Rusdie’s Memoir

Joseph Anton, a First Take
Sudeshna Chakraborti

1989 is a year Salman Rushdie will not forget ever because of the stand he took over his most controversial novel. ‘The Satanic Verses'saw the light of day ushering in a decade and more of darkness in his life. Had he consulted an astrologer of Indian origin he would have advised him against the association of certain words in the title. Had Rushdie called his book something else half the world would not have cared to know what lay between the covers. Many people cannot understand Rushdie and their lack of comprehension have not affected the writer. Writers are supremely self-centred in certain ways. While they crave for recognition they hate meddling in their written word. Rushdie did not apologize for what he had written and the world erupted against him.

Rushdie’s Memoir Joseph Anton describes these tumultuous years evocatively bringing out the horrors of exile from one's familiar world when even the extraction of his wisdom teeth is a covert operation (pun intended) and the dentist Essawyis to play a very controversial role later on when he manages to wring out an apology of sorts from Salman at a gathering of six men at Paddington Green during the early years of the 'fatwa'. They had been baying for his blood for over a year. It is a mistake for which the writer never forgave himself. He later writes an essay (included in Imaginary Homelands) entitled 'Why I am a Muslim' trying to explain his stand at Paddington Green but he cringed whenever he thought about it.

Salman Rushdie during this period of incarceration felt like a little boy who has been given a treat when he is let out to be with friends or even detractors for a few hours. It makes him realize how important normal social interaction can be. There are some hilarious descriptions of his meeting with Lady Margaret Thatcher and the redoubtable Enoch Powell at the Secret Policeman's Ball of all places. There is this wonderful moment when the Iron Lady caresses his forearm and asks him to take care of himself while her fellow Tories in the John Major government are openly critical of him. There are graphic details of his flights to the US and later Canada and France as well Dublin to address gatherings of intellectuals and detractors. On the one hand is the fear about how seriously the world is taking the threat to his life, on the other is the little boy's awe that the stretch limo he is riding in through the streets of Washington making him feel as if he were the President himself. In Dublin Bono smuggles him out to a pub without the knowledge of the Garda giving him the feeling of breathing freely after a long time. Equally saddening is the moment when he finds how the Place de la Concorde in Paris is closed to traffic in order to rush him across to the airport unimpeded. Or the British ambassador in Paris making it clear that by allowing Salman to spend a night at the embassy he is doing him a great favour and the invitation is a strictly one-time affair.

Salman very frankly admits how bouts of severe depression drives him to drinking heavily affecting his relationship with Elizabeth (who is to become his third wife and mother to his younger son Milan) till he realizes that he is proving Marianne (his former second wife) right when she had said he is turning alcoholic like his father. He has been very honest about his relationships including the times when he has broken faith and if he sounds a tad bitter about Padma Lakshmi it is because he had huge expectations of forming lasting ties with her. This is where Salman's description of Padma as the Illusion is spot on. This siren led him into a maze where he so lost himself that he broke a stable relationship with Elizabeth, to follow her. He has been very fair to Zafar's mother, his first wife Clarissa who remained his friend during the toughest times of his life.

Salman's friends include the brightest names of the time, a veritable Who's Who in the world of letters. Most of them emerge as shining examples by being at his side through all his tribulations. The names of Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Andrew Wylie, Susan Sontag, Gillon Aiken stand out in the galaxy. Sonny Mehta almost let him down only to redeem himself in the end. Penguin's track record cannot withstand the pressures of the times and he parts company with them.

Salman is grouchy, whining and immersed in self pity but the prose he uses to describe these phases of his is so beautiful that even grumbling seems like praise. There is this incredible segment entitled 'Why It's Impossible to Photograph the Pampas' in which he writes about three stories that had affected Salman whenever he thought about his own state. One is about an encounter with the great photographer Gustavo Thorlichen who had fled the Nazis in the 1930s. Salman wondered if Thorlichen was an ex-Nazi only to be told a story of how he had photographed Eva Peron after having told her that he would only photograph her if he alone was invited to do so. When he was told he could be forced to leave Argentina only for saying so, Thorlichen had famously shot back, "If I can be thrown out for saying that, then it's not worth staying." Of course he went on to become Evita's personal photographer. The second is related to Thorlichen's meeting with a young Che of ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’! The third is about young Thorlichen's recognizing Jorge Luis Borges at a bookshop when the latter had lost his eyesight. He wanted Borges to write a preface to a book on photographs that would be a portrait of Argentina. Borges asked to be taken on a walk through the city. While he did so he described the buildings around him. When they came to one, which was new, then Borges would ask for a graphic description of the building starting from the ground floor. As Gustavo spoke Borges seemed to be able to see it in his mind's eye. At the end of the walk, he agreed to write the foreword.

In the foreword Borges had written why it is impossible to photograph the Pampas. It is impossible to photograph the Pampas as (Borges wrote)' this plain, famous among the plains... does not leave an impression of vastness on one regarding it from the ground, or on horseback, since its horizon is that of the eye and does not exceed three miles. In other words, the vastness is not in each view of the Pampas (which is what photography can register) but in the imagination of the traveller, in his memory of days on the march and in his prevision of many to follow'. A photograph can only show a large field, it cannot capture duration, the 'delirium-inducing' monotony of travelling on and on, and on…like Joseph Anton's years of living secretly as if on borrowed time. Vilified by almost everyone who believed freedom of speech is an option and not a birthright, he begins to feel in the fourth year that nothing in his life has changed. He is staring at infinity like the traveller. Salman learns to fight back thinking of Dostoevsky facing the firing squad and then after the last minute reprieve spending four years in a prison camp and of Genet who wrote his masterpiece Our Lady of the Flowers in jail.

One of the questions his controversial novel had asked: How does newness enter the world? According to Rushdie, the arrival of the new is not often linked to progress because new ways to oppress are found and even innovations- dark or bright, confuse people. The more he tries to convince people that a serious writer has written a serious book, the more violent the response that he is a troublemaker. So he planned to get the world leaders to defend his right to be a troublemaker. Unfortunately people close to him suffered dreadfully. His Norwegian publisher William Nygaard is shot in front of his own home and it is sheer luck that saves him from dying.

Salman Rushdie's Memoir is his way of telling the world who he is. If he suffers from the illusion of greatness and considers himself up there with Lawrence and Joyce (an opinion contested contemptuously by Zoe Heller in the New York Review of Books) then this reviewer is glad he does so with great frankness and elegance of prose instead of expecting the world to pat him on the back. He is not a hypocrite and like Shahrukh Khan's character in a film Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, he is not mealy-mouthed about saying 'I'm the best'. It is this illusion of grandness that makes him survive what he has.

Barring the details of the daily schedules of the policemen who guarded him during the fatwa years and an occasional lapse into pettiness about Marianne and Padma his two former wives or about the British press taking pot shots at him (the Daily Insult is a great name). His portraits of his parents Anis and Negin are terrific. Her helpless entrapment in a violent marriage is heart breaking just as her loyalty to Anis' memory. Ruhdie's visit to 10 Downing Street during the Blair regime is a classic. In his own words, Rushdie 'is a teller of tales, a creator of shapes, a maker of things that were not' ….and he is destined to make 'the journey to the truth upon the waters of make believe'.

Vol. 45, No. 29, January 27- Feb 2, 2013

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