Thus the title of this, Rushdie’s memoir of his entire life, but mainly of those more than 11 years of torment, years often made bearable by the friendship and love of others, yet years unceasingly under the threat of the dire unknown, while Rushdie was squirreled away in secret London hideaways and remote farmhouses. For anyone it would have been terrifying, but for this proud and passionately sociable man it was degrading as well:
“To hide in this way was to be stripped of all self-respect. To be told to hide was a humiliation. Maybe, he thought, to live like this would be worse than death. In his novel ‘Shame’ he had written about the workings of Muslim ‘honor culture,’ at the poles of whose moral axis were honor and shame, very different from the Christian narrative of guilt and redemption. He came from that culture even though he was not religious, and had been raised to care deeply about questions of pride. To skulk and hide was to lead a dishonorable life. He felt, very often in those years, profoundly ashamed. Both shamed and ashamed.”
As that passage indicates, Rushdie has chosen to tell his story in the third person: to write not about Salman Rushdie but about Joseph Anton, the person who for more than a decade was himself yet not quite himself. It takes a few pages for the reader to get used to this, but it works: It eliminates the temptations of self-pitying bathos (temptations that surely must have been severe) and allows Rushdie to maintain a certain clinical distance from himself. He further intensifies this effect by abandoning, for the most part, the elaborate, fanciful, quasi-poetic style that characterizes most of his previous work (including “The Satanic Verses”) and to write, instead, in a plain prose that by its severity makes his ordeal all the more palpable.
“Joseph Anton” is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year. Some may complain that, at more than 600 pages, it is too long, but it never seemed so to me, and as one who reads for a living I am acutely if not excessively sensitive to authorial self-indulgence. To the contrary, the length of the book, and its wealth of quotidian detail, serve to draw the reader into the life that Rushdie was forced to lead, to make his isolation and fear palpable. Other readers may complain that too many names are mentioned, or dropped, or however one cares to phrase it, but it must be noted, first, that these people are indeed Rushdie’s friends and, second, that to be honest few of their names are well known outside the little world of the international literati, indeed the even more narrow world of British and American literati. If these are indulgences on Rushdie’s part — though they do not seem so to me — then he is entitled to them. He earned them.