By Max Dunbar.
Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie, Cape 2012
The Rushdie memoir is a hard one to get through. It’s 636 pages long. In hardback form, it can be used as a home defence weapon. It is written in the third person – a curious choice that you’d think would grate, but doesn’t. It covers the years when Rushdie was under a kind of rolling house arrest with Khomeini’s bounty on his head. More has been written about this exceptional reaction to Rushdie’s novel than the novel itself, which is a shame. In Joseph Anton Rushdie explains the genesis of the Verses.
Rushdie’s father was a scary drunk, a lifelong atheist, and a scholar of Islam. To Anis Rushdie, Islam was ‘the only one of the great world religions to be born within recorded history, whose prophet was not a legend described and glorified by ‘evangelists’ writing a hundred years or more after the real man lived and died’. Anis wanted to write a revised version of Quran that would not present itself as immaculate recitation, but would take into account all the compromises, changes, setbacks and contradictions that history inflicts on people and movements. For Anis Rushdie, ‘Nothing was off-limits. There were no taboos. Everything, even holy writ, could be investigated and, just possibly, improved.’
He never got round to it, and died when Rushdie was still young. But the dreams of his father live on in Rushdie’s novel about revealed religion. The passages that enraged clerical leaders and establishment politicians – those that bothered to read the book before becoming enraged – dealt with the politics and compromises the Prophet made to keep his new faith alive in a crowded marketplace.
When he was a small boy his father at bedtime told him the great wonder tales of the East, told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way – the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, stories told against death to prove the ability of stories to civilise and overcome even the most murderous of tyrants; and the animal fables of the Panchatantra; and the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsaga, the ‘Ocean of the Streams of Story,’ the immense story-lake created in Kashmir where his ancestors had been born… To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no ‘real’ genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him; and second, that they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father’s, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard and pick up again as and when he pleased, his to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in return. Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was.
The Satanic Verses is not necessarily an anti-Islam novel. But no wonder the fundamentalists went loco. For in that book Rushdie took Islam off the pedestal and threw it into the commons of stories. It was his achievement – and his curse.
To Rushdie’s critics in the foreign policy establishment, the elite litscene and settled Asian ghettoes it was simple: Rushdie had insulted One Of The World’s Great Religions, and dared to act surprised when the believers fought back. The protagonist of The Satanic Verses, a striving British Indian, undergoes a literal demonisation: a tail sprouts from the base of his spine, his groin inflates to Goat Boy proportions, his feet twist into cloven hooves. Protestors against that novel carried placards saying SATAN RUSHDY. And an alternate Rushdie was created in public discourse: a pouting, self-righteous pseud, cowering behind the skirts of the state.
To the right wing he was an ungrateful migrant provocateur. ‘How many societies,’ demanded Norman Tebbit, ‘having been so treated by a foreigner accepted in their midst, could go so far to protect him from the consequences of his egotistical and self-opinionated attack on the religion into which he was born?’ And much of the left couldn’t be bothered defending Rushdie because he wasn’t really an ‘authentic’ South Asian – ‘an atheistic, Cambridge-educated upper-class intellectual from Bombay’, as Pankaj Mishra put it in a dense and dull review. The Rushdie affair was and is about free expression. But it became very quickly about Rushdie the man.
He knew what he was doing. How could he not? But the argument that Rushdie ‘brought it on himself’ and ‘had it coming’ falls down because to the literal mind pretty much everyone has it coming and has brought it on themselves. Her admiration for Mohammed didn’t save Sherry Jones, the anti-Rushdie, from having her book pulped. Khomeinists have learned from the Rushdie case. The fatwa, the book burnings and organised demonstrations seemed impressive at the time, but the longer Rushdie remained alive, the more ridiculous the other side looked. (‘I don’t want to dispute with Ayatollah Khomeini,’ Rushdie quipped in 2008, ‘but I will point out that only one of us is dead.’) As Nick Cohen argued in his essential You Can’t Read This Book, the technique of modern censors is to ‘go postal’ – explode in a towering rage at innocuous targets picked seemingly at random.
‘The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate,’ Winston Smith reflects, ‘was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in.’ And yet the anger Winston feels when he takes part in Oceania’s compulsory screamfests is not targeted at a particular enemy, it’s random: ‘the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.’ It is the same with religious rage. On the week Nick had his book launch, the UCL humanist society was ordered to take down a poster advertising its social based on the Jesus and Mo series, a gentle philosophical comic strip featuring the two religious icons drinking in a bar. (One of the UCL students apparently had to go into hiding.) Around the same time, a Queen Mary discussion on sharia law had to be cancelled because a young man stormed up front, filmed the audience on his mobile and shouted ‘listen up all of you, I am recording this, I have your faces on film now, and I know where some of you live… and if I hear that anything is said against the holy Prophet Mohammed, I will hunt you down.’ A Reading humanist group were told to remove a pineapple, labelled ‘Mohammed’, from their fresher’s fair stall on similar grounds. They were told ‘either the pineapple goes, or you do.’ In the Age of Offence, pretty much anything can trigger this kind of reaction. We are all blasphemous pineapples now.
What gets me is that people never seem to see the very obvious political considerations behind these things. Khomeini used the fatwa to rally weary Iranians after his disastrous war with Saddam. The Tories didn’t want to annoy the regime because at that time we still sent trade delegations there. Religious leaders in the UK used the fatwa to gain influence in public discourse, and to control their own communities. On the first anniversary of a book burning demo in Bradford, its Council of Mosque spokesman said, ‘We cannot let go of this issue. It is crucial to our future.’ The Innocence of Muslims film was distributed by hard right Salafi activists. The furore it caused pushed Assad’s war against Syrians off the front pages – not by coincidence, some Syrian dissidents will tell you. The culture war has to continue. Today a YouTube clip, tomorrow a blasphemous pineapple: all that matters is that the rage keeps flowing, and creates a general climate of low-key terror, what Rushdie calls a ‘footstep-haunted silence’. And I think of another Orwell quote: ‘The party is not concerned with perpetuating itself. Who wields power is not important, providing that the hierarchical structure always remains the same.’
Rushdie is a brilliant anecdotalist, and the memoir is a fascinating portait of the high life. His editor, Liz Calder, was a beautiful woman who would use Rushdie to stave off various literary males that drove her home. Once back at Liz’s place after some book party, the man would hang around angling for sex and Rushdie would have to stay up and outdrink them. A New Statesman film critic was such a prolific drinker and so intent on Calder’s hospitality that even Rushdie flagged and went home. That night apparently ended with the critic hurling off his clothes in the front room and declaring, ‘Take me, Liz! I’m yours!’
There is a great deal of warmth and protection for Rushdie’s protection team, who he goes out of his way to thank. These are hard, silent men who almost never tell their stories in public, but Rushdie brings them all to life: he seems to have had a jovial and affectionate relationship with his bodyguards, marred only by an incident where a protection officer, cleaning his gun, accidentally discharged a bullet into the living room wall.
The book also gives you a new appreciation for professional publishers. So often derided as corporate gatekeepers, we forget that publishers, agents and booksellers are mostly people who get into the book world because they love books. When it comes to that, many will put their lives on the line for writers and readers. A US bookstore had a shelf taken out of it by some passing fanatic with a homemade bomb. When Rushdie visited the bookstore, he found that their staff had made the crater into a kind of visual tribute, displayed pride of place.
Some of the old resentment still remains. The Daily Mail ran a piece a few weeks back, headlined ‘Not an ounce of gratitude: Salman Rushdie is set to make millions from book on his life as a fugitive from the fatwa. Any chance he’ll repay £11m taxpayers spent protecting him?’ The piece was illustrated with photographs of Rushdie with his fourth wife, the American-Indian model Padma Lakshmi. In the same style, and ostensibly to the left, Pankaj Mishra complains that ‘A naive beguilement rather than sly irony frames Rushdie’s accounts of hanging out with such very famous people as Jerry Seinfeld and Calista Flockhart.’ He doesn’t explain why Calista Flockhart would be a less intelligent and interesting dinner companion than, say, Pankaj Mishra. Are writers now not allowed to go to parties and talk to beautiful women? And is this not just envy, come to the ball as something else?
In a way it’s a shame that free expression in this country has come to be defined by the struggle of one man. We don’t have martyrs, that’s what the other side do and – as the philosopher Mackie said – even martyrs would not want a world where there are martyrs. All autobiography is lies. We live our lives with a narrative that casts ourself as the hero, and memory falls into line. A few of Rushdie’s lines have the unfortunate echo of Alan Partridge’s ‘Needless to say, I had the last laugh.’ But after all he’s been through, Sir Salman surely deserves that last laugh, and in his exciting and important memoir he turns Rushdie the cause into Rushdie the man: a storytelling ape, like the rest of us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 15th, 2012.