I’ve now finished the other book I started at the end of 2012, Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 24 years since Iran issued a fatwa (death sentence) against Rushdie after he published his novel The Satanic Verses, a novel deemed blasphemous by some fundamentalist Muslim leaders.
I’ve never read any of Rushdie’s novels (that will hopefully change this year) but I happened to see an interview with him on the gloriously boring BookTV (weekends on CSPAN-2) channel and was surprised at how humorous and good-natured he appeared. His thoughts on free-thinking and freedom of speech prompted me to check out his memoir that he recently published. I now highly recommend it.
Born and raised in India by parents with Muslim backgrounds, Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, won the Booker Prize in 1981. He seems to have always considered India to be his home even when he was banned from stepping foot in the country.
If it wasn’t for the fact that a man’s life was at stake, I would find the situation with The Satanic Verses rather humorous. The leaders of the free world don’t want to appear to be against free speech and free thought but at the same time they don’t want to appear to be blaspheming a major world religion. A man simply writing fiction put them in quite a conundrum. I laughed when Rushdie said Margaret Thatcher was much more “touchy-feely” than one would have imagined. He didn’t have much fondness for her; however, he doesn’t display much fondness for any heads of state regardless of their political persuasion. Many of them found it easier to blame him for “stirring up trouble” than to blame an actual nation.
Rushdie’s story at times takes on the feel of a literary political thriller: one has to stop and realize that this really happened. He seems proudest of the fact that through all of this he was able to maintain a relationship with and be a father to his two sons. With all of the frustrations of being under police protection, he developed a bond with his protectors that lead to a gracious parting at the end of the book. They all called him “Joe” as his code name was “Joseph Anton” (because it had a better ring than “Conrad Chekov”).
He also talks about socializing with the world’s literary aristocracy. Some supported him, some didn’t. I found his letters back and forth between John LeCarre, who did not support him, surprising. He talks of hanging out with Kurt Vonnegut; however, prior to the fatwa, he gave Vonnegut’s book Hocus Pocus a less-than-stellar review. They didn’t have much to do with each other after that. I’m dating myself, but I remember Vonnegut appearing on a talk show around the time that all this broke out. He spoke in support of Rushdie and of free speech.
Rushdie has some great thoughts on freedom of speech and freedom of expression and the book is very quotable. I think this paragraph superbly sums up his ideas about the importance of this freedom and the importance of literature itself:
All writers and readers knew that human beings had broad identities, not narrow ones, and it was the breadth of human nature that allowed readers to find common ground and points of identification with Madame Bovary, Leopold Bloom, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Raskolnikov, Gandalf the Gray, Oskar Matzerath, the Makioka Sisters, the Continental Op, the Earl of Emsworth, Miss Marple, the Baron of the Trees, and Salo the mechanical messenger from the planet Tralfamadore in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. Readers and writers could take that knowledge of broad-based identity out into the world beyond the pages of books, and use the knowledge to find common ground with their fellow human beings. You could support different football teams but vote the same way. You could vote for different parties but agree about the best way to raise your children. You could disagree about child rearing but share a fear of the dark. You could be afraid of different things but love the same music. You could detest each other’s musical taste but worship the same God. You could differ strongly on the question of religion but support the same football team.