“To skulk and to hide was to lead a dishonourable life,” he writes in the memoir, admitting his susceptibility to the Muslim “honour culture” in which he was born – and his horror at the “witness-protection-program option” many British opinion and political leaders wished him to take.
“I thought that would be worse than death,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want my life back. I don’t want somebody else’s life, I don’t want to abandon my identity in order to survive.’ No, I wanted to go back to the life I had before. That was my aim.”
Joseph Anton chronicles its protagonist’s transformation from shell-shocked victim playing Donkey Kong in his underwear (while surrounded by armed guards) into a skilled political actor straining against his protectors and boldly demanding Western leaders stiffen their spines.
The prevailing view in Britain’s Thatcher government was that “Joe” should “lie low and let it fade away,” according to Rushdie. “It was quite clear to me it would never fade away, but I could never make them see that,” he says. Throughout his ordeal, sympathetic spymasters offered him cryptic briefings about “specific threats,” meaning assassins on his trail in Britain. “Until somebody called those dogs off, it wasn’t going to be all right,” he says.
And knowing it might never end was torture. “There’s no question that the thing that dragged me down all the time was not knowing if there would be an ending,” he says. “The idea that this would be the rest of my life was unthinkable.”
While publishers balked, literary enemies multiplied and marriages disintegrated (in rich detail), “Joe” gained strength from the protectors he relied on to stay alive. “Most of the spooks and the police never doubted that they were defending an important principle, even the ones who didn’t like me,” he says. “They may not have felt they were defending an important person, which some of them didn’t. But they knew that what they were defending was a principle on which the country stood.
“They were really strong about it – the spies more than anyone else. They knew exactly what this was about.”
Those who didn’t might well wish otherwise following their appearance in Joseph Anton. But Rushdie insists he maintains no hard feelings against those who condemned him, at the mildest, as an irreligious troublemaker. “Bearing grudges means that your baggage just gets too heavy,” he says. “And these were not the people my real fight was with. There’s no reason to prolong it.”
Instead, the author struggled to maintain an equable omniscience, novelist-style, switching from the first to the third person and avoiding a “heightened, operatic” mode of expression. “The material is already heightened and operatic enough,” he says. “You don’t want to pour more opera into it, but to trust it – to tell the story calmly and with an almost neutral voice.
“I’m not sure I completely did that,” he adds. “But I didn’t want to write some kind of embittered, overemotional, score-settling, angry text because, above all else, that’s not fun to read. People don’t like it.”
Again, the writer prevailed. “I just thought I’ve got to be compassionate and understanding,” he says, “to try to see the other side of every question and understand the subjectivity of people, even when I didn’t agree with what they did.”
Rushdie took his revenge by remaining the writer he always wanted to be – neither fearful, producing “timid little safe books,” nor angry. “I thought either way, either the revenge or the fear, turns me into their creature and destroys me as an artist.”
As an artist, Rushdie is proud of the continuity of his fiction, which he continued to write and (after considerable agitation among fearful publishers) to publish even while living in hiding and struggling to assert his right to anti-religious free speech. “I don’t think there’s a big rift in 1989,” he says. “I don’t think you say, ‘Oh what happened to this writer here?’ I think the books have their own continuity.”
But it is the virtuoso artistry of Joseph Anton, a novel like no other, that makes the case most eloquently – and could well prove to be the masterwork that survives long after the mere fictions have faded, as most are fated to do.
“My God!” Rushdie exclaims, shocked at the suggestion. But not for long.
“I’ll take it,” he says.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir will be published by Knopf Canada on Sept. 18.
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