Why Salman Rushdie Became Joseph Anton


Friday, September 21, 2012

The novelist Salman Rushdie has always dreamed large. He’s written stories about how nations come into being; how new ideas come into the world and how the modern world connects to the ancient. Midnight’s Children, his second novel, won the Booker Prize in 1981, when Rushdie was in his early 30s.

But not many Americans had heard of Rushdie until Valentines Day, 1989, when the dying Ayatollah Khomeni of Iran issued the infamous fatwa calling for Rushdie’s head, for the supposedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie spent most of the next decade in hiding, accompanied by armed British agents. He’s now published his account of that stranger-than-fiction time: Joseph Anton: A Memoir.

Rushdie rejected the idea of fictionalizing his life, sticking to factual memoir, but using novelistic devices; he refers to himself in the third person. “What’s interesting to me, not just as a person but as a writer, is the way in which this small group of people — a writer, his friends, his family, his publishers … how they faced up to this extraordinary international attack,” he tells Kurt Andersen. “What would this be like if it happened to your family?” (Listen to the uncut conversation below.)

Salman Rushdie (Beowulf Sheehan)Salman Rushdie (Beowulf Sheehan)

When pressed by his security detail to come up with an alias, Rushdie chose the name Joseph Anton (from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov). Giving up his name and its ethnicity, he felt himself becoming something of a fictional character in an international drama. “I wanted to show in that novelistic way that this isn’t about somebody who’s either demonic or ideal,” Rushdie says. “He’s just a human being with all the faults and qualities of human beings trying to struggle through this thing.” That struggle included a life under surveillance, the isolation of riding in bulletproof vehicles, and watching helplessly as his publishers and translators were attacked.

He also endured the backlash from the British press and politicians. The publisher and New Yorker editor Bob Gottlieb told Rushdie, “If you’d known your book was going to kill people, of course you wouldn’t have written it.” Although the remark was probably meant to be supportive, it infuriated Rushdie. “I felt almost like someone from the NRA saying, ‘books don’t kill people; people kill people.’”

Joseph Anton comes out in the thick of worldwide protests against the YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims.” Rushdie rejects any comparison with the deliberately provocative video (“I have nothing but contempt for [the filmmaker].”) and The Satanic Verses. And he remains adamant that he would not change a word of his novel. “In this age we live in, when violence can be whipped up almost overnight,” Rushdie says, "I can’t help but think that the people who whipped up the violence are the ones responsible for it." He calls that violence part of “the outrage industry, where people like religious leaders try to find things that they can use to arouse the anger of the faithful. I think that it’s now actually something that is very, very consciously being done.”  

Midnight’s Children has just been adapted into a feature film by Deepa Mehta — Rushdie wrote the screenplay and voiced the narration. In the process of revisiting the 1980 novel, Rushdie found strange parallels to the ordeals he would face later in life. In one scene, a young writer becomes a wanted man when he runs afoul of religious politics, and ends up taking refuge in his beloved’s basement. “Hide on,” sneers one scornful relative, “like a fat worm under the ground!”

“I do think there’s something very strange about the journey from Midnight’s Children to Joseph Anton,” Rushdie tells Kurt. “[Midnight’s Children] was a book that took aspects of my own life and my family’s life and fictionalized them. And then here’s this book that also takes my life but doesn’t fictionalize it. They feel a little bit like bookends, these two books which stand at opposite ends of my writing life.”

Bonus Track: Kurt’s uncut conversation with Salman Rushdie

Highlights from the interview:

  • 2:30 – The Outrage Industry: Rushdie calls the fury raised by The Satanic Verses “one of the early instances of the outrage industry, where people like religious leaders try to find things that they can use to arouse the anger of the faithful … I’ve always thought that you can draw a straight line from the attack on The Satanic Verses to the September 11th attacks. One is the prologue, the other is the main event.”
  • 10:25 – Becoming Joseph Anton: When his British security detail asked him to come up with an alias — specifically a non-Indian one — Rushdie struggled: “It’s a complicated and worrying thing to be asked to give up not only your name but the ethnicity of your name. So I thought, well, if I can’t have the ethnicity of my name, I can have the ethnicity of literature, which is like my other country. So I thought I’d make up the name from writers’ names.” Rushdie reads a passage from the book that explains how he chose his alias.
  • 14:22 – The Politics of Publishing: At the height of the fatwa, Rupert Murdoch publicly rejected Rushdie’s work, saying, “You shouldn’t give offense to religious beliefs. I hope our people would have never published the Salman Rushdie book.” Yet when The Satanic Verses was first offered for publication, the highest bid had in fact come from the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins. (Rushdie ended up going with a lower bid from Viking Penguin because his agents believed they were “more appropriate publishers, and that turned out to be extraordinarily good advice.”) Later, the CEO of HarperCollins secretly conspired to create a separate enterprise to publish the paperback version of The Satanic Verses. “I think he felt a kind of principled desire to help which perhaps didn’t represent the corporate view of his paymasters,” Rushdie suggests.
  • 29:05 – Complicated Love Life: In the memoir, Rushdie is candid about his tumultuous love life (he’s been married four times), and he’s particularly critical of his own actions. When Kurt asks Rushdie if the fatwa caused the volatility in his romances, the author laughs sheepishly. “Unfortunately, I don’t think so,” he says. “For that, I can’t blame the Ayatollah, I’m afraid.”
Salman Rushdie in Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen (Josh Rogosin) Salman Rushdie in Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen (Josh Rogosin)
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Salman Rushdie

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Julia Barton

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