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Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie

One of my favourite books is The Satanic Verses, a novel that I read much, much later than it was published, and after all the drama of it had died down. It was hard, when I had finished it, to see exactly what had upset people--the book was, I thought, ultimately about multiculturalism and how this impacted on migrants and their relationship not just with their new homes, but old--but in the end I figured that I would never really understand, and left it at that. I have never understood the opposition some people and organisations have against works of art, and I have never understood why it is that we ought to be respectful of those organisations when they react so poorly, and censor ourselves.

It is a question that Salman Rushdie brings up in his large, at times unflattering, at times fascinating, memoir, Joseph Anton. In what is ultimately an uneven book, the best of it comes from his discussion early on about the response from the literary world to The Satanic Verses, wherein it is said that he wrote the book to offend, that if he had known that people were going to die, he wouldn't have done it, and so on. For Rushdie--and thus the reader--it creates the suggestion that the author himself was responsible for the situation he found himself in. Whether you like him or not--and there will be many people lined up to bring the axe down on Rushdie for the content of the memoir--the balance of blame and responsibility in this regard seems unbalanced. Regardless of the reaction to The Satanic Verses, once a book, or a film, an album, a painting, any work of art basically, leaves the artist and enters the public domain, its intellectual and emotionally response is taken out of the hands of the artist. Anyone who has ever put anything into the public domain will have experienced that. But the responsibility of that response is in the hands of the responder, not the artist--and there is no driving mandate that says you have to respond to a written work by killing a person, nothing that absolves that killer from their guilt and wrong doing. You can argue, you can critique, you can simply ignore: leaving the violence out is something that separates us from the damaging religious fundamentalists who reacted violently to The Satanic Verses, and whose response, Rushdie attempts to detail, are shaping the century that we are all living in.

He would have been better, perhaps, to have remained on that topic, since it is the most successful, most interesting part of the book. When Rushdie takes Joseph Anton out of this subject and into his personal and professional life, the success of the book is at times difficult to find. To a degree, the best memoirs are the ones where the knife is clear and easy to see, the gossip funny, and the sex plenty; but while his public arguments with John Le Carre are actually quite amusing, the descriptions of Roald Dahl's hands as strangler's hands excellent, and the long, drawn character assassination of his second wife, Marianne Wiggins the most amazing, gossip ridden sordid literary tussle you could ever hope for... there is something in these descriptions that undermines the more worthy discussion of literary worth, the defence of freedom of speech, and religious fundamentalism that is also at play in the book. These descriptions also fairly much ensure that the literary world, which is a series of small, interconnected ponds giving the illusion of one large one, will be completely unable to respond to Joseph Anton without bias, and a more detailed and time free individual would have a great time following the links between reviewers and their relationships with Rushdie and those he slighted in the book. Of those, however, I would like to pause for Zoe Heller's apparently superb hatchet job of Joseph Anton in the New York Review of Books. For those of you who think it is a such a hatchet job, please: it could have been crueller, nastier, and funnier. Instead, it's a decent discussion of Rushdie's novel, though one I don't go along with, but it's also one to a degree that Rushdie predicts in Joseph Anton, by his portrayal of the British media, and a general opinion that those born there have to him.

But the review could have been funnier. Nastier. Crueller. Just saying.

In the end, however, Joseph Anton must stand on its own merits, and it is a mixed bag. The writing is stripped back in style and because of it, criticisms that the book becomes a wall of names by the end are fair enough, and though the names are famous enough to stand on their own, they are, by and large, without character. Likewise, all the political machinations that take place in the middle of the book do risk becoming a list of events that have no grounding, no sense of place, either in history or the book you are reading, and given the size of it, there is a certain weariness that can creep in because of it. The strongest parts--when Rushdie argues for freedom of speech, where he suggests that threat from a fundamentalist world is great--are the meat that both these events and names are filtered through and it does get lost, occasionally, especially when it is painfully contrasted against the unflattering portrayals of the men (and especially) the women of his life. It has hard, after all, to argue the importance of free speech and art in one hand, while in the other, you tell the world that your fourth wife was an ambitious, vacuous woman who used her looks to get where she wanted and left you to fuck an older, richer man who could give her more.

In the end, I enjoyed it, though I did at times wish it was slightly more intelligent, and less gossipy. But that said, I read the part where MI5 rip into John Le Carre aloud to my girlfriend because it made me laugh.