Monday, November 26, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“JOSEPH ANTON -  A Memoir” by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape – Random House, $NZ39:99)

            When his novel The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, Salman Rushdie incurred the wrath of those Muslim clerics who wanted to be offended by his playful speculations about the origins of Islam. Early in 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran declared a fatwa against Rushdie – in effect saying that good Muslims had the right to kill him for blasphemy. Genuinely fearing for his life Rushdie, an Indian-born British citizen, was for over a decade under British police protection, shifted from undisclosed address to undisclosed address before finally settling in a house near Hampstead with plate glass windows. For security purposes, he also had to adopt a pseudonym in his everyday life. He chose “Joseph Anton” in honour of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. The cops protecting him called him “Joe”.

            Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s long (over 630 pages) memoir of those years. It is written in the third person,  partly because Rushdie says that Joseph Anton was not him, but a character he was forced to become in the years when he was threatened. Now that the fatwa is effectively over, he can look back as if contemplating somebody else.

            All this you will already know from news reports and recent interviews in the media. I regret to say that in “reviewing” this book (not only in New Zealand but overseas), many newspapers and magazines did little more than cover it as a news story. Author interviews or background profiles substituted for critique – perhaps easier for some “reviewers” than ploughing all the way through a long text. Having dutifully ploughed my way through it, I now give Joseph Anton the compliment of looking at it critically.

            In the first place, I think Rushdie sets out his situation with great clarity. As he says in the opening pages:

            The Ayatollah Khomeini was not just a powerful cleric. He was a head of state ordering the murder of the citizen of another state, over whom he had no jurisdiction; and he had assassins at his service and they had been used before against ‘enemies’ of the Iranian Revolution, including enemies living outside Iran. There was another new word he [Rushdie] had to learn. Here it was on the radio: extraterritoriality. Also known as state-sponsored terrorism.” (Pg.15)

            He is fully aware that the international ruckus stirred up over his book endangered not only his life, but that of his publishers, printers and supporters. The Italian translator of The Satanic Verses was beaten and stabbed (but survived). The Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses just survived a shooting. The Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was actually murdered. People died in riots that Muslim clerics encouraged.

            In this context, Rushdie – now a confirmed atheist, although of Muslim background - casts the book’s reception as a major episode in the history of free speech and secular values, in opposition to religious fanaticism. Rightly proud of his status as a serious writer, he also rejects indignantly the notion that he wrote The Satanic Verses merely to gain publicity or to insult believing Muslims:

            The book took more than four years to write. Afterwards, when people tried to reduce it to an ‘insult’, he [Rushdie] wanted to reply I can insult people a lot faster than that. But it did not strike his opponents as strange that a serious writer could spend a tenth of his life creating something as crude as an insult. This was because they refused to see him as a serious writer. In order to attack him and his work it was necessary to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist whose work was without merit, who ‘attacked Islam’ for his own personal gain. This was what was meant by the much repeated phrase he did it on purpose.” (Pg.74)

            Rushdie makes his case for free speech clearly and at considerable length. It is hard to argue with a man who as been threatened with death for writing a novel. He is, however, perturbed that there were many, particularly on the Left, who did not defend free speech as fully as they could, and instead sympathised with Muslims as if they were still victims of European imperialism, and therefore entitled to issue death threats. In Rushdie’s view, this meant they were confusing whole Muslim populations with fanatical clerics who stirred up those populations to secure their own power. It also meant that they were confusing all Muslim civilization with the phase through which Islam is now passing. He comments:

             Something new was happening here; the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word was created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticise the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system which boasted over one billion followers worldwide. One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be the ones foaming at the mouth.”  (Pg.344)

            Rushdie never uses the term “identity politics” but that is what he is really talking about here – the way the old liberal Left has so often been outflanked by appeals to particular (oppressed?) cultures, and in the process has lost a clear vision of universal human rights. It has at least something to do with the relativism of postmodernism. Rushdie says:

            He [Rushdie] wanted to speak… for the idea that liberty was everyone’s heritage and not, as Samuel Harrington argued, a Western notion alien to the cultures of the East. As ‘respect for Islam’, which was fear of Islamist violence cloaked in Tartuffe-like hypocrisy, gained legitimacy in the West, the cancer of cultural relativism had begun to eat away at the rich multicultures of the modern world, and down that slippery slope they might all slide towards the Slough of Despond, John Bunyan’s swamp of despair.” (Pg. 357)

            At one point in the years of the fatwa, Rushdie wavered in his resolve to stand by his book and its values. Through the brokerage of a Muslim dentist called Essawy, he signed a document saying he was a faithful Muslim (Pgs. 276 ff.) and later included an account of his “conversion” in the first edition of his book of essays Imaginary Homelands. Of this he is now ashamed, but it would take a very censorious person indeed to judge him negatively for acting as he did in the circumstances.

            On the whole, his commitment to the principle of “freedom of speech” held firm, and meant he would even endorse the freedom to say things he personally judged obnoxious. An inept Pakistani film called International Guerrillas presented Rushdie as a debauched villain trying to corrupt Muslim youth and ended with him being literally smitten by God’s wrath. British censors banned it as defamatory. Rushdie urged them to un-ban it, promising that he would not sue or cause any legal problems for the film’s British release. The censors duly un-banned it and – to Rushdie’s satisfaction – the film sank without trace in Britain. As Rushdie correctly notes, to ban it would have made it a prized bootleg item among Muslim youth in Britain. Un-banned, it was just another crap film.

            As Rushdie recounts his attitude to his accusers there are, however, some issues that we could take up, even if Rushdie does not. At a literary gathering in France during the fatwa years, he tells us:

             He [Rushdie]  met Jacques Derrida…. He soon realized that he and Derrida would not agree about anything. In the Algeria session he made his argument with Islam itself. Actually existing Islam could not be exonerated from the crimes done in its name. Derrida disagreed. The ‘rage of Islam’ was driven not by Islam but by the misdeeds of the West. Ideology had nothing to do with it. It was a question of power.” (Pg.438)

            Derrida’s view is at least worth considering even if, once again, we would have to be very censorious indeed to criticise Rushdie for rejecting it, given his situation. I would add, too, that Rushdie often becomes strident over negotiations where political leaders of the West tried to calm down Islamist leaders of Iran by making conciliatory gestures to them. In Rushdie’s view, this was mere dancing with the Devil. A certain blindness overcomes him in such passages. It is possible to support freedom of speech while striving to keep the international peace, but Rushdie does not concede this point. I think this blindness also informs those passages where he is scathing about religious leaders (the Archbishop of Canterbury etc.) who said they ‘understood’ Muslim feelings of outrage while, of course, not endorsing the fatwa. A similar stridency appears in the passage where his mother told him that she was praying for his welfare, and he rebuked her, saying that those who pray “are not on our team”. There are times when his division of the world’s ideas into black and white is as simplistic as the clerics who condemned him.

            Thus far I have deliberately stuck to the core ideas of Joseph Anton, at least in part because I want to make it clear that Rushdie’s cause was and is an honourable one and he deserved the support he won from many people in the years when he was under threat. However, I am reviewing a book, not endorsing an ideological manifesto, so it’s now necessary to get on with the text itself, which is a lot bumpier and harder to swallow than Rushdie’s core ideas are.

            It’s clear from the start that Rushdie is somebody who will lash out verbally at people if they in some way displease him. Here he is –in a situation unconnected with the years of the fatwa  - describing the mother of his first wife:

            Her mother, Lavinia Luard, also bore an embarrassing nickname, Lavvie-Loo, and stirred family tragedy into a glass of gin and dissolved it there so that she could play the merry widow with men who took advantage of her.” (Pg.13)

            And here he is having a go at another author in a passage again unrelated to the fatwa. He tells us he had to protect a young woman from “Roald Dahl, a long, unpleasant man with huge strangler’s hands, who gave him hate-filled looks.” (Pg.101)

            I am reviewing the book, not the man; but it is hard not to see considerable vindictiveness in such passages. And it is hard not to make some judgements on Rushdie regarding his treatment of various women as chronicled in these pages.

            He split from his first wife Clarissa, the mother of his son Zafar, after 12 years, because of his infidelities. He was married to the American novelist Marianne Wiggins at time the fatwa was declared. The marriage lasted little over a year. In this book he consistently presents Wiggins as a neurotic, opportunistic air-head. He fell in love with, and had an affair with, Elizabeth West while married to Wiggins. He later married West and had a son, Milan, by her. Later he split from West and had a long-running affair with the Indian supermodel Padma. All this Rushdie tells us himself in Joseph Anton, not even sparing us the details of his one-night stands (see Pg.486). I admit such writing makes me uncomfortable, not only because of the implicit boasting about his sexual prowess that is involved, but because experience tells me always to be wary when I hear only one side of any marriage from a divorced or separated person.

            It is notable that Rushdie speaks far more respectfully of Clarissa and Elizabeth, the mothers of his two sons, than he does of the other women in his life. His ongoing love and affection for Zafar and Milan are exemplary and, as far as the novelist’s private life is concerned, are the things I find most to like about him in Joseph Anton.

            Rushdie denies the common charge that he is arrogant, but then provides plenty of evidence that he is. After The Satanic Verses was banned in India, he accused the Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi of carrying on a family feud because of the unflattering way Rajiv’s mother Indira Gandhi had been portrayed in his earlier novel Midnight’s Children. He wrote Rajiv Gandhi a letter in which he suggested his novel’s reputation would last longer that Indira Gandhi’s reputation would. He has the grace to add “Well OK, that was arrogant.” (Pg.118)

            Rushdie spends much time telling us about which of his works did or did not win literary prizes. Fair enough. He’s entitled to be proud of his work. But he does impute base motives to judges in those cases where he did not win. In recounting how The Satanic Verses was locked out of the Booker, he is happy to say Peter Carey won with Oscar and Lucinda. He says that some years previously Peter Carey’s Illywhacker should have won, and [New Zealanders will be interested to hear] he says he told Carey so, after Keri Hulme’s the bone people won “in a compromise decision” (Pg.119). But he claims The Satanic Verses did not win the Whitbread prize only because the judges included the Tory cabinet minister Douglas Hird and the conservative journalist Max Hastings (Pgs. 132-133)

            More understandably, he unleashes his fury on those who attacked The Satanic Verses on literary grounds once the fatwa was in force - George Steiner, Auberon Waugh, Richard Ingrams, Bernard Levin (Pg.148). Roald Dahl called him an “opportunist”. The Prince of Wales said Rushdie should undo the “harm” he had done (Pg.252). He notes “There was a vicious attempt… to accuse him of spiteful abuse …. (written by Christopher Cockburn, one of the great contemporary masters of spiteful abuse).” (Pg.391). He lists carefully those people who said he was self-interested and a twerp who wrote either for the money or the fame - Kingsley Amis, Al Alvarez, Germaine Greer, John Le Carre, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Sybille Bedford. (Pg.396). Later John Berger and Norman Tebbitt join this list. He expected the Daily Mail to carp about the expense to the British taxpayer of protecting him; but he is particularly angry about the Independent for giving so much column space to his opponents.

            Of one faded pop icon he writes:

            Then Cat Stevens – Yusuf Islam – bubbled up in the Guardian like a fart in the bath, still demanding that Rushdie withdraw the book and ‘repent’, and claiming that his support of the fatwa was in line with the Ten Commandment. (In later years he would pretend that he had never said any of these things, never called for anyone’s murder, never justified it on the basis of his religion’s ‘law’, never appeared on the TV or spoken in the papers to spout his uneducated bloodthirsty rubbish, knowing he lived in an age in which nobody had an memory. Repeated denials could establish a new truth that erased the old one.)” (Pg.436)

            Throughout Joseph Anton, there is a certain ambiguity about the police protection squad that surrounded Rushdie. He is grateful to them. He praises them. Though they were very different men from Rushdie himself, he got on well with some of them. But he often feels constrained and constricted by his situation and police assessments of the security risk, which often led them to deny him the freedom to attend various public events. So there is also more carping about the police than one would expect.

            By contrast, Rushdie is effusive about his friends and supporters. When he needed a hiding place, and when James Fenton offered him his secluded house, he reacts thus:

            If he ever lived to tell the tale, he thought, what a tale of loving friendship it would be. Without his friends he would have been locked up on an army base, incommunicado, forgotten, spiralling downwards into madness; or else a homeless wanderer, waiting for the assassin’s bullet to find him.” (Pg.288)

            The text is filled with praises for those distinguished literary and political people who offered him moral and practical support -  Edward Said, Carlos Fuentes, Nadine Gordimer, Gunter Grass; Vaclav Havel, Michael Foot, Melvyn Bragg; Margaret Drabble and her husband Michael Holroyd; and Harold Pinter, who read publicly Rushdie’s lecture “Is Nothing Sacred?” when it was too dangerous for Rushdie himself to make an appearance. (Though later Rushdie does slap Pinter on the wrist for blustering and talking over other people at a dinner party).

            Rushdie was supported more unequivocally by the literary community of America than by the literary community of Britain (many of whose members may have had their minds on Britain’s large and growing Muslim population). Similarly, US government figures came to his defence more readily than British government figures did. He felt he had greater freedom of movement in America than in Britain, and this may have influenced his (post-fatwa) decision to relocate to Manhattan, where he now lives. As he puts it:

            America had allowed him to begin his journey back to personhood, first at Columbia and then in Washington. There was more dignity in being a combatant than a victim. Yes, he would fight his corner. That would be the story from now on.” (Pg.340)

            Regrettably, I have to admit that sometimes his lists of illustrious Americans who partied with him and supported him read like Bradford’s Literati and are just as gushy and gossip-column-inflected:

             And Sunny threw a party for him, and Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Annie Leibovitz and Paul Simon were all there…. [on Long Island] they were joined… by Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, David Rieff, Bill Buford and Christopher and Carol Hitchens.”(pp.363)

            It sounds uncomfortably like a mutual admiration society when he meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Pg.472) and they get to tell each other how much they love each other’s work. Then the book literally becomes Bradford’s Hollywood once he gets to passages on staying in Los Angeles with his model-girl girlfriend and gushing about having dinner with Warren Beatty etc. Like this over-long review, Joseph Anton sometimes burbles on inanely as Rushdie luxuriates in being a celebrity among celebrities.

            It would be unfair to judge the book only on these tiresome passages, however. Rushdie can do irony – or maybe God can – when he reports that after all the death threats, the closest he came to actually dying was in a road accident in Australia. Rushdie can also do comedy and can be very funny. I relished one passage early on where, filling in details on family background, Rugby School, Cambridge etc., he recalls hippie-ish student days:

            He got used to nodding his head a lot, wisely. In the quest for cool, it helped that he was Indian. ‘India, man’, people said ‘Far out’. ‘Yeah,’ he said, nodding. ‘Yeah’. ‘The Maharishi, man,’ people said. ‘Beautiful.’ ‘Ravi Shankar, man,’ he replied. At this point people usually ran out of Indians to talk about and everyone just went on nodding , beatifically. ‘Right, right,’ everyone said. ‘Right’ ”.  (Pg.38)

            He tells a genuinely bizarre story of attending what he jokingly calls the “Secret Policeman’s Ball” i.e. the exclusive party at Scotland Yard, where protection squads meet with those they have protected. This involved being pawed by a patronising Margaret Thatcher and refraining from punching a decrepit Enoch Powell (Pgs. 371-373). Then there is the book’s best literary story. He was at a supportive literary party where he met, among others, Umberto Eco:

             He [Rushdie] had just given Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum the worst review he had ever given any book. Eco bore down upon him  and behaved with immense good grace. He spread his arms and cried ‘Rushdie! I am the bullsheet Eco!’ After that they were on excellent terms.” (Pg.386)

            This story reflects well on both Eco – for his magnanimity – and Rushdie. After all, Eco’s writings really are “bullsheet”.

            This, of course, shows how much I judge Rushdie by how much he reinforces my own opinions and prejudices (just as do you, hypocrite lecteur). Therefore I feel a full flush of sympathy at his reaction to getting flak for writing a negative, but accurate, book review:

             This was what book reviewing did. If you loved a book, the author thought your praise no more than his rightful due, and if you didn’t like it you made enemies. He decided to stop doing it. It was a mug’s game.” (pp.111-112)

            I also happily endorse his reaction to Bertolucci’s pretentious film The Sheltering Sky : “There wasn’t a single thing about the film he [Rushdie] had enjoyed.” (Pg.271)

            Time to sum up pithily.

            At his best, Rushdie is an astute commentator in Joseph Anton. He states his case well and he records the key events of his difficult years in detail. In all this he has the reader’s sympathy. But, whatever his theoretical reason for adopting it, the third person voice too often sounds sententious or pompous. Rushdie tells us about the genesis, in the fatwa years, of his novels The Moor’s Last Sigh and Fury as if they are self-evidently great works of art. He can do this only because he is writing in the third person – which is one reason why he should have written in the first person. Then there is the detailed-settling-of-scores factor. And the gushiness about friends and supporters which sometimes borders on the fulsome (in the real sense of the word). And the twittering about the celebrity world. And the fact that Joseph Anton simply goes on too long and could have benefited from a rigorous edit. Like this review, it should be about half the length it is.

            In short, this is a book fascinating and flawed in equal measures, and certainly the work of a great egotist. But then – as my reading of Simon Callow’s recent biography of Charles Dickens seems to have confirmed to me – maybe full-blown egotism is one of the qualifications for being a good novelist.