Fatwa: A Love Story

Matthew Hart

Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton, is much like his career to date: great until about halfway through. One ought to feel worse about taking such a cheap shot. Over the last three decades, Rushdie has been one of the finest novelists working in English. The loose tetralogy that began with Midnight’s Children (1981) and ended with The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) is majestic: a profound, funny, and imaginative account of how, as Rushdie puts it in a great phrase from The Satanic Verses (1988), newness comes into the world.

But Rushdie has never been universally loved. When James Wood assaulted Rushdie in 1999 for tricks that “not only limit the novelistic, they actually abolish it, no one minded. Even though Rushdie was only a few months free of the fatwa that sought to abolish the novelist along with the novelistic, no one minded.

Actually, that’s not quite right. Salman Rushdie minded, very much. He tells us so in his new memoir which skewers Wood as the “malevolent Procrustes of literary criticism.”

Joseph Anton settles a lot of scores. At its center lies the Satanic Verses affair. Its best sections recall how a writer and family man called “Salman” was transformed, first, into the symbol “Rushdie,” and then into a lonely and humiliated ghost called “Joseph Anton.” If Salman Rushdie comes off as a bit thin-skinned, a bit too desirous of our love, he comes by it honestly.

Rushdie writes at length about romantic and familial life. Sometimes, as with the passages about his first wife, Clarissa, and their son, Zafar, this results in autobiography of high quality. The scene in which anti-terrorist police burst into Clarissa’s house as Rushdie waits on the phone, convinced that Islamist assassins have wrought bloody vengeance there, is heart-wringing. It also has the pace and economy of a good thriller, cutting between the author’s delirious fantasies (“He saw bodies sprawling on the stairs in the front hall. He saw the brightly lit rag-doll corpses of his son and his first wife drenched in blood.”) and the terrifying banalities of the cop on the line: “‘Just to inform you on what we’re doing,’ said Stan. ‘We will be going in there, but you’ll have to give us approximately forty minutes. They need to assemble an army.’”

In its most powerful moments, Rushdie’s third-person voice casts the autobiographical subject as a character in a flood of events he can control only retrospectively and via art.

These passages do more to establish the personal stakes of the Verses affair than any number of communiqués about human rights. They also vindicate Rushdie’s decision to write Joseph Anton in an alienating third person, which, in this scene, gives him access to a cinematic and objectifying register that would fit less easily with a first-person autobiographical voice. More generally, the third-person voice expresses what it means to live as a species of fictional character. “The police asked me to come up with a pseudonym,” Rushdie explains in a recent interview, “And I was asked to make it not an Indian name. And so, deprived of one nationality, I retreated into literature—which is, you could say, my other country—and chose this name from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov.” In its most powerful moments, Rushdie’s third-person voice casts the autobiographical subject as a character in a flood of events he can control only retrospectively and via art.

Joseph Anton returns often to love’s fragility and sustaining force. Love drives its author to fight hard and cleverly for the freedom to live in the country that is not literature; it motivates his struggle to create a space for family life and sexual passion, to have his books be admired (or hated) for reasons of art. But Joseph Anton is also about the dangers, moral and aesthetic, of the search for love. Its fourth chapter begins with a tragicomic tale about a would-be stalker from Delhi, a deranged woman who travels to England convinced that she is Rushdie’s lover. It then tells a story from late 1990, when, battered by a world in which “at night he heard I love you but the days were shouting Die,” Rushdie agreed to meet some British Muslim leaders in a bomb-proof police station. Having “fallen into the trap of wanting to be loved,” he agreed to suspend publication of the paperback edition of The Satanic Verses and to refuse further translations of that novel. He also wrote an article, “Why I Have Embraced Islam,” affirming the “oneness of God and the genuineness of the prophecy and the Prophet.” This essay was included in the hardback first edition of Imaginary Homelands (1991) but expunged from all subsequent printings.

Joseph Anton’s protagonist immediately regrets this temporary accommodation with his enemies. He describes himself as having been seduced by a “glutinous dentist,” Hesham el-Essawy—an amateur Islamic scholar and professional tooth-doctor. “‘There must be a meeting,’ Essawy said, ‘and you must be embraced by Muslims once again.’” Afterwards, the protagonist is violently sick: “His body knew what his mind had done.” This story of apostasy from apostasy reads, quite deliberately, like an illicit affair. Rushdie contrasts the Essawy episode to the story of his passionate first months of love with Elizabeth West, his eventual third wife, intercutting between the two narratives. His “return” to Islam therefore figures not just as a symptom of psychological collapse but as the betrayal of reason and true feeling.

All of this belongs to Joseph Anton’s excellent first half, in which love of self and love of other, personal interest and high principle, are almost indistinguishable. This intermingling of different realms of judgment and experience proves intoxicating, if sometimes unedifying. But there’s a serious point at stake, too. Although Rushdie received police protection from the British state, he had to find his own accommodations and ensure they were kept secret. Essentially homeless for years, this resourceful and independent man was left unusually dependent upon family, friends, and lovers. If nothing else, Joseph Anton is a testament to the bonds of affection that kept Rushdie safe.

The search to be loved—especially, to be seen to be loved, to be loved out loud—is a way of keeping the attention of governments and opinion-makers, of using publicity as a shield.

If love saves, then being disliked can be dangerous. At one point, Rushdie tackles his reputation for amour propre head-on: “He was ‘schizophrenic,’ he was ‘completely bonkers,’ he corrected people’s mispronunciations of his name! … In ‘ordinary life’ all of it would have been hurtful but none of it would have mattered much. But in the great conflict that followed the notion that he was not a very nice man was to prove very damaging indeed.” When one is sentenced to death, sensitivity to the opinions of others is not just a sign of weakness; it is a survival strategy. The search to be loved—especially, to be seen to be loved, to be loved out loud—is a way of keeping the attention of governments and opinion-makers, of using publicity as a shield.

Once the absurdist mélange of its first half flattens out into a more traditional memoir, Joseph Anton begins to pall. With the pressure off, its mixture of love and self-love starts to separate and congeal. Citizens of the land of literature may feel that the end of the fatwa is as bad for Joseph Anton as it was good for Salman Rushdie. It’s not just, as Margaret Drabble says, that the book’s last chapters contain “too many prizes and speeches, too much of internecine literary politics.” The problem is that, formally as much as topically, Joseph Anton is never less surprising than when it’s taking revenge for personal slights.

Take Rushdie’s treatment of his fourth wife, Padma Lakshmi, whom he hypostatizes as “the Illusion”—the living manifestation of what he sees, in retrospect, as the millenarian dream of a life lived lightly. It bothers me when, as with Allie Cone in Satanic Verses or “the Mirror” in The Enchantress of Florence (2008), Rushdie’s magical realist technique seems like an “alibi,” in Gayatri Spivak’s term, for depicting women as the mere embodiment of abstract forces. In the novels, one can at least defend this technique on the grounds that such pseudo-characters are meant to criticize sexist mythmaking, not perpetuate it. But lightly fictionalized memoirs can’t claim this excuse. By reducing Padma Lakshmi to “the Illusion,” Rushdie takes revenge on her by masking rhetorical violence as self-judgment, pretending to explain his beguilement but really making her the blank screen onto which he can later project her perfidy. “She was the dream of leaving it all behind and beginning again,” he writes after meeting her in New York, “an American dream, pilgrim dream—a Mayflower fantasy more alluring than her beauty, and her beauty was brighter than the sun.” Perhaps Padma deserves such a passel of clichés; perhaps she was a horrible wife. But Rushdie’s readers don’t deserve this. Judged by the emotional and artistic accomplishment of Joseph Anton’s first half, there’s no excuse for getting even, over and over, in such bland and self-serving terms.

Joseph Anton is a tale of two halves. We read about how an author was sentenced to live inside a brutal sort of fiction and fought bravely to recover the world. This tale is moving, compelling, and artful. It would make a great novel by the author of Midnight’s Children. The second story is lived on the move, not on the run. It is the tale of a famous writer’s life in London and New York. The writer seems happy enough, albeit still hungry for love. He publishes a novel every couple of years. The reviews are mixed and he minds that quite a bit, but not enough to get discouraged. War breaks out and he finds a new groove as a critic of what he once dubbed “mass popular irrationalism” but now endows with “the only name that fit … Islam” (emphasis in original). It’s not a bad life, but it doesn’t read well; it needs an editor and reeks of self-regard. One can imagine the author of Midnight’s Children taking a few notes, lifting a couple of lines for later use, and moving on.