Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

A memoir pick by Jean-Louis

josephanton(Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2012)

This memoir is not your usual memoir–it is the author’s account of living under a fatwa. On February 14, 1989 Salman Rusdhie received the news that the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran had sentenced him to death for the crime of having written the novel The Satanic Verses. This death sentence dictated the movements of Rushdie’s life for the next 12 years and nearly destroyed his life and that of his family. This memoir recounts the dark hours, black comedy, political perfidy, and the human triumphs of one artist, his family, friends and the political and religious players of the day.

Joseph Anton is the name under which Rushdie came to live for 12 years. His protective detail called him Joe so that he would not be betrayed by a slip of the tongue. His identity was stripped from him as was his ability to move around freely and continue with his life as an author. The memoir details his many challenges to reassert his own person and ability to publish as he wished. Does Rushdie come across as the nicest guy all the time?–definitely not, but that is not the point. What is the point is that he had the right to be the person he wanted to be.

A quote from the author best describes the fight:

“This is what literature knew, had always known. Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before. Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever-narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became, the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them. Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism, and war. There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and,  sometimnes, of their lives.” (p. 628)

The forces which want to narrow the world do not come only from outside our borders. Rushdie details individuals and institutions in Britain and across the west which fought against him. We can look to our own country and society to determine the forces which seek to limit our conceptions of humanity and those which work against this.

Our best champions toil between the pages of novels. Rushdie has been in the trenches of this fight for decades and I highly recommend that you get to the library, check out one of his novels, and read, and think, and reflect.

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