Some critics of Joseph Anton have argued that the book is too long and ultimately fails to fully exploit the cloak-and-dagger elements that his predicament put at his disposal. If one is solely interested in the espionage aspects of the Rushdie affair, then yes, 600 pages, which include lots of material about his romantic life, his growing children, the celebrities he brushed elbows with, his friendships, his quirky protection teams, imaginary letters to protagonists and antagonists, and so on, is probably too long. However, true fans of the author will gain tremendously from reading the book in its entirety, as it yields invaluable information about the context in which his future novels took shape. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury and Shalimar the Clown would not have turned out the way they did were it not for the fatwa and the existential crises it engendered for the author.
Rushdie’s memoir contains a rich brew of friends and foes in the literary world, and how they react to his predicament will be of great interest to anyone interested in the belles-lettres. There are plenty of allies, people like Susan Sontag, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gunter Grass, U2’s Bono and so on. And there are some who, in seeming contradiction to their body of work, vilified the man for his action, people like John le Carre, who not only comes out looking bad but ended up being subjected to the mother of all tirades by Hitchens — front-page stuff. The weakness of one’s literary idols is such that one fears turning the page lest Rushdie mention another one who failed to step up to the occasion. Mohammed Khatami, a moderate who became president and inspired great hopes for a dialogue between civilizations, is one of those heroes who emerges from Rushdie’s book a much weakened man, given his support for the irreversibility of the fatwa.
At the heart of Joseph Anton — and ultimately the heart of the whole matter — is the idea that freedom consists in our ability, not just as artists, to question our beliefs and the grand narratives that define our lives. As Rushdie writes: “… one could say that our ability to re-tell and re-make the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom.” The essence of the The Satanic Verses, and what made it “problematic,” is the author’s daring to revisit the basic tenets of one of the world’s great religions, not so much to discredit it as to encourage openness of mind and interpretation — argument itself. “But in a closed society,” Rushdie continues, “those who possessed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates. We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means … and we forbid you to tell it in any other way.”
This is a lesson, and a warning, that should be heeded by all, as intolerance and the assault on free speech has, since the Rushdie affair, become an all-too-common poison in the electronic age. Thanks to Rushdie’s magnificent and (sadly) timely book, we now know what it was like to be one of the first victims of transnational tyranny.