Salman Rushdie on his memoir 'Joseph Anton'
It's 10.59am on Friday September 14. At the Mail & Guardian offices in Johannesburg, I’m in the editor's commandeered office, waiting for the phone to ring. It does.
"Hi, it’s Salman Rushdie," says the voice on the other end at exactly 11am.
Rushdie is in his London home at the start of two months of promoting his new book, Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape), a memoir of his life and times. It will be published globally on Tuesday September 18, in what is certainly among the most eagerly anticipated publishing events of the new millennium.
Listen to the interview here
Indeed, not since the last two or three volumes of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series has quite so much confidentiality and careful planning surrounded the publication of a major work. Now, though, the non-disclosure agreement and the memory of reading the 636-page memoir in clunky, ring-bound, print-out form, recede.
And what a time to be having this 45-minute conversation with the winner of the Booker prize and the Booker of Bookers for Midnight’s Children, the once-fugitive and much-reviled author of The Satanic Verses and the much-loved writer of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It is the week of protests across the Islamic world against the colossally bad but gravely offensive film Innocence of Muslims demeaning the prophet Muhammad.
I ask Rushdie if the reaction to the film is in some ways an unpleasant reminder of the way that The Satanic Verses came to be opposed.
"Yes and no," he says. "On the one hand, if I can say this, I think that my work comes out of a different place from this ridiculous YouTube video…
"I haven’t actually seen the video, I’ve seen this 14-second clip from it that appears to have started all the trouble and apart from anything else it’s one of the most pathetic and incompetent pieces of video that I've ever seen. And also what’s been happening on the one hand certainly is the US administration has been saying that the thing that happened in Benghazi and the killing of the ambassador may well have been not directly related to this film but may have been a planned attack by jihadists because of the September 11 anniversary, so I think there’s more than one thing going on.
"But it’s quite clear that some of it is the same thin-skinned paranoid violent reaction that happened in the case of The Satanic Verses. It’s one of the reasons that in the book [Joseph Anton] I use this metaphor from the Hitchcock movie, The Birds, because I thought even at the time – and I thought very much that what happened to me was a sort of prologue, that it was one of the early indications of the development inside the Islamic world of this strain of violent radicalism – that there is a direct line from that, if you like, through the 9/11 attacks to these events.
"And one of the things I think is true is that when it happened to me – when the attack on The Satanic Verses happened – people really didn’t know what was happening, people in the West had very little context for what happened. They had no frame in which to understand it and some of the confused response to what happened had to do with that lack of context, but I think now of course all these years later we know what the context is and we see the same malevolent spirit bubble up in all kinds of cases."
Giving up a name
A little later, I suggest that very few people have examined The Satanic Verses in the terms that Rushdie really wanted them to: looking at it as an extremely profound, thoughtful work of art. "That must still really gall you," I say.
"Well it used to," he says. "I’m happy to say that now I do feel the book is being read, you know the book has emerged from the scandal if you like. One of the things that I used to not like was that when it was being studied at universities it was always studied in the wrong courses. It was studied in religion courses or in politics courses, and now it seems to have found its way back into the book world and now it’s getting studied quite a lot in straightforward literature courses and people seem to really like it. So I think it’s having, finally after all these years, more than 20-years, it’s beginning to finally be allowed to have the ordinary life of a book. And I think that’s a happy outcome you know, and now it must make its own way and see if it survives."
Had it not been for the reaction to The Satanic Verses, we would have a very different kind of memoir, and certainly not one named Joseph Anton. Nor would Rushdie have been forced to come up with the pseudonym that gives the book its title. It would be a spoiler to reveal from where the name Joseph Anton derives, and in any case readers of the memoir will find the explanation about a quarter of the way through the book.
"Probably better not to make it an Asian name," Rushdie was advised by Stan, one of his "prot" (protection) officers. This meant that he was to be deprived not only of his name but also of his race.
"Yes, I always hated it, this pseudonym, and I made it the title of the book exactly to show how weird it is to be asked to give up your name and I thought it would be a way of dramatising for the reader just the deep strangeness of those times. Of course I didn’t give it up in any kind of other sense, I mean my friends and everybody who knew about me didn’t change what they called me, and I was still publishing books under my name.
"It was a name invented really for the police to use so that they didn't accidentally blurt out my name when they were having a walk around the block and thus reveal that I was living nearby."
But the prot team could not resist shortening Joseph to Joe. Rushdie and I chuckle at this further, inexplicable, irritant.
Chortling, Rushdie suggests that if anyone had tried to call the real-life Joseph Joe, "they would have found out what he thought about it".
I add that "the Polish sailor in Joseph would have risen very quickly", a clue to the assumed name that reveals something of Rushdie’s literary loves.
A straightforwad desire
What is his deepest hope for Joseph Anton and its reception?
"Well I think, you know, if you write a book like this, to put it at its simplest, I think it’s a good story and I hope people enjoy it. You know there’s just that and I wouldn’t write the book if it hadn’t been for the fact that I felt my life had acquired a good story inside it that I could at some point tell it. So there is just that sort of straightforward desire.
"But there is also just the question about The Satanic Verses. I hope that people who read the book [Joseph Anton] will understand a number of things better, will understand what happened to the book [The Satanic Verses] and will have that larger context for it. And maybe understand me a little better because one of the things that happened in those years was that my identity, my true character, became very difficult to assert because there were so many people inventing so many versions of me for their own agendas and putting them out there.
"There were all these variations of me with my name on them walking around and being discussed as if they were real people or attacked as if they were real people and it was very hard for me for a long time to assert my true self and say: 'I'm not like that, I'm like this'. It was one of the most upsetting things that happened in those years, which I think more or less only happened in certain sections of British society, both British media and political opinion and so on. There was a desire to paint me as a very unpleasant person.
"I invent in the book this imaginary newspaper called the Daily Insult... For me that was a really difficult aspect of this because if enough mud is thrown with sufficient force it sticks, and I think that for a long time a lot of people, in England anyway and beyond England, because these stories got repeated, began to think of me as this very ungrateful, egomaniacal, greedy, profane with money, opportunistic kind of immoral person who didn’t, who wasn’t worthy of public sympathy. And you know that was so strange. I truly never understood why that assault on my character took place from, if you like, non-Islamic sources. There is still some residue of that I think.
"Well, I think I’ve tried to be as honest about myself in this book as I can and I’ve certainly tried not to glorify myself, but I hope that at least the portrait that comes out is of an honest person who knows what he’s like."
Avoiding his father's mistakes
Among the many things that Joseph Anton makes clear is that Rushdie's two sons, Zafar and Milan, are central to his life. Zafar was born on June 17 1979 to the late Clarissa Mary Luard, Rushdie’s first wife; Milan on May 27 1999 to Elizabeth West, Rushdie’s third wife. (His fourth marriage, to Padma Lakshmi, ended in divorce in 2007.)
I ask if there is anything specific he would want them to take from the father-son relationship they have shared.
"Well, first of all I think these are the most important relationships of my life and these are things that I’ve poured an enormous amount of my self and my effort into and I think that they both know that. I had a very difficult relationship with my father which ended up okay but there were many difficult years. However, one of the things that I found most pleasurable about this book was being able to write about in a way how alike we were and how much his way of seeing became my way of seeing and many of his areas of interest became my areas of interest. How much in fact I am his son. I’ve written before about the difficulties we had but it was nice to write about the other side of the coin, about how much he gave to me.
"What my sons take away: They are both more, even more vehemently, atheistic than me. Mr Christopher Hitchens would be proud of them."
I say that I imagine Hitchens as the ungodfather-type figure in the Rushdie family circle.
"Yes, yes! They were both very, very fond of him. I mean they were both really. Of all my friends he was the one, one of the ones that they deeply loved and admired. So, yeah, Hitch has a lot to be blamed for as well!
"Perhaps because my relationship with my father went through such a long, bumpy time it’s been very important for me to work to try to keep lines of communication open between my sons and myself to try to avoid my father’s mistakes. At least if you’re making mistakes, make different mistakes.
"I'm proud of the fact that both of them, I think I have close relationships with both of them, and they have a close relationship with each other so we are a very close-knit little group."
Another very tightly bound group, which helped Rushdie get through the years of secrecy, claustrophobic refuge, constantly changing residences and, yes, even a once-off disguise wearing a wig, was made up of his closest friends and his allies in the book world.
Recalling them, he notes with satisfaction, "Well, one of the things that’s most pleasurable to me about writing the book is that after all these years when we’ve all kept our mouths shut, it’s very nice to be able to say how much was done for me by friends and how extraordinary the demands of loyalty and principle and determination they had on them to fight this fight.
"Quite simply, I couldn’t have done it without them. It’s great to be able finally to tell that story."
Told as a non-fiction novel, that story is a page-turner. It is also one of Salman Rushdie’s finest.
Darryl Accone writes more about his interview with Salman Rushdie and assesses Joseph Anton in the Friday section of the Mail & Guardian on September 21.