Less than six months after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie received a telephone call from a BBC journalist explaining that Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran wanted him killed. Citing his novel as blasphemous against Islam, Khomeini declared a bounty on Rushdie's head and sparked one of contemporary literature's most important debates.
Quickly after the pubic declaration of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, two controversial issues grew from the pages of Rushdie's novel and it's important that they stay as two separate concerns. First, one must consider what Rushdie actually says in The Satanic Verses: the specific text that incited such an incendiary response. Influenced by some apocryphal verses that were allegedly included and then removed from the Qur'an, Rushdie incorporated the story of these "satanic" verses into his novel, a book already rooted in Islamic myth and history. These verses refer to three pre-Islamic goddesses, and their inclusion in the Qur'an would potentially open a very problematic polytheistic slant to the structure of Islam. To literalist Muslims, the story of the satanic verses renders Muhammad in a fallible light and provides any opposition with the grounds to charge Rushdie with blasphemy.
However, the controversy behind Rushdie's blasphemy grew into a second issue, something much larger and much more dangerous. The conflict between interpretive and literal readings of any religious text is something that can be eternally discussed with any faith, but the tenets of business and personal freedom behind the Rushdie affair morphed the controversy around The Satanic Verses into a historically relevant fight for free speech and creative rights. Rushdie may have indeed wanted to stir up a discussion about faith and religious interpretation, but with the publication of The Satanic Verses he found himself in the center of a much more difficult argument. The world was ready to fight for free speech and needed a champion; Rushdie reluctantly stepped forward.
Written in a peculiarly detached third person perspective, Joseph Anton (an alias Rushdie created by morphing Conrad and Chekhov) tells the story of Rushdie's life under Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, about how he lived in hiding, under police protection, for ten years. Drifting every few weeks to another home, Rushdie struggled to maintain his life as a writer, husband, father, and freedom fighter, all while staying a relevant presence among the world's literary elite. Written in a tone unlike any of Rushdie's other books, Joseph Anton explicitly abandons language for frankness:
Textually speaking, this is Salman Rushdie as he's never been read before: Rushdie the man, not the novelist.
Many of those critical of Rushdie during the Satantic Verses affair blamed the author for not keeping his mouth shut about issues he had no place to discuss. Joseph Anton reads like a direct answer to these criticisms: Rushdie's memoir is a verbose, gossipy literary tell-all and reads like the frenetic outpourings of a man who was essentially gagged for a decade. Rushdie takes his readers to get Chinese food with Ian McEwan, to a dinner with Thomas Pynchon, and to the PEN World conference with Gunter Grass and Susan Sontag. Yet, each author appearance feels like nothing more than a brief cameo, and in the case of Roald Dahl, Harold Pinter and many others, these quick appearances feel like an unnecessary rake over the coals.
Yet, Joseph Anton is compulsively readable. Those who are exceptionally well read (particularly of Rushdie's work) will find Joseph Anton to be a gloriously candid view into the world of contemporary literature and the life of a writer. Much of the novel is spent at work on the wonderful Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the children's novel that Rushdie completed during the first few years of the fatwa. Haroun resulted in some enthralling drama of its own, as Rushdie's publishers were more worried about the paperback release of The Satanic Verses than introducing any new work to the public. If one is familiar with the authors and publishers that Rushdie unveils, the aimless form and wandering episodes of Joseph Anton become not just forgivable but entirely captivating.
It's difficult not read Joseph Anton without sensing the psychological toll that the fatwa took on Rushdie. Beyond his many marriages, Rushdie seems understandably incapable of connecting with people on a level beyond their professional presence in his life. Many friends are mentioned, but none (besides Bruce Chatwin) hold a lasting presence throughout Joseph Anton. With the exception of his ex-wives, his son Zafar, and the worlds in his head, Rushdie lived emotionally alone for a majority of his formative years, and no amount of famous acquaintances or literary awards can give that life back.