The "last thing on Earth" author Salman Rushdie wanted to do when he finally emerged from his long ordeal living under police protection, incognito, with a death sentence on his head – and the knowledge that the Iranian government had mobilized trained assassins to carry it out – was to write a book about it.
"I'm a novelist and what I really want to do is get back to the real job," he told his disappointed agent, Andrew Wyllie. "I want to write fiction. That's why I became a writer. That's what I want to do. And for a long time, that's what I did."
Leery of revisiting a prolonged nightmare, Rushdie made no firm plans to write the remarkable true story of his Kafkaesque experience at the epicentre of world history. "I would make jokes that I think of it as my old-age pension," he said, while stopping in Toronto to help promote Deepa Mehta's film adaptation of his best-known novel, Midnight's Children. "When I finally run out of ideas for novels, maybe I'll write this."
Rushdie's story began in 1989 with Muslim protests against allegedly blasphemous passages in his novel The Satanic Verses, and turned horrific when the dying Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an edict (fatwa) demanding Muslims worldwide make it their duty to kill the author. Scores of people ultimately died in so-called Rushdie riots around the world. Rushdie's Norwegian publisher took three bullets in an attempted assassination and bombings targeted other European publishers. The author himself lived a cloak-and-dagger existence, governed by around-the-clock police protection, for more than a decade until Western governments forced the Iranians to suspend the fatwa.
But Rushdie set his own story aside, returning to novels. And when he finally did exhume his journals and set about writing the memoir, he did his best to keep it short. But the writer could no longer maintain his resistance to such an amazing tale. Almost in spite of himself, Rushdie ended up producing a fast-paced, 636-page monument so impressive it threatens to overshadow all the mere fictions on which his considerable reputation currently rests.
And to any fears about the current relevance of a memoir of a now-ancient religious firestorm, today's headlines from the Middle East are a fitting reply.
Though called a memoir, Joseph Anton is in fact a non-fiction novel written consciously in the tradition established by Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe. The difference is that its author is writing about himself – albeit, somewhat awkwardly, in the third person – and none of those former practitioners ever treated a subject that is at once so personal and ultimately geopolitical. In the spectacular collision that is Joseph Anton, which takes its title from the pseudonym Rushdie adopted while in hiding (Joseph from Conrad, Anton from Chekhov), a great writer treats great events with unmatchable authority.
And zest: Replete with shady doings of high-level spies, opportunists "sticking knives in his back and then skipping up the ladder of blades," wobbly publishers, suspicious prime ministers, a rogue's gallery of religious maniacs, three failed marriages and enough juicy literary gossip to fill half a dozen more meagre efforts, Joseph Anton adds a whole new dimension to the "tell-all" genre – "all" in this case being a seminal conflict in what became the greatest ideological struggle of the new century.
"Any writer knows that crisis produces character," Rushdie says. "You take a group of people and you put them in crisis – shipwreck them or whatever – and you find out who they are. And what happened in the years after the fatwa was a huge crisis. Not just for me, it was a crisis for the culture."
The fatwa crisis, Rushdie writes in Joseph Anton, "was like an intense light shining down on everyone's choices and deeds, creating a world without shadows, a stark unequivocal place of right and wrong action, good and bad choices, yes and no, strength and weakness."
Those days are past and the light has since softened, the author says today. But the fatwa, he adds, "revealed a lot – sometimes very admirable stuff, sometimes not very admirable – about everyone who came into contact with it."
Among those who occasionally fail the test is the author himself, who never shrinks from the clear-eyed gaze he levels on those around him. At his lowest moment, "Joseph Anton" half-converts to Islam, "the stupidest thing I ever did," the author confesses. He readily admits the arrogance that inspired a vituperative British press to turn against him – often to a sickening extent – but arrogance becomes buoyancy in the full light of the telling, source of the estimable determination Rushdie needed to fight rather than flee the very real demons – trained assassins, on the move – that beset him.
"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.