Joseph Anton is a memoir by Salman Rushdie focusing on the nine years in which he was in hiding because a man hundreds of miles away condemned him to death for writing a book.
These fatwa years consisted of Rushdie being squirreled away to locations as remote and unpredictable as possible. Because the death sentence was based around religious concerns, essentially everyone he knew became a possible suspect with a holy duty to perform.
Life for Rushdie was suddenly akin to being in a prison consisting of the whole of England, and he the prisoner struggled to raise a family and live normally. Finding himself constantly in danger of being on the wrong end of a crosshair, Rushdie had to be taken under the strictest surveillance and relied heavily on his friends during his years of crisis.
The mere existence of the fatwa raised a myriad political and philosophical ponderings. What right did a man living in a distant country have in decreeing the death of another nation’s citizen? How wide is the force field of freedom of speech?
Rushdie’s memoir attempts to juggle all of these heavy issues as well as discuss the trials and tribulations of his three marriages, raising a son, fighting against terrorism and continuing to write under the most adverse of conditions. Unfortunately, the book fails to give any of these topics the proper attention they deserve.
The poignant moments and the only real hints of Rushdie’s talents are in the first section of the book which discusses his pre-fatwa years, from his childhood as an Indian immigrant in English schools to his relationship with his father who died of terminal illness just before the fatwa was declared. After this section, the book becomes lost in its own inability to handle and describe the complexity of Rushdie’s life.
Intellectually, one can see how terrified Rushdie was and how painful it was to live as he did. Emotionally, however, there is no connection.
It is a rare occurrence when the truly frightening moments arrive, since they are bookends to never ending assurances of how Rushdie isn’t really a bad person and how he had to fight the higher-ups of his security more than he did terrorists. And even that has to wait for Rushdie to stop name dropping for a few pages.
The Who’s Who’s of the literary world make their appearance in the memoir, and the manner in which Rushdie talks about them ranges from contempt to closest friendship.
While some of the celebrity guest appearances are memorable (Margaret Thatcher, for example, is apparently the touchy-feely type), halfway through the book it becomes a chore to remember who is who. It’s hard to remember that this is a man whose life is incessantly in grave danger when he discloses in minute detail why he did or did not win the Booker Prize or how Hugh Grant kissed him on the set of Bridget Jones’ Diary.
A goal for the memoir seems to be the humanizing of a man who was once thought a sadistic demon, and again Rushdie’s delivery is middling. His love life is baffling. He informs you roughly three times that he fell in love with the same woman and then goes into detail of how the relationship falls apart so spectacularly each time.
He manages to be most human in his relationship with his son Zafar. Since the reader gets to watch Zafar grow up from toddler to teenager, Rushdie is able to show the intricacies of being a forcefully absent father. The memoir is most touching when the theme of father and son comes to the forefront.
Joseph Anton is a well-written memoir that never becomes distinctly boring, but it suffers from being an amalgamation with vestigial limbs in a manner similar to the Frankenstein monster. Ultimately, the book is still an interesting read, but the reader is not always sure what the author is going for.