Review December 2012

How the Mullahs Won

Salman Rushdie’s artistic decline
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Defining the fatwa as the hinge moment of Rushdie's life offers the reader the chance to examine his work through the same prism. (Horst Friedrichs/Anzenberger/Redux)

On Valentine’s Day 1989, the writer was informed that the decrepit head of Iran’s “revolutionary” regime, Ayatollah Khomeini, had issued a fatwa calling for his death. The stated cause of the edict was the novel he had just written, The Satanic Verses, which supposedly insulted the followers of Muhammad by slandering the Prophet’s wives. For the next decade, he lived precariously: he was forced into hiding; his Japanese translator was murdered; his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher suffered violent attacks. On one occasion, when he feared for his young son’s safety, he seems to have come close to breaking down.

This brief sketch of the most-harrowing years of Rushdie’s life was, I promise, written by me. But the paragraph could be Rushdie’s. Joseph Anton, his new memoir, is composed almost entirely in the third person. (The title was Rushdie’s pseudonym while in hiding; he combined the first names of Conrad and Chekhov.)

If it would ordinarily be obtuse to liken Rushdie’s ordeal—which was, after all, the result of religious mania—to an out-of-body experience, the comparison nevertheless remains a useful way of grasping what he endured. As the author said in a recent interview with a piously awed Jon Stewart, he wrote Joseph Anton as if he were recounting someone else’s life.

And yet Rushdie’s decision to use the third person is only a slight variation on the choices that have guided his entire career. With his literary allusions, his puns, and his often-ingenious wordplay, Rushdie has exhibited, in alternately inspired and tiresome fashion, a near-Joycean desire to manifest the expansiveness and allusionary possibilities of language. Although this book, with the exception of some amusing “letters” to various adversaries, is stylistically rather straightforward, the form does help situate it with Rushdie’s other writings. But Joseph Anton does not merely epitomize the strengths and weaknesses of its author; by defining the fatwa as the hinge moment of his life, Rushdie offers readers the opportunity to examine his work through the same prism.

Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote two great books, Midnight’s Children (1980) and Shame (1983). Since the fatwa, he has not written any. Before the fatwa, Rushdie brilliantly exposed the corrupt dynasties and pathologies of two sundered societies (India and Pakistan). Since the fatwa, Rushdie has allowed flamboyant language and narrative trickery to overshadow biting political satire and acute characterization. Before the fatwa, Rushdie lived a relatively modest life in London. Now, as Joseph Anton drearily attests, Rushdie has become a New York socialite obsessed with name-dropping every celebrity he meets, lauding his own work with shameless abandon, and pointlessly denigrating his ex-wives. Joseph Anton shows both the resolve with which Rushdie confronted the threats to his life, and the sad degree to which the unhinged words of a demented ayatollah helped ruin a superb writer.

In this time of protests at American embassies and consulates around the Muslim world, it is helpful to be reminded of the things one dimly remembers—namely, the utter gutlessness and disgrace that characterized so many of the initial responses to the fatwa. Rushdie recounts the reaction of Margaret Thatcher’s British government and much of Fleet Street, with high-ranking officials and columnists complaining about the cost to taxpayers of Rushdie’s security, as well as the reaction of religious leaders (and not only Muslim ones) who seemed more sympathetic to book-burning mobs than to the oh-so-quaint idea of free expression. Many brave independent bookstores, as well as a number of writers, did rally to Rushdie’s cause. But those who didn’t—from Hugh Trevor-Roper (“I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them”) to John le Carré—come in for well-earned drubbings.

Rushdie deftly deploys the third person to register both the pathos and the absurdity of his circumstances:

The foreign secretary was on television telling lies about him. The British people, Sir Geoffrey Howe said, had no love for this book. It was extremely rude about Britain. It compared Britain, he said, to Hitler’s Germany. The author of the unloved book found himself shouting at the television. “Where? On what page? Show me where I did that.” The television did not reply.

A page earlier, describing the book’s publication in various countries during the author’s non-sojourn in rural England, Rushdie remarks, “While all this and much more was happening the author of The Satanic Verses was crouching in shame behind a kitchen counter to avoid being seen by a sheep farmer.” The more suspenseful sections of the book, particularly the false alarm involving his son, are rendered in detached, wonderfully lucid prose.

However, the impersonal nature of the writing can sometimes shortchange the reader. Of his childhood: “He was never beaten. He was a ‘nice, quiet boy.’ He learned the rules and observed them scrupulously.” And occasionally, the language is simply clunky: “He was supposed to be dead, but he obviously hadn’t understood that.” (Rushdie, generally good with creating names, got lucky in some of the real figures who populate Joseph Anton: his mother was born Zohra Butt, whose name seems coined by Tom Wolfe after a trip to the subcontinent; a romantic rival is Aylmer Gribble.)

It is helpful to be reminded of the utter gutlessness and disgrace that characterized so many of the initial responses to the fatwa.

But Rushdie’s exemplary handling of the affair is what deservedly comes through in the narrative. Yes, there was the dispiriting moment when he released a dull, politically correct statement about respecting the “sensibilities” of others. And yes, his decision to “affirm” his nonexistent Islamic faith (his family is Muslim) was one that he seemed to know, even at the time, would make him look silly and do nothing to lessen the threat. Yet who can fault Rushdie’s desire to try absolutely everything to attain security? In the first decade of the fatwa, he stood strongly and proudly for free expression, and composed a novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), that depicted religious fanatics—this time Muslim-hating Hindus intent on ruining Bombay, the city of his birth, which they stupidly renamed Mumbai. Rushdie had long been an opponent of religious chauvinism and fanaticism, in whatever guise they appeared, and the fatwa did not discourage this impulse.

If the fatwa made Rushdie an international mega-celebrity, then perhaps celebrity is an unsurprising secondary motif of this book, just as it was an annoying undercurrent in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), Fury (2001), and Shalimar the Clown (2005). Long passages are given over to merely naming the celebrities Rushdie has met, especially since his big move to America in 2000. The boldfaced names are often just listed, as in a gossip column: one day he is in France hobnobbing with Bernard Kouchner and Nicolas Sarkozy; then back to London for Jeanne Moreau’s 70th birthday; then to New York for a party with Harrison Ford, Martin Scorsese, and Jerry Seinfeld. Several occasions, like a meeting with Graham Greene, are indeed charming and memoir-worthy, but most of the anecdotes have no payoff:

The film director Michael Mann invited him to dinner and they discussed a project for a movie about the Mexican border. The movie star Will Smith told him about being taught by Muhammad Ali to do the “Ali Shuffle.” The producer Brian Grazer invited him to his office to ask if he wanted to write a movie about his life.

Joseph Anton quickly becomes a metaphor. Just as Rushdie’s work has ricocheted between the profound and the ridiculous, so this book shifts between expert accounts of the threat to Rushdie’s life and stand-alone little sections like the following: “They had dinner at Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter’s house and Harold held [Rushdie’s son] Milan on his lap for a long time.” That’s it. There’s nothing more.

In a review of Shalimar, John Updike noted that while Rushdie had always shown an interest in celebrity, the fatwa and his subsequent superstardom had given his work a “distracting glitter.” (The book, which is largely about Kashmir, has a central character named after a celebrity for no discernible reason.) When the narrator discussed “fame and theatricality,” the reader was now likely to notice the author peering out from behind the curtain.

The shortcomings concern more than just celebrity. Rushdie’s early books combined his unique magical realism with searing history. He made no apology for the outrageousness or ridiculousness of his dialogue and characters, and because they complemented his larger vision, the reader could enjoy them on their own terms, realism be damned. Rushdie did not become a stylistically different writer under the fatwa, but in his later work, the larger subjects of religion and intercommunal warfare become secondary to his ostentatious prose, which often exists merely for its own sake. (In Shalimar, Paris is described thusly: “That innocent-uninnocent city was a prostitute, was a gigolo, was sophisticated infidelity in the guilty-unguilty afternoons.”)

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