In Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton, he describes (in minute detail) his life during the fatwa against him. The fatwa was issued in response to his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. Interpreting his purely fictitious novel as an affront on Islam, Ayatollah Khomeini called for his murder. Forced to live under the protection of the British police, Rushdie renamed himself Joseph Anton (after writers Conrad and Chekhov).
This autobiographical account of his life (focused on the decade-long fatwa from 1988 to 1998) is both a testament to his survival from religious fanaticism and his fight for freedom of speech (not just for himself but for others in similar positions as his). This is a very detailed and in-depth memoir that at times feels too bogged down in the minute details of travels while in hiding or the excessive amounts of name dropping he uses—the latter proves to be both exciting and tiresome in its execution. But for all that, we do get fascinating insight into his life, both personal and professional, and learn a lot about his writing processes as well.
Rushdie acts as an almost impersonal historian, writing the novel in the third-person perspective. He refers to himself simply as “he,” only referencing his name when it concerns the name’s origins (or a play on their origins). This, combined with his astute writing style, gives the memoir a more literary feel as opposed to a tell-all memoir that other celebrities are penning these days. However, you must wonder how reliable an author he is, when he openly admits to altered remembrances of certain events. But the same is true of any autobiographical text.
Clocking in at 600-odd pages, this book loses much energy in the middle third. At times, surviving the fatwa feels almost as tiresome as reading about it. But Rushdie sprinkles enough interesting anecdotes throughout that you can find enjoyable moments even in the more tedious chapters. Of course, what was most fascinating to me was seeing how his personal life attributed to what he writes in his novels (how an interaction with a certain person would lead to the creation of a character in his novel). If you are unfamiliar with Rushdie as an author, then Joseph Anton may not be the best jumping-off point, although it does provide the perfect framework for his writing.