So Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, is out. It’s about his fatwa years and it’s 630-ish pages. I think it’s priced at Rs. 636, which means a rupee a page. Not a bad deal, I’d say. But that’s not the point of this post. I’m a little perplexed by the observation of a few reviewers that Rushdie seems to make himself look grand in Joseph Anton. He also takes potshots at a whole bunch of people. For some reason, this has some reviewers tut-tutting.
I don’t get it.
This is Rushdie’s memoir. Of course he’s going to depict himself as the centre of the universe. Who the hell writes a memoir with the intention of saying, “I’m very, very insignificant and completely irrelevant. So can I please present myself, Mister Loser?”
And really, why is anyone surprised that he’s bashing people who he feels bashed him about? They had their fifteen minutes of fame when they gave interviews and lodged protests saying he was all sorts of bad/crazy. Now it’s his turn. I repeat, it is his memoir. It’s not a biography. It’s not a profile. It’s an autobiographical memoir. Why would you even want it to be objective and clinical? And as Rushdie writes quite bluntly, he wants to be the protagonist of this story. Obviously.
I think it’s Pankaj Mishra who came to the conclusion in his review of Joseph Anton for the Guardian that Rushdie cannot be the voice of subaltern migrants because he belongs to an über-privileged, Anglicised set and The Satanic Verses is basically him trying to deal with being treated like a “wog”. Good going on figuring out that Rushdie is privileged. I mean, the man was sent to Britain for his schooling (to Rugby, no less), studied in Cambridge and includes Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Susan Sontag among his pals. You needed Joseph Anton to figure out he’s privileged? And as far as I know, he’s never crowned himself the voice of the humble South Asian migrant. Those who read and reviewed his works did that. Yes, he likes to present himself as a Bombay boy and probably won’t let anyone forget how India banned The Satanic Verses and didn’t give him a visa, but for all his ego, Rushdie doesn’t assume he “gets” the reality and struggle of a migrant’s life in Joseph Anton. It’s something that he works very hard to construct. So why dub him the HMV of migrants? Weird.
For most part, Joseph Anton is a fantastic read. In the 500s, it may try the patience of those who aren’t Rushdie fans though I suspect everyone will keep reading just to see what he says about Padma Lakshmi. But more on that in a bit. Joseph Anton is, by and large, beautifully-written. It’s funny, seemingly candid and wonderfully engaging. His voice… I’ve missed his voice. All those fragments being strung together to create these crazy sentences. In the best of Rushdie’s fiction, wit and poetry work like particularly manic auto rickshaws navigating the worst of Mumbai traffic. They weave in and out, hurtle, stop, speed up, careen on one side, vroom, belch clouds, sputter and somehow, miraculously, reach their destination. That’s how much of Joseph Anton is too. Every now and then, I’d burst into audible giggles while reading the book. Some of this giggling happened in Kolkata airport, where I earned some disapproving glances. On the plus side, one person who had been sitting next to me decided to change their seat when I spluttered with glee at one point.
It would take forever to mention all the bits I loved, but here are a few.
Rushdie’s grandfather’s name was Khwaja Muhammad Din Khaliqi Dehlavi. It was Rushdie’s father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie (BA Cantab., Bar-at-Law) who invented the surname because of his admiration for Ibn Rushd.
“…and this was it, this untitled novel, Sinai, no, terrible title, would make people think it was about the Middle East conflict or the Ten Commandments, Child of Midnight, but there would have to be more than one, wouldn’t there … so Children of Midnight? No, boring title, sounded like paedophiles gathering at a Black Sabbath, but … Midnight’s Children? Yes!”
“In order to attack him and his work it was necessary to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist whose work was without merit, who ‘attacked’ Islam for his own personal gain. This was what was meant by the much repeated phrase he did it on purpose.
Well, of course he had done it on purpose. How would one write a quarter of a million words by accident?”
[Penguin's head, Peter Mayer, commissioned a report to evaluate the risk that The Satanic Verses posed.] “In this report the major players in the story were, presumably for security reasons, not referred to by name. Instead they were given the names of birds. The document was magnificently titled ‘Assessment of Strength and Potential of Dotterel Protest Against Godwit of Arctic Tern’s Pigeon and Implications for Golden Plover‘. It was perhaps not too difficult to work out that ‘Dotterel’ meant Muslims, ‘Godwit’ meant the publisher or Viking, ‘Pigeon’ was The Satanic Verses and ‘Golden Plover’ was Penguin’s parent company, the Pearson Group. The author of ‘Pigeon’ was ‘Arctic Tern’.”
[After Rushdie gave Zafar the first draft of chapter one of Haroun And the Sea of Stories to read.]“He detected something a little less than wild enthusiasm in his son’s voice. … ‘Some people might be bored.’ [Zafar] ‘Bored?‘ [Rushdie] This was a cry of anguish and Zafar tried to mollify him. ‘No, I’d read it, of course, Dad. I’m just saying that some people might…’ ‘Why bored?’ he demanded. … ‘It’s just,’ Zafar said, ‘that it doesn’t have enough jump in it.’ This was an astonishingly precise critique. He understood it immediately. ‘Jump?’ he said. ‘I can do jump. Give me that back.’ And he almost snatched the typescript out of his worried son’s hands…”
“The only language the two of them [Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Rushdie] had in common was French, so they tried using that, except that Garcia Marquez… kept sliding back into Spanish; and he heard more English than he intended coming out of his own mouth. But strangely, in the snapshot his memory took of their extended conversation, there was no language problem.”
“Zafar woke up. ‘Did something happen?’ he asked sleepily. ‘What’s going on?’ Well, yes, Zafar, you see that tree that’s now in the middle of the car, that’s what would appear to be going on.”
“Dear Self, aged 52,
Really? Your older son is in pieces… your younger son is just two years old, and there you are in New York, apartment hunting, and then in Los Angeles chasing your pipe-dream who always dressed as Pocahontas on Halloween…? That’s who you are? Boy, I’m glad you grew up into me.
Self, aged 65.
You grew up?
“This is what I’m doing now, he thought, bewildered. My girlfriend is on the cover of Playboy in the nude and I’m negotiating the fee.“
I actually whimpered with a mix of longing and heartbreak and wonderment and delight when I read the bit about Rushdie and Marquez talking on the phone.
In case any one of you was wondering about Padma Lakshmi possessing brains and beauty, Rushdie makes it quite clear that he was in thrall of the latter. One of his complaints against her is that she didn’t have much to say about Fury other than comment on the character she’d inspired. Considering Fury objectively, I will say that one could call that diplomacy, rather than an indication of narcissism. However, I’m so glad Rushdie didn’t write this memoir during the ye olde years when I harboured illusions that one day I will meet him and impress him with my scintillating wit and personality. I’d have been heartbroken to be faced with the eternal truth that no matter how smart a man may be, beauty is what gets his attention. How’s that for a revelation? Cue in the last few lines of verse 2 of “Chelsea Hotel.”
But here’s the … amusing thing about Joseph Anton. You read 633 pages and finish the book and realise you’ve had a great ride and been shown delightful little sparkly bits about the fiction Rushdie writes. But you know so very little about the man beyond his public actions. 633 pages and all you get is his persona, which is charming and eloquent and altogether lovesome. However, it may or may not be him. He set up that gap between himself and the reader the moment he presented his protagonist using the third person. In Joseph Anton, you see the Rushdie that his friends saw, the one that his protection team knew, the personality that some people in the public sphere delighted in misunderstanding. Whether or not that’s really Rushdie is anyone’s guess.
Maybe if Marianne Wiggins or Padma Lakshmi (the first and last wife, respectively) decide to write their memoirs, we’ll know.