Thursday, October 18, 2012
In Review, Joseph Anton
Joseph Anton is a sometimes-rambling memoir of novelist Salman Rushdie's life between 1988, and the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, and 2002 after a decade of living under police protection, a time when he became an unlikely (and for some, unlikeable) symbol for the freedom to read and write literature.
Written in the third person because, perhaps, the author is writing at a distance from the events and the person he was then, this memoir is strongest when it sticks to its apparent subject: the life he led in hiding and its pressures, the campaign to defend his work and literature itself from state terrorism and religious fanaticism, the diplomatic inertia and the sad argument in the literary world over these events. It was a dangerous moment for the west and in some ways not a proud one. "Joseph Anton" is the pseudonym he adopted for the purposes of writing checks to pay for rent and all his other expenses, a name derived from the first names of two of his favorite authors. Frequently, Rushdie employs the metaphor of menacing birds gathering, as in the early scenes of Hitchcock's film The Birds and also as a symbol of death, depicting the fatwa as a prelude to the era of 9/11.
Later in the story, Rushdie finds some breathing room and spends more and more time in the United States, deliberately hiding less and going out in public more, and the book gets a bit fat in its descriptions of parties and movies and his mid-life infatuation with the young and beautiful Padma Lakshmi (who was his fourth wife from 2004 to 2007).
The memoir also depicts the dissolution of three marriages, two of which crumbled during his captive years. The reflections on these relationships is of course one-sided, although I found his explorations of his first and third marriages to be heartfelt and affectionate. The other two relationships -- his marriage to Marianne Wiggins and his stormy relationship with Ms. Lakshmi -- receive thinner treatment, and the treatment of Lakshmi as a "millenarian illusion" in the form of a siren soon grows tiresome. A bit cliche, and almost certainly a caricature. Was he bewitched by a beguiling female who held him spellbound? Or simply acting on impaired judgment after being virtually imprisoned for a decade, tasting freedom, and finding lust and affection in the land of his dreams?
The writer does not, however, plunge too deeply into self-justification, and depicts himself very much as an accidental (and yes, sometimes unlikeable) champion for artists and the freedom to think, write, and read. He also celebrates and thanks the officers of the Special Branch and the authors and musicians and other artists who defended a crucial enlightenment principle by defending him.