Wednesday 13 November 2019

He's no longer in hiding . . . but the real Rushdie still can't be found

Given the nightmare Salman Rushdie went through, it should be difficult not to feel sympathy for him. The outrage now sweeping the Muslim world and seen on our TV screens every night is a glimpse into the kind of threat he faced for so long.

The terrifying, fanatical hatred is the same. In his case it was even worse because it was all directed personally at him, a high-profile, internationally known author, rather than at an anonymous group of people who had made a moronic movie no one has seen.

One should feel sympathy for Rushdie, and in the beginning one does. But somehow, reading this memoir of the 10-year ordeal he suffered, one's sympathy is slowly eroded by irritation at his self-importance, arrogance and distance.

This is not an engaging book. His brilliance as a novelist is not in question -- Midnight's Children, for example, not only won the Booker in 1981 but was chosen as the 'Booker of Bookers' in 2008, the best novel in the first 40 years of the Prize. But he's just not a good memoir writer.

Part of the problem is the structure he has chosen. Early on in his life in hiding, his police minders asked him to pick an alias. He thought of two writers he loved, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, and became Joseph Anton.

That's where the title of his book -- Joseph Anton: A Memoir -- comes from and may have been what prompted him to write it in the third person ("he" instead of "I") even though he is writing about himself.

He may have thought that writing in the third person would enable him to be more objective and analytical. But its main effect is to distance the reader from what is being described and from the visceral fear and despair that Rushdie must have felt at various times. There's a controlled, overly intellectual air about much of the story.

Rushdie's decade-long nightmare began in 1989 when a journalist told him he had been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini, then the effective leader of Iran. A fatwa had been issued, amounting to an instruction to Muslims everywhere and anywhere that Rushdie should be killed.

His crime was to have written a novel called The Satanic Verses, which was accused of insulting the Prophet.

Rushdie was forced underground, moving from house to house every few days, protected at all times by an armed police unit. It was a furtive, draining, limiting existence and it went on year after year, straining his sanity and wrecking his family life.

Flying became impossible because airlines deemed him too big a risk to carry. Even getting around London was a major problem. Simple things such as going to the shops or going to the park to kick around a ball with his young son became major operations or simply impossible.

The story is one of frustration and courage, of an iron determination not to give in, of comic moments and occasional scares.

It's also the story of the people who supported him and the people who didn't, such as Roald Dahl and John le Carré, who said he was the author of his own misfortune.

Among the many who helped -- and of particular interest here -- was Bono. It was reported at the time that Rushdie was staying in the singer's Killiney mansion for months on end.

What the book makes clear is that Rushdie spent only a couple of weekends at Bono's house; the U2 star could not resist bringing his secret guest to the pub.

"Bono smuggled him (Joseph Anton) out to a bar without telling the Gardaí and for half an hour he was giddy with the unprotected freedom of it and maybe thanks to the unprotected Guinness too," he writes.

Although Rushdie's visits were brief (he rarely stayed more than a few days in one place), the two were good friends.

It started in the early 1990s during U2's Achtung Baby tour, when Rushdie was invited backstage after a concert. Later, on the Zooropa part of the tour, Bono wanted to show solidarity with Rushdie and asked him to appear on stage at a Wembley concert.

The Special Branch minders did not object ("maybe they did not think there would be many Islamic assassins at a U2 gig").

He and his teenage son Zafar watched the first half of the show from seats in the stadium. When it was time for him to go backstage, Zaf said: "Dad . . . don't sing."

"I don't see why not . . . it's quite a good backing band . . . and there are 80,000 people here, so maybe I'll sing," Rushdie said. Zaf's response was: "You don't understand, Dad, if you sing, I'll have to kill myself."

One senses more than just the usual teenage embarrassment at a parent in this exchange.

In the first half of the book one gets some feeling for the claustrophobic and humiliating way Rushdie had to live, rarely out of sight of his minders, wearing disguises, limited to carefully choreographed dinner parties. And we get an idea of the effect on his family (although his relationship with his first wife was already in trouble when the fatwa began).

But there is too much high-minded stuff about freedom of speech and not enough about the cost borne by those around him.

Throughout the book, his interest in himself and his status overrides everyone else, so we never really learn enough about his wives (four to date) or his children or his parents in India or his friends in England. A lot of people are mentioned, but for a novelist his description of these relationships is oddly superficial.

There are also interminable accounts of meetings with publishers and agents and people in the media and security that are not particularly illuminating or even interesting and are partly why the book ends up being more than 600 pages long.

Throughout the book -- especially in the second half -- there is a jaw-dropping amount of name-dropping.

Writers, politicians, musicians, movie stars -- all the biggest names are there. To be fair to him, by then his predicament had turned him into a celebrity even among those who had never read his novels. Everyone wanted a whiff of the danger that accompanied him.

But he appears to have revelled in the attention. Or at least Joseph Anton did. Maybe the whole ghastly experience did turn him into someone else for a while and he was right to write about it in the third person after all.

But a book about Salman Rushdie would have been far more interesting.

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