For more than two decades after that awful February day in 1989, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini asked Muslims everywhere to kill Salman Rushdie for allegedly offending Islam with his novel “The Satanic Verses,” the author was never sure that he would write a memoir about his life in hiding. In the early years, shuttling from one undisclosed location to another, Rushdie wasn't confident that he would survive long enough to write such a book. Khomeini's fatwa, after all, was no idle threat. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature the year before the “Satanic Verses” controversy, faced similar calls for his own assassination, and for similar reasons; in response, an Islamic fundamentalist stabbed the 82-year-old writer in the neck outside his home in Cairo in 1994. He survived, but barely, sustaining nerve damage so severe that he could write only a few minutes a day for the rest of his life.
But long after the threat to Rushdie had diminished somewhat and he felt comfortable enough to make occasional public appearances, the danger has never entirely disappeared. (To this day, a substantial reward is being offered by an Iranian religious foundation to anyone who kills Rushdie; last week, in fact, the Associated Press reported that the foundation increased the bounty to $3.3 million from $2.8 million, a move apparently related to recent unrest in reaction to an anti-Islam film produced in the United States.) In any case, the author couldn't quite bring himself to begin composing an account of his ordeal, which remained too close and too raw.
"There was quite a long time when I didn't really want to write this book, when I wanted to leave that part of my life behind me and just get on with other things," Rushdie, 65, said in a phone interview before the publication of his memoir, "Joseph Anton," last week. "I just thought there might be a moment when there would be a little voice inside me that said I was ready to do it, and that little voice showed up a couple of years ago. For a while after that, I was searching for a way to look back at what happened without being churned up by it. And I began to notice, as I was writing, that it wasn't upsetting me, as it would have done, for example, three years earlier."
"It's easy to see how something like this would affect one's creative powers, and I think he needed time to regroup," says Rushdie's friend and fellow British novelist Martin Amis, who will interview Rushdie onstage in a sold-out event at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Oct. 30. "The truth is that I was continuously concerned for his safety and that of his family, as well as for the effect it might have on his spirits. Fortunately he came through it all wonderfully well."
So he did, and with characteristically bravura style. "Joseph Anton" — the code name Rushdie allowed his British police protectors to use, derived from two of his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov — is a harrowing, often rather disorienting read, in which the facts of the situation are ordered and filtered through the mind of a novelist known for his affinity for phantasmagoria and black comedy. The news of the fatwa, for example, swirls in Rushdie's mind not only with attending a memorial service for his friend and colleague Bruce Chatwin — which happened to occur the same day — but also with the dread-inducing parallel of the singing schoolchildren and menacing crows gathering in the schoolyard outside from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."
Rushdie wanted "Joseph Anton" to read not like a diary or a confessional but, rather, like one of his own tales. "The question was how to find a way of writing it, if you like, novelistically — how to make it feel like it had form and characters," says the author, who refers to himself throughout the memoir in the third person. "When I began to see it like a novel — how the story went, who the characters were, then it began to come to life. I was, of course, one of those characters, and so using the third person was ... a way of being able to look at myself objectively, just as I would look at the other people in the story. It helped, I found, to have that one step of distance from myself."
Says his U.S. editor at Random House, Will Murphy: "Salman is a brilliant literary architect, among his many other gifts, and blends, I feel symphonically, so many elements together in this work that it's as mesmerizing to read as any work of fiction."
"Joseph Anton" covers Rushdie's protracted, multifaceted travail: the simultaneously reassuring and onerous presence of a security detail; the ongoing search for new places to stay; the growing stress on his already disintegrating marriage to his second wife, a writer who unaccountably told mutual friends that Rushdie was torturing her with lit cigarettes ("I don't smoke," he pointed out when they relayed the accusation); unpleasant exchanges with famous editors and publishers such as Robert Gottlieb and Sonny Mehta; and fervent support from many writers (J.M. Coetzee, Susan Sontag), along with the opposite from others (Roald Dahl, Joseph Brodsky) who accused Rushdie of having written "The Satanic Verses" as a deliberate provocation — which he vehemently denies — and therefore deserved what was happening to him.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, most of Rushdie's skeptics came to see how they'd misread both "The Satanic Verses" and the geopolitics of the controversy surrounding it. "Now people have a context for what happened that they didn't have then," he says. "There were five or six acquaintances of mine who said to me, 'Oh, now we understand what happened to you.' And I thought, 'Really? Thousands of people had to die for you to understand what was right in front of your nose?'" He sighs with a kind of grim satisfaction. "If what happened to me was a prologue," he says, "then 9/11, unfortunately, was the main event."
Worst of all, for Rushdie, was the author's gnawing fear on behalf of his first wife, Clarissa, and their 9-year-old son, Zafar, who lacked police protection. In what Rushdie now considers the single worst day of his life, he was unable to reach Zafar for their daily phone call, always scheduled for 7 p.m. After more than an hour of increasingly frantic calling, Rushdie alerted his guards, who dispatched a squad car to drive by the house. "The car drove by the premises just now, and the report, I'm sorry to say, is that the front door is open and all the lights are on," the police reported, according to the book. With his novelist's imagination in full swing, Rushdie pictured "the brightly lit rag-doll corpses of his son and his first wife drenched in blood. He had run away and hidden like a terrified rabbit and his loved ones had paid the price."
If Rushdie's ex-wife and son had been taken hostage and held for ransom, as he also imagined, he offered to exchange himself for them. "That thing about exchanging hostages, that only happens in the movies," a detective sergeant named Stan told him. "In real life, I'm sorry to tell you, if this is a hostile intervention, they are both probably dead already. The question you have to ask yourself is, do you want to die as well."
But moments before the police were prepared to storm the house, Zafar finally answered the phone. "What's going on, Dad? There's a policeman at the door and he says there are fifteen more on the way." The cops who'd driven by the house earlier, it turned out, had the wrong address, and Zafar and his mother had simply been delayed at a school play.
"It would seem," said Stan, "that there has been a regrettable error."
At least in retrospect, not everything was quite as grim; in the retelling — this being, after all, a book by Salman Rushdie — a certain amount of Pinteresque black comedy creeps in. "I've often said that if it weren't for the fact that what happened wasn't funny at all, it would be quite funny," he says now. In one incident, Rushdie's security detail decides to get lunch at a McDonald's drive-through, only to realize that the windows of their armored car didn't roll down. In another bit of armored-car hijinks, the author was being driven through central London in what his handlers had failed to recognize as the day of an important Islamic festival; abruptly, the car became engulfed in a sea of worshipers pouring out of a mosque in Regent's Park.
"We were suddenly stuck in traffic, right across the street from the mosque, with all of the people who'd just been hearing sermons about how I should be killed swarming all the way round the car, and I'm obliged to put a newspaper up in front of my face so that they couldn't see that I was there," Rushdie recalls with a mixture of horror and glee. "And I remember saying to the driver, 'Is the door locked?' At that point I heard a click, and he said, 'Well, it is now.'"
Along the way, the ordeal forced Rushdie — born in India to nominally religious Muslim parents who sent him to school in Great Britain, where he later settled and won the Man Booker Prize in 1981 for his second novel, "Midnight's Children" — to address essentially existential questions.
"One of the things that happens is that your picture of the world — that picture being a certain shape, and having certain rules — is broken," he says. "You are part of that picture, of course, and you have a sense of how you fit into that world. Something like this happens and that gets smashed up completely, and it becomes very difficult to know how to act. It's very difficult to know what is for the best, or what might not be for the best, what is a good step, what is a misstep. It becomes very hard to make those judgments, and it creates a feeling inside oneself which is not in fact insanity but is not that far away from it. And it took me a couple of years, really, to regain my balance, and have a sense of how to act for the best. In retrospect, of course, I learned a great deal about who I am, and who I am not."
He learned in particular from his mistakes, including an early statement he issued at the request of the British government that, as he later recognized to his chagrin, came close to an apology to Islam. He says such experiences helped clarify the depth of his convictions.
"It taught me that I would not make such compromises again in my life, and it taught me what I was fighting for, I think," he says. "I was always a writer of satirical, comic inclination, and the nature of satire is that it's much easier to know what you're against than what you're for. A satirist takes a tyrant or an abuse of power and makes fun of it, but I learned through this period that it wasn't enough to know what I was against. What I was against was relatively straightforward; there were people who were trying to kill me, and I was against it. I'd always been a believer in freedom of speech, in liberty, in an open society — these things that all of us can say we believe in without ever having to make it an issue of life and death. When it did become an issue of life and death, I realized that these were things I'm willing to fight for, if necessary with my life."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
By Salman Rushdie,
Random House, 656 pages, $30