Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Review: Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie

I've never been a fan of Salman Rushdie's genre of magical realism and I've never been able to finish one of his novels, yet I found his memoir "Joseph Anton" compelling. 

It's a memoir emphasizing Rushdie's plight as an object of a fatwa called by Muslim leaders and supported by the Iranian government because of his alleged disparaging portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad and his wives in the novel The Satanic Verses.

Critics have argued that Rushdie was careless and should have known that fundamentalist Muslims would take issue with his work, The Satanic Verses, or that Rushdie intended to purposely insult Islam for publicity. Rushdie argues against these ideas very convincingly, but more importantly, so what if he "should have known"? Western enlightened society is built on the foundation of personal civil liberties, and paramount is the protection of everyone's right to express ideas, no matter how disagreeable.

Rushdie is an excellent writer but the 600+ pages is lengthy. I frequently thought as I listened--I borrowed the Audiobook from the library-- Does his publisher employ editors? Twenty-two hours of audio! But now, having finished, I can say that the length of the book is necessary to truly understand the complexity of the person Salman Rushdie and the events he endured. He effectively portrays his weaknesses as he honestly admits to heavy alcohol use that damaged his relationships, among other shortcomings.

Another criticism is that Rushdie put publishers, book store clerks and other personnel at risk by insisting that his right to free speech was upheld. Bullshit. Nobody entered into their interactions with Rushdie and The Satanic Verses against their will, and it was Muslim leaders who instigated violence. The publishing industry is the true guardian of such freedom and their professionalism is praised by Rushdie throughout the book. Rushdie mentions the sorrow he felt when translators of The Satanic Verses were attacked, one killed and another injured, by Islamic fundamentalists, but we must all remember who are the criminals in this situation, and it's not the novelist. 

Further critics argue that Rushdie has not shown proper gratitude for the protection and expense put forth on his behalf by the British government and the agents involved. Again, bullshit. Rushdie exhibits gushing praise for the "prot" agents who ensured his safety, although he often voices frustration with the Bureaucracy of Scotland Yard. An example of supreme frustration is that the British government had anti-blasphemy laws on the books until very recently, and these laws, while originally enacted centuries ago to protect Anglicanism, the laws were expanded to prohibit negative opinion of any religion. These laws have been expunged following, and perhaps because of, the Rushdie fatwa.

Like others I found Rushdie's use of the third person confusing at times, but who am I to argue with an accomplished award winning author? Deal with it. Hillary Mantel uses the same literary device in her historical novel Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell. 

Rushdie exhibits traits of self-confidence, what others might call narcissism, but there is a distinction between pathology and mere personality traits. I cannot imagine any interesting and successful writer lacking such high opinion of himself or herself; detractors should get over it. Rushdie has lived an interesting life which he has explored with effective introspection. As memoirs go this one is very, very good. He gives a clear impression of his emotions and motivations, his anger and frustration as well as the love and gratitude he feels. Moreover, Rushdie educates the reader on the events of the day and how they are affected by religious ideology and the deadly political and personal ramifications. 

More recently, Salman Rushdie has been interviewed and while he quickly cops to his lack of god-belief, he has a nuanced respectful view of Islam: while he may not agree with the tenets of the faith, he recognizes that it's the leaders of Islam who have made the grievous violent overtures for political purposes. Followers of Islam need to be more vigilant of the true meaning of their religion and not allow it to be co-opted by mullahs for political motives.

Rushdie never apologizes for writing The Satanic Verses, never expresses regret. That is the true message of this story: we have a choice to make as members of a free society, we can stand with the fundamentals of freedom of expression or we can allow assholes to steal our freedoms. The choice is ours. No matter how much or how little we may enjoy a particular writer's work it is our imperative duty to defend his right to express the art.

Joseph Anton is a well-written account of the life of a writer enduring a harrowing assault on his freedom and threats to the life of himself, his family and his colleagues. Rushdie provides an introspective and sometimes humorous (parts are very funny, especially his close encounter with a Playboy Bunny!) rendering of the experience. He addresses detractors (John Le Carre is portrayed as a willful moron) and supporters very effectively and makes the case for the unabridged freedoms of an open society.

No comments: