Why Joseph Anton is one of Rushdie’s best books

If you are reading this, I can assume that you are, rather than a casual punter, an evolved reader, and that you are not one for whom I need to explain what one of the most talked-about and biggest book of the year is about.

So you will know that Joseph Anton is Salman Rushdie’s memoir about his life under the fatwa; you will know that when asked to coin a different name for himself while in hiding, he chose an amalgam of the names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov, two writers he much admirers; you will know, from newspaper reports, bits of what Rushdie has divulged about his former wives, his friends, foes and a certain Mumbai politician.

So I won’t go into any of that. Before I get any further, let me just say this: Joseph Anton is one of Rushdie’s greatest books. It is a book that needed to have been written. It is as much a memoir of that harrowing period in the life of a particular writer as a heroic defence of artistic freedom and a celebration of literature, life, friendship and fatherhood.

The third person in which Rushdie writes works as both a distancing device and a stylistic trick that makes Joseph Anton read like a non-fiction novel. JM Coetzee tried it – with success – in his triptych of fictionalised memoirs, Boyhood, Youth and Summertime. Rushdie’s prose here is more pared down than we have come to expect from him, and that suits the purpose of this particular narrative. At the same time, there are beautifully cadenced, page-long sentences that beg to be reread.

While much of Rushdie’s struggles during the fatwa years have been well documented (not least in splendid pieces by his friends, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and James Fenton), this is the same story from the inside. Rushdie takes us inside his life, inside his head, and shows us how frightening, how frustrating, and how unreal that period in his life was.

“One of the worst aspects of what happened, he wrote later, was that the incomprehensible became comprehensible, the unimaginable became imaginable.”

It seems truly astonishing how, during these years, Rushdie continued to write. He gave us Haroun and the Sea of Stories; Imaginary Homelands; East, West; The Moor’s Last Sigh; The Ground Beneath Her Feet; and Fury – which is to say he produced some of his greatest work in this most traumatic period of his life. And he held his nerve and preserved his sanity. As well as his sense of humour – as Joseph Anton abundantly shows.

So disturbing in terms of the experience that provides its narrative backbone, this memoir is illuminated by all kinds of love: Rushdie’s passionate love for and defence of artistic freedom (he shows how his story is only symptomatic and, as incidents over the years reveal, he is right); his love for literature and writers he reveres; his love for his two sons (to whom – and their mothers – the book is dedicated); his love for his many friends; and his love for life, for living, for being who he wants to be in the way he would like to be.

Towards the end of the book, Rushdie writes about, how, after finishing The Ground Beneath Her Feet, he thought: “‘No more 250,000-word monsters,’ he told himself. ‘Shorter books, more often.’ For more than a decade, he kept that promise, writing two short and two medium-length novels between 2000 and 2009. Then he got to work on his memoir, and realised that he had fallen off the wagon.”

Well, thank heavens for that. I only wish he had fallen harder, or more spectacularly. As a reader and a practising writer, I wanted more: more about his boyhood; more about his early struggles as a writer; more about the writing of the books; more about how he found his voice and refined it.

Never less riveting than a taut thriller, Joseph Anton is the kind of book you can’t wait to finish. And, when you have, you feel sorry that it is over.

Here is Rushdie talking about his book.

And for a taste of the real thing, here is an excerpt from the book.

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