[Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton (2012)]
Last Tuesday Bronwyn and I skived off work in the afternoon to go to the pictures. We hadn't been for weeks, and that's always the best time to go: it's cheaper, and the cinemas are mostly empty.
Afterwards she had some stuff she wanted to buy in Whitcoulls, so we popped in there for a bit. Into a bookshop. Always dangerous.
Up on the shelves, at a special "school holidays price" of five dollars off, was Salman Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton. I looked at it, sniffed it (terribly ugly cover: waxy, showing every fingerprint and dint), walked away, came back, looked at it again, succumbed, bought it.
Since then it's occupied virtually every waking hour. I've been gulping it down like crack cocaine. Is it a good book? Who can say? It's certainly very readable ...
It put me in mind of another bookshop visit, in early 1989. I was living in Edinburgh at the time, and I went all the way into Princes St, to the biggest Waterstones in town, walked up to the counter, and asked for a book.
"Sorry, Sir, we don't stock that."
Then, as I turned to leave, in a conspiratorial whisper. "Do you really want to buy it?"
"In that case, that will be ..." [however many pounds it was - more than I could comfortably afford at the time, at any rate]
They took my money at the till, then, as I walked out the front door, another member of staff sidled up to me and passed me a plain, brown-paper-wrapped package. ("Like a copy of the Sheep-shagger's weekly," as a friend of mine remarked a few days later).
And that was that. I'd bought my copy of The Satanic Verses.
Unlike most of the other pundits who were waxing eloquent on the subject at the time (including various cabinet ministers and senior diplomats), I took the book home, sat down, and read it. From cover to cover. No "curse of page 15" - no "I've read in it" or "I've read parts of it, enough to know ..." I guess that's the trouble with studying literature, it does leave you with that settled predisposition to read a book before you start to spout on about it.
And I really liked it. I mean - don't get me wrong. I could see their point of view. A number of bookshops had already been bombed for having it on display in their windows. Now, increasingly, the mere fact of being known to stock it was regarded as an incitement to violence. In Britain, at any rate.
The best way of getting me to read a book, though, is to tell me it's forbidden. Sorry. I side with William S. Burroughs on that one: "Everything is permitted." It may not always turn out to be good for me, but I'm going to decide that one for myself, I'm afraid. What's the point of living in a (so-called) "free" society if you don't take advantage of it? It wasn't by chance that I compiled an entire website devoted to Banned Books. Check it out sometime.
No school committee, board of censors, council of churches, or other clutch of ignoramuses is going to tell me what I can and can't read.
Cops and Customs Officials, yes. They have the guns and the numbers. They can physically confiscate stuff. But until they actually do, there I'll be, happily reading away, ruining my eyes and my mind, and basically just checking it out for myself. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse!
Here's my own collection of Rushdie-ana:
Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie (1947- )
- Rushdie, Salman. Grimus. 1975. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans: Granada Publishing Limited, 1977.
- Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. 1981. London: Picador, 1982.
- Rushdie, Salman. Shame. 1983. A Picador Original. London: Pan Books / Jonathan Cape, 1983.
- Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. London: Viking, 1988.
- Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. 1990. London: Granta Books, 1991.
- Rushdie, Salman. East, West. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.
- Rushdie, Salman. The Moor's Last Sigh. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
- Rushdie, Salman. The Ground Beneath Her Feet: A Novel. London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.
- Rushdie, Salman. Fury: A Novel. 2001. London: Vintage Books, 2002.
- Rushdie, Salman. Shalimar the Clown: A Novel. 2005. London: Vintage Books, 2006.
- Rushdie, Salman. The Enchantress of Florence: A Novel. Jonathan Cape. London: Random House, 2008.
- Rushdie, Salman. Luka and the Fire of Life. Jonathan Cape. London: Random House, 2010.
- Rushdie, Salman. The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey. 1987. London: Picador, 1999.
- Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. 1991. London: Granta Books, 1992.
- Rushdie, Salman. Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002. 2002. London: Vintage, 2003.
- Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. London: Vintage, 2012.
- Rushdie, Salman, & Elizabeth West, ed. The Vintage Book of Indian Writing. London: Vintage Books, 1997.
Coming back to Joseph Anton, though, I guess the important thing about it, from my point of view, is that it fills in all the gaps of the story that we were unable to find out about at the time.
I must confess to having felt some curiosity as to how the famously "ugly" Satan-Rushdie (that hooded look was apparently the result of a medical condition, he tells us: once his eyelids were surgically corrected, he suddenly looked a whole lot less surly and "ungrateful") managed to get together with Padma Lakshmi, the stunningly gorgeous host of TV's Top Chef ... It's all here, along with brickbats (and occasional bouquets) for virtually everyone in English-language literary life over the last few decades:
And, yes, this is definitely a tell-all memoir. He softens nothing, pulls no punches - above all, won't apologise for anything. There are no attempts here to imply that all those ignorant chanting fanatics "might have had a point," or that he could have just cut a few pages out of his book and thus removed the "cause of offence," or that Thatcher and her minions really had his best interests at heart in trying so successfully to fudge the issue for years at a time ...
I do think that this is a must-read for other writers, in particular. It's downright inspiring to watch Rushdie in action. He's so convinced of his own importance, of the importance of liberty of thought and freedom of speech (and of the necessity of keeping on earning royalties in order to keep all those wives and kids in alimony and childcare payments ...) Anytime one's tempted to falter or temporise on anything, Salman Rushdie provides a useful wake-up call. The one thing he's genuinely apologetic for is for trying to reach a rapprochement with various Muslim clerics in the UK. The "apology" he then wrote sticks in his craw like nothing else in the whole saga.
Predictably (in retrospect), this text, dictated by people who had no real influence over the course of events, accomplished nothing. Nothing except alienating his real friends and supporters. It was human to try, though, and it's this humanity that is, finally, the most valuable thing in Rushdie's book. He's not in any way a humble man, but it's nice to know that even he can get scared and make stupid mistakes - just like anyone else in such an impossible position ...
Go on, give it a read - you know you want to ...