced to adopt during his years in hiding, a name stitched together from two of his favourite writers – Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. Rushdie has chosen to write the memoir not as a straightforward autobiography, but in the third person – as if it is not the story of Salman Rushdie but rather Salman Rushdie’s story of Joseph Anton. This conceit is highly disorienting for the reader. The effect, however, is to give a sense of the alienation and dislocation that Rushdie himself must have felt living the life of Joseph Anton.

Rushdie begins his account with his childhood in Bombay in the 1940s and ends with his induction into New York life at the turn of the millennium. Inevitably, however, the heart of Joseph Anton lies with the fatwa and the decade spent in its shadow. Cloaked as it is in that shadow, The Satanic Verses has come to be seen purely as a novel about Islam. Rushdie wrote it, in fact, as a novel about the migrant experience that “could explore the joining-ups and also disjointednesses of here and there, then and now, reality and dreams”. Rushdie has always seen himself as a man inhabiting a world “in-between” three cultures – those of India, Pakistan and England. What he wanted to know was how to “connect the different worlds from which he had come”, by exploring “how the world joined up, not only how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East, but how the past shaped the present while the present changed the understanding of the past.”

It was a hugely ambitious task. Yet it was also one that spoke to the moment. The 1980s was a decade that saw the beginnings of the breakdown of traditional boundaries, physical, political, moral, and a sense of world rendered new, a world for which there was no map or compass. “How does newness enter the world?”, Rushdie asks in The Satanic Verses. The significance of Rushdie’s great trilogy of the 1980s – Midnight’s Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses – is that not only did he pose that question, but he also found a language through which to answer it.

In Midnight’s Children, his sprawling, panoramic, humorous mock-epic of post-independence India, published in 1980, Rushdie not only found his voice but helped craft a new kind of novel whose aim it was to unlock the untold tales of those who inhabited the worlds “in-between”. It was a novel that interlaced reality, myth, dream and fantasy, turning history into fable, and yet directly addressing highly charged contemporary political issues; a novel with swagger in its historical sweep, panache in its confident, modernist prose, a knowingness in its call upon European classics, Hindu myths, Persian fables, Islamic history, as well as popular cultures from Bollywood to Bob Dylan.

The Satanic Verses is, even more than Midnight’s Children, a novel about inhabiting the world “in between”, a study in “how the world joined up”, in “how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East”, in how “the past shaped the present while the present changed the understanding of the past”. It is a novel as much about Vilayet (the Hindi word for “foreign place” that Rushdie uses as a label for Britain) as it is about Jahilia, (the city of sand, that represents Mecca); a novel as much about racism and imperialism as it is about Islam and theocracy. That is one of the ironies of the Muslim response to the novel. As Hanif Kureishi was later to remark of the campaign against The Satanic Verses, “I was flabbergasted. How could a community that I identified with turn against a writer who was one of its most articulate voices?”

But “when a book leaves its author’s desk”, Rushdie observes in Joseph Anton, “it changes”. It becomes “a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will… The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”

When The Satanic Verses left its author’s desk it became not a means of making sense of the migrant experience but a weapon to be wielded by Islamists in their wars with each other, with secularists and with the West. In particular it became a weapon in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Islamic world, each using the campaign against the novel as a way of winning Muslim hearts and minds. Saudi Arabia had made the initial running, funding the campaign against the novel. The fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle back the initiative. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was not a noble attempt to defend the dignity of Muslims, nor even a theological campaign to protect religious values. It was part of a sordid political battle to promote particular sectarian interests.

None of this mattered, of course, on 14 February 1989. All that mattered was that a writer had been sentenced to death for writing a story. The immediate response to the fatwa was less a sense of fear than of bewilderment. No one really knew what a fatwa was, or how far the Ayatollah’s writ truly ran. When Rushdie first went into hiding, virtually everyone, including the politicians, the police, publishers, and Rushdie himself, thought that the storm would blow itself out within a few days. In fact “Operation Malachite”, the codename for Rushdie’s security arrangements, turned into the longest, most complex protection programme in the history of British policing.

Joseph Anton provides a brilliant account of the isolation, dislocation and humiliation of the fatwa years. Rushdie writes eloquently of the emotional toil wrought by the wearying move from house to house; by the constant scrutiny of every stranger, every shadow, every sound; by the need to schedule, and receive permission for, as simple an act as going for a walk. And all this day after day, year after year.

Rushdie writes eloquently, too, of the mechanisms he had to develop to deal with fear: “He imagined himself trapping the gremlins in a small box and putting the locked box in a corner of the room. Once that was done, and sometimes it had to be done more than once a day, it was possible to proceed.”

And he writes of the deep sense of shame he felt at having to hide from his enemies. He had been brought up in a Muslim culture and “even though he was not religious”, he “had been raised to care deeply about questions of pride”. It felt to him that “to skulk and to hide was to lead a dishonourable life. He felt, very often in those years, profoundly ashamed.” He did not “wish to be poor, hapless, pitiable”. He wanted, rather, “to be part of the argument: to be a protagonist”.

Most of all, what Rushdie’s account portrays is both the courage and the cowardice of those around him. On both sides of the Atlantic his friends – from Hanif Kureishi to Andrew Wylie, from Christopher Hitchens to Susan Sontag, from Edward Said to Bill Bufford – rallied to the cause. Many whom Rushdie had treated less than honourably – his first wife Clarissa, for instance, or his former agent Deborah Rogers, whom he had sacked for a big-money move to Andrew Wylie – offered not just support but sanctuary, too, some even giving up their homes for Rushdie to find refuge. This was no small matter. In 1991 Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese professor of literature and translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death on his campus. That same year, another translator of Rushdie’s novel, the Italian Ettore Capriolo, was beaten up and stabbed in his Milan apartment. In 1993, the Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot outside his house and left for dead, though happily he survived. To be associated with Rushdie in those days was to be marked.

Equally striking are the instances of cowardice, betrayal and sheer spite. “I would not shed a tear,” wrote the historian Hugh Trevor Roper, “if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.” Roald Dahl called him a “dangerous opportunist”. The novelist John Le Carré dismissed Rushdie’s plight with the insistence that “there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity”. “Banning books is not a big issue for blacks,” claimed Bernie Grant, newly elected as Britain’s first black MP and a standard bearer for anti-racists and the left. From the other side of the political fence, Norman Tebbitt, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest lieutenants, described Rushdie as “an outstanding villain” who had “a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality”. Britain’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Howe, told the BBC World Service that “the British government, the British people, have no affection for the book” because “it is extremely critical, rude about us”, adding that “We do not like that any more than the people of Muslim faith like the attack on their faith contained in the book.”

Neither Margaret Thatcher, nor any government minister, would agree for years to meet with Rushdie. On a trip to France four years into the fatwa, the French government refused him leave to stay on French soil overnight. The Americans were equally limp. After riots in Islamabad, the American embassy there expressed its “wish to emphasize that the US government in no way associates itself with any activity that is any sense offensive or insulting to Islam or any other religion”. When Khomeini issued his fatwa the worst that the secretary of state James Baker could say of it was that it was “regrettable”.

The moral of the response of both liberals and governments to the fatwa was best summed up by Shabbir Akhtar, the Muslim philosopher who acted as the spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques. “Vulnerability,” he wrote, mocking the equivocations of Western liberals, “is never the best proof of strength”. The more you cave in to those who would censor, the more they wish to censor. It is a lesson that remains unlearnt.

Given the history of mendacious attacks on Rushdie, there is in Joseph Anton, perhaps inevitably, a sense not just of wanting to set the record straight, but also of wishing to settle scores. In many cases, that is understandable, even desirable. In others it seems to reveal a lack of perspective.

Peter Mayer, for instance, was CEO of Penguin, the publisher of The Satanic Verses, and in my eyes an immensely brave man, who in the face of bombings, violence and threats never contemplated withdrawing the novel. Mayer and Rushdie fell out, however, over the publication of the paperback edition. Rushdie wanted it published straight away, Mayer wanted to delay it. Eventually Rushdie bought back the rights and set up an independent consortium to publish it. Rushdie and Mayer have different accounts of the events. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Rushdie acknowledges Mayer’s initial bravery. Nevertheless he spends pages in Joseph Anton disparaging him, describing Mayer as “a rabbit in the headlights” and someone who launched “a dirty war” to prevent paperback publication. It seems a deeply ungenerous response to a man to whom we all owe a debt. And it is not the only instance of such a response in Joseph Anton.

It is in exploring the wider issues of the Rushdie affair that Joseph Anton is, perhaps surprisingly, at its weakest. The memoir is extraordinarily rich in detail. It provides a blow-by-blow account of the meetings, the arguments, the feuds, the emotions. And yet that detail is rarely used to illuminate the big picture, to explore the bigger social, cultural, political and intellectual changes that the Rushdie affair has wrought, or at least symbolised. It was through the Rushdie affair that many of the issues that now dominate political debate – multiculturalism, free speech, radical Islam, terrorism – first came to the surface. It was also through the Rushdie affair that our thinking about these issues began to change. Few people are better placed than Rushdie himself to talk about these changes and to link the details to the historical shifts. Yet, that broader frame is largely missing in Joseph Anton. And without a frame the richness of detail can appear as a case of “one damn event after another”.

The absence of a broader frame is particularly surprising because at the heart of Rushdie’s best fiction is the seamless marriage of the individual and the historical, of the local and the global. Writing about the genesis of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie observes that “He was a historian by training and the great point of history, which was to understand how individual lives, communities, nations and social classes were shaped by great forces, yet retained, at times, the ability to change the direction of those forces, must also be the point of his fiction.” It is disappointing that, in Joseph Anton at least, it does not seem also to be the point of his non-fiction.

Whether the battle over The Satanic Verses has ended “in victory or defeat” is, Rushdie writes at the end, “hard to say”. Rushdie survived the fatwa, The Satanic Verses continues to be published. And yet, “a climate of fear” has developed that makes it “harder for books like his to be published, or even, perhaps, to be written”. There has developed over the past two decades a much stronger sense that it is morally unacceptable to give offence to other cultures or faiths. The campaigners against The Satanic Verses lost the battle but they won the war. The fatwa has, in the West, effectively become internalized.

Back in 1990, Rushdie wrote that The Satanic Verses is “a work of radical dissent”. Dissent from what? “From the end of debate, of dispute, of dissent.” Two decades on, in an age which “tolerance” has come to mean the intolerance of diverse views, and “respect” the disrespect for dissension, it is an argument that is even more vital. That is why Joseph Anton, both the man and the book, are so important. They are indispensible reminders of the continuing importance of an unswerving defence, “of debate, of dispute, of dissent”.