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Salman Rushdie is known for his fiction (Shame, The Moor’s Last Sigh and others), but it was The Satanic Verses which forced him into hiding and police protection. His memoir, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, tells the story of his life with particular focus on his experience following the publication of that book. Frankly, I have never finished any of Rushdie’s works of fiction and parts of this book I had to work through as well. However, the effort was well worth it because of the insights he provides into why he was forced to go underground, the full defense of his book and its literary origins, and how he finally was able to get back a modicum of normalcy. Readers also learn what it was like on a day-to-day basis to deal with living under full-time protection and what it meant to his family, career, and self-image. The book has, for me, more detail and repetition than necessary, but the emotional effect was profound. I began to identify with Rushdie and the frustrations he faced. Rushdie uses third person to tell his story, but I’ll not give away why the book is titled Joseph Anton: A Memoir. If you have an interest in what happened to Rushdie, his take on why it happened, and who Rushdie became as a result – this book is for you. A key learning? Life is not linear and circumstances will change with time – good times can turn bad; bad days may well pass from view. The narration of Rushdie and Sam Dastor is very good.
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Joseph Anton is Rushdie's memoir of the years he spent, mostly in hiding, under the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. The fatwa, which was announced on Valentine's Day, 1989, has never been officially revoked; in 1998, the Iranian government proclaimed that it would neither support nor hinder attempts to assassinate the author, but there is still a $3 million-plus bounty on his head. The title of the book is the name Rushdie assumed while in Scotland Yard's protection and is taken from two of his favorite writers: "Joseph" from Conrad and "Anton" from Chekhov. In a recent interview, Rushdie claimed that during this time he felt as if he was watching another person's life from a distance, a person separate from himself--hence the book is written in third person.
It's hard to imagine what life would be like if you were forced to move at a moment's notice--dozens of times. To live with a squad of armed policemen (one of whom accidentally blew a hole through a wall). To be unable to visit a dying parent, have dinner with friends, attend a memorial or an activity at your child's school, or, as a writer, give public readings of your work. Rushdie details all of this, as well as his efforts to live as normal a life as possible. For this, he credits a cadre of trusted friends, including Christopher Hitchens, Paul Auster, Bill Buford, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Bono, among others. Rushdie also engaged in a constant legal battle to get The Satanic Verses distributed worldwide in paperback format.
Of course, Rushdie's personal life suffered during this time. His greatest regret is the difficulty the fatwa caused for his son Zafar, who was 10 at the time it all began. Although divorced from his first wife, Clarissa Luard, the two remained friendly and strove to maintain as normal a relationship as possible for father and son. Marianne Wiggins, his second wife, to whom he was married when the fatwa was pronounced, does not come off so well; in fact, the American writer is depicted as a selfish, self-promoting wacko. Rushdie met his third wife, Elizabeth West, the mother of his second son, while under protection. Initially, West seems almost saint-like in her patience and devotion, but this image falls apart as the marriage falters due to her depression over not bearing more children and Rushdie's desire to move to the US, where he felt he could live a more open, normal life. Wife Number Four, model, would-be actress, and reality show host Padma Lakshmi,is referred to as "The Illusion," and Rushdie rather shamefacedly admits to falling into a fairly typical mid-life crisis (homely older man, beautiful younger woman), as well as pursuing a somewhat elusive American dream that she came to represent. Lakshmi, like Wiggins, comes off as self-absorbed and ambitious (when he attempts to visit her in LA after a new threat has been announced, she says she is going on a lingerie shoot), and Rushdie makes short shrift of her.
On the whole, Rushdie's memoir is insightful and engaging. If one thing is made clear, it is that he wouldn't have endured, had it not been for the love, help, and encouragement of his close friends, family, and associates. And it is this humanization of Salman Rushdie, more than his literary achievements or politicized position, that allows readers to relate to his plight.
The reader, Sam Dastoor, was brilliant, with one caveat: his American accent, which never varied. Whether he was impersonating Bill Clinton, Kurt Vonnegut, George Stephanopoulos, or Susan Sontag, they all sounded like sarcastic cowboys.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful