A Letter to Wes about Joseph Anton
When did you feel like you finally understood the Rushdie-Satanic Verses controversy? In some ways, I feel like I still don’t understand it completely. Hell, I was a teenager before I learned that The Satanic Verses did not discuss the practical details of devil worship, even if the title was in a creepy blood-red font. In the author photo, Rushdie even looked a little nefarious – the goatee, the smirk, the pointed eyebrows, and the hooded eyes; the last a symptom of a medical condition, but something that wasn’t widely known at the time. In the right light, the shadowy crown of hair around Rushdie’s bald spot might be mistaken for two vestigial protrusions. The man in that photo could have easily passed as charismatic cult leader or the villain in a supernatural thriller – the character who appears benevolent for the first two-thirds of the movie before revealing himself to be the mastermind behind the whole conspiracy. He could have convinced eight-year-old me that he was the devil himself, just like Mick Jagger at the time. When I finally understood that this book’s presence in my parents’ bedroom did not mean that they were secret Satanists, but just culturally literate American liberals instead, I was embarrassed, relieved and to be completely honest, a little disappointed.
As you know, Rushdie is one of my favorite authors. His books are mythic, dense, grand in scale and ambition, and written to match their content. And consequently, sometimes his works were controversial. But reading The Satanic Verses, I still cannot understand why this particular book got so much attention from Ayatollah Khomeini and the rest of the world. I’ve heard all the arguments of how the book was blasphemous and disrespectful, or how cultural differences explain the book’s polarizing effect. As far as I can tell, there’s no consensus on what this novel did to deserve a global death sentence. There are, however, passages that are thought to mock the Ayatollah Khomeini during his Parisian exile – they involve an old imam with wicked and supernatural powers sitting in a shuttered apartment all day – but this is nothing out of character from a guy who stoked controversy years earlier when passages from Midnight’s Children did the same to Indira Gandhi. And that would suggest that the fatwa was more personal and political than religious in nature. So when Rushdie announced that he was writing a memoir about his years in hiding, I was intrigued.
In the first half of Joseph Anton, Rushdie is a man completely in over his head. He skims over his childhood, his parents, his early struggles as a writer, and surprisingly – the writing of Midnight’s Children, maybe his best book and a hugely important and influential work of world literature.The fatwa takes center stage. In the immediate aftermath, Rushdie is clearly in over his head. He’s moving around the country in protective custody; in the process of splitting up with his second wife and worried about the safety of his family. He writes a children’s book to keep in touch with his son. You remember that Rushdie was never a dissident or a soldier or a spy, but a professional storyteller.
In the second half, the tone changes somewhat. Rushdie doesn’t see himself as a victim of two colliding cultures; he’s the living personification of free speech. He’s convinced that The Satanic Verses is the best book he’s ever written and that it was denied the Booker Prize for political considerations. Anyone who spoke publicly against him during the fatwa years gets a well-deserved trip to the grinder. Then anyone who suggests that he might bear some of the responsibility joins them. And then he starts in on anyone who’s criticized his any of books at all. Rushdie has always written in a dense and mythic manner; this is not a style amenable to insulting one’s enemies without seeming petty in the process. And at the same time, he’s meeting Bill Clinton, going on stage with U2, and marrying Padma Lakshmi. It’s not hard to picture the same guy provoking outrage earlier in his life.
Does Rushdie bear some of the responsibility for The Satanic Verses controversy? He was certainly shrewd enough to understand that his book would be controversial, and at the very least, he should have been mature enough to know that few people appreciate an in-depth examination of their religious beliefs, even in the modern era. But he certainly didn’t deserve a death sentence or global persecution and he couldn’t have predicted either one. That’s not a productive outline for a free society. (And in most conflicts involving Rushdie and Ayatollah Khomeini, well, I’m with Rushdie.) Rushdie is most convincing when he argues that he was the first target in a culturally fueled political conflict that would reach fever pitch a little over a decade later.
Twenty years later, Rushdie is less apologetic than he was at the time, and for the most part, rightfully so. When the time comes to discuss the fatwa directly, he goes right back to the scene of the crime. Imagining the moment the fatwa was delivered, he brings back the old imam from The Satanic Verses, alone in a shuttered room. Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.