When Salman Rushdie sat down to write Joseph Anton, ed he felt self-conscious about one of his characters — himself.
It sounds odd, because the book is a memoir, but Rushdie says he initially had so much trouble with it, he even told his agent he didn’t think he’d be able to finish. The “open-sesame” moment came when he tried a paragraph in the third person.
“I’d always had this idea that I’d conceived the book sort of novelistically,” he says. “That I wanted it to read like a novel except that everything in it was true.”
It worked. The third-person narration fosters a feeling of unreality in Rushdie’s true account of the years (1989-2002) he lived under police protection after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a ruling (a fatwa) demanding Rushdie’s death. The offence? Writing The Satanic Verses — a novel some Muslims felt was disrespectful of their faith.
After the fatwa, Rushdie says he was asked to pen an autobiography almost weekly, but waited until he felt ready — something he thinks benefitted the finished memoir because it gave him the distance required to approach the material (gleaned from journals, friends and family) calmly and objectively. He’d forgotten just how fragile his mental state had been at the time.
Considering this, you might not think Joseph Anton would be as fast or funny a read as it is, but there are moments of both semislapstick (he’s made to wear a ridiculously conspicuous wig to “blend in” on the streets of London) and black humour (his list of resolutions one New Year’s Eve include losing weight and having the fatwa cancelled). Rushdie says this wasn’t intentional — that the humour simply happened in the book, partly because it was always there.
“Even at the time there were moments when we would look at each other and say ‘this is pretty funny,’” Rushdie says. “One of the things I remember saying to people is ‘if it weren’t for the fact that none of this is funny at all, it would be pretty funny,’ and it frequently had that curious quality of both being funny and not at all funny at the same time.”
Speaking as a writer, he says the bizarre nature of those years gave him great material, but the experience of living through them was less pleasant. Watching his writing take a back seat to controversy was awful. People professionally associated with The Satanic Verses were threatened. A publisher was shot and survived. A translator was stabbed and died. Rushdie changed his name to Joseph Anton (a combination of Anton Chekov and Joseph Conrad) and struggled to rediscover what he loved about writing. In the end, it was a promise he made to his son to write a kids story that got him back at the writing desk he can’t wait to return to.
Right now Rushdie is in the middle of a book tour for Joseph Anton as well as a series of festivals and opening nights for the Deepa Mehta film, Midnight’s Children — an adaptation of one of his novels. He says he can’t wait to hole up in his New York City apartment and dig into a new novel. Not that he won’t enjoy a positive return to the limelight first.
“It’s strange because for a long time I didn’t want to talk about this stuff and everybody kept asking me about it. I don’t know what happened. I guess I just threw a switch in my head and decided it was time to just tell everybody everything, and then after that hopefully nobody will ever ask me about it again,” he says. “Whatever people may think of it, it is the book I wanted to write. I look at it now and I think yes, that is actually what I wanted to put down and that’s how I wanted it to feel and so in that sense I’m content with it.”