So I have a confession to make: I have not been able to complete a single Rushdie novel, except for Haroun and the Sea of Stories and I am not ashamed of it, only because I have tried reading his works time and again. I haven’t been able to cross the hundredth page. That is the relationship I share with Salman Rushdie’s books.
I started reading, “Joseph Anton”, his memoir about a week ago and I have read it twice since then. Strange, I thought, to myself: I cannot read the man’s fictional works but can breeze through this memoir and that too twice. What was different about it? Why did I read it twice and enjoy it more so the second time?
“Joseph Anton” is not just about a man who was in hiding from another man’s followers who were determined to hunt him down (as though he was an animal) and kill him, because of what he had written in his book (which the perpetrators hadn’t even read and never would). The fatwa on Salman Rushdie was issued on the 14th of February 1989 – Valentine’s Day (irony much) and since then he was forced underground – moving from house to house, with the presence of armed forces – they were his shadow.
An author who always believed in free speech and grew up with that philosophy in Bombay, with liberal parents (who later for some reason did not share liberal views), saw the world differently when the fatwa was issued. Things began to change. So did people – either for better or for worse, but they did.
The book, “Joseph Anton” is the most human that I have read this year. Salman Rushdie is angry and is hurt and hides no emotions. He is honest to the core – about his marriages, his children and his writing. The incidents and events that took place sometimes and were related to the book were horrifying – for instance, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered. The Norwegian publisher was shot. He could not attend his mother’s funeral. He wasn’t there with her when she passed on and that for me hit the chord somewhere. That is probably the worst that could happen to a person and Rushdie isn’t shy from talking about his deepest emotions. What ran through my mind though while reading the book was just this: Is there really a true freedom of speech and writing?
“Joseph Anton” asks a lot of questions. It makes the readers think and the best part according to me about the book was the way it was written in third person. It is almost like Rushdie is taking count of his life (which it is in a way) and not being subjective in his style.
The book clearly depicts the powerlessness of the heads of states of various countries and how often politics was above the written word or the author. Amidst all this, Rushdie tried very hard to have a normal life – marry, raise children and write some more. He could never stop doing that after all. I remember at one point, he mentions that for once he thought he would have been someone else but a writer and then banished the thought as soon as it entered his head.
There is nothing which I did not like about the book. Everything worked for me. From the way he writes about every book he has written and its structure and story to the moments of glory and the moments of anguish – they are visible through his brilliant writing.
The title of the book is taken from his name that he used when he was in hiding, so one could recognize him – a combination of two of his favourite writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov – hence Joseph Anton.
For me, “Joseph Anton” is all about courage and resilience. It is about writing, the process, the wonder and the anguish it sometimes brings to the writer and his or her readers. It is clearly a fight – where more authors are being put to task for writing and viewing their feelings, their thoughts and emotions. The sad part being that no one can do anything about the consequences sometimes, though someone should. The writer’s voice is his only liberty – that is my sum of “Joseph Anton”. A riveting read for all. I cannot recommend it enough. All of its six hundred and thirty three pages.