Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Jonathan Cape, 2012), Salman Rushdie’s last work, is a fine book, honest and clever. Honest because Rushdie talks about subjects that are taboo for people of the subcontinent, even though they may have settled anywhere in the world: his fights with his father, one ended with him landing a punch on his father’s face; his parents’ unhappy marriage, caused largely by the senior Rushdie’s drunken rages; their inexplicable move from Bombay, as it was called then, to Karachi; his mother’s first suitor who resurfaced in her life after she was widowed.
People, especially famous people with an inflated opinion of themselves, seldom own up to their mistakes. Rushdie does. Well, almost. He stops short of blaming himself for one of his failed marriages, but admits freely to his infidelities. And it’s clever because Rushdie writes in third person. So, the book gives you a feel of objectivity, a well-rounded view of things, though it’s only an account of what’s happening around the author, what’s going on inside his mind.
More than that, the book shows how attitudes have changed with the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. That’s how people in the future will view history, sliced into two by a single day’s events: pre- and post-9/11. Right now, people are intolerant. Holy war, of any kind, is roundly condemned. There’s no pussyfooting with hardliners, zero tolerance. But, in the pre-9/11 world, when Iran ran a fatwa against Rushdie, the attitudes were decidedly different. Liberals fell over each other to condemn Rushdie and side with Muslims whose sentiments had been hurt by The Satanic Verses. This was, mind you, in cosmopolitan England. Every trick in the diplomacy manual was tried to get Iran to lift the death sentence. Every effort was made not to upset the Iranians.
If there was any plain-talking with the hardliners in Iran, it wasn’t known to Rushdie; there is no evidence of that in Joseph Anton. (Rushdie had to take a new identity; he chose Joseph Anton by drawing from the names of his favourite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.) I doubt if, in today’s world, a fatwa like this would have been tolerated. The Salman Rushdie phenomenon wouldn’t happen in this day and age.
The question that has always been asked is: was the fatwa real? Did people take it seriously? Did somebody actually make an attempt on Rushdie’s life? You are left no wiser after reading Joseph Anton. It is quite possible that the British secret service had foiled some such plots. But Rushdie doesn’t seem to be aware of any such plan. Or else, he would have mentioned it in his book. A gun that went off accidentally inside his house gets several pages; even half an attempt on his life would have given him stuff for 50 pages, at least. However, people who were in some way attached to The Satanic Verses were attacked in Europe as well as faraway Japan. The farcical controversy played out in India as well. India was the first country to ban The Satanic Verses. The funny part was that the Imam of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, instead of condemning Rushdie, came down on his namesake, Salman Khurshid, the current foreign minister.