In ‘Joseph Anton,’ Salman Rushdie Writes Novelistically About His Own Life

October 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his new memoir, Salman Rushdie recounts, in the third person, his upbringing as a secular muslim trying to understand his religion, as well as living under fatwa, a period when he says he discovered his own resilience. Jeffrey Brown talks to the author about recent clashes over free speech and Islamic ideology.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, one of the world’s leading storytellers who became part of one of the world’s most dramatic stories.

It was in 1989 that Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” was denounced by Muslims as blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, igniting a fire storm.

The book was banned and violent protest took place in parts of the Islamic world. Bookstores in Britain that carried it were bombed. And within several years, the book’s Japanese translator was killed, its Norwegian publisher attacked.

Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran’s Islamic Republic, issued a decree, or fatwa, calling his Rushdie’s death.

The author went into hiding for nearly a decade before the fatwa was lifted in 1998. He’s lived in New York since 2000.

Now Salman Rushdie has written a memoir titled “Joseph Anton,” the code name he used both on two of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

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And Salman Rushdie joins me now.

Welcome to you.

SALMAN RUSHDIE, “Joseph Anton”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before we get to the fatwa, one of the things that most fascinated in your book was the description of your early years in India and then educated in England.

And you present yourself as a secular Muslim, but one trying to understand the religion and your role in it.


I mean, I grew up in a family in which there was very little religion. My father wasn’t religious at all. But he was really interested in the subject of, you know, the birth and growth of Islam. And he basically transmitted that interest to me.

So when I studied history at Cambridge, I did a special subject in that, exactly that. And then actually that — while I was studying it was where I came across the so-called incident of the satanic verses.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you say in the book — you noted, good story.


JEFFREY BROWN: And later on…

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. And 20 years later, I found out how good a story it was.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you wrote that when you finished “The Satanic Verses,” you thought of it as the least political of the novels you had written at the time. You were genuinely surprised about what happened.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes, because even the Islam stuff I thought was pretty respectful about Islam in a funny way.

I mean, yes, from a secular point of view, but it talks about the birth of this religion, and I thought it was pretty admiring of the person at the center of it, the prophet of Islam.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you think — what did you think you were doing? I mean, what did you think you were saying about the religion in the novel?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, most of the novel is not about religion.


SALMAN RUSHDIE: Most of the novel is about immigration to England.


SALMAN RUSHDIE: But these dream sequences — I thought I was doing two things. One is inquiring into the phenomenon of revelation, if you are not a religious person. But, clearly, it’s a sincere phenomenon.

So, what is it? If you were standing next to the prophet on the mountain, would you have seen the archangel? And my answer to that was probably not, even though it’s supposed to be a really big archangel. He describes it as — the Archangel Gabriel as standing on the horizon and filling the sky. That’s a big angel.

And I thought, you know, I would probably not have seen that. On the other hand, he’s obviously completely telling the truth. So, then what is that? That’s — I wanted to explore that.

And then I wanted to talk about how ideas are born. And the big question that the book asks in a number of ways about a number of things is that.

How does a new idea come into the world?

And using that — the birth of a religion, it suggests that you have got two tests. You have the test of weakness. When you’re weak, do you compromise, do you bend, do you give in, do you accommodate?

And then the test of strength. When you’re strong, are you merciful, are you generous, or are you cruel?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, then, speaking of tests then you found yourself tested. And how did you find yourself, looking back? I mean, I know you created this code name, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: And then you wrote this book many years later in the third person looking at this character, Joseph Anton, the young Salman Rushdie.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. Yes. It helped me write it novelistically, in a way. It helped me look at myself as a fictional character, if you like, but to look at myself objectively in the round, you know, warts and all.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you see?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, the one thing I have to say in my favor is that I discovered I was tougher than I thought I was.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were tougher?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes, because I think if you had asked me on Valentine’s Day 1989, if you had said to me, here’s what’s going to happen in the next 12 years, what sort of shape do you think you will be in at the end, I would probably not have bet on myself to be in good shape. And yet I somehow did survive it.

And that’s just interesting, because I wouldn’t have thought that I had that resilience. But it turned out that maybe I did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, to the extent that this confrontation was a kind of test for you or other writers, for politicians, for the world, how did everyone do? I know you write about disappointments you had.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. But I think on the whole, I think we didn’t do so badly.

That’s to say, when I say we, this was a very collective act because I wasn’t by any means the only person threatened.


SALMAN RUSHDIE: I always thought the front line was the bookstores. And bookstores around America, around the world did astonishingly well. They held the line. They didn’t chicken out. You know, they defended the book. They kept it in the front of the store.

People would come and threaten them. And they would respond by putting the book in the window. Behind that, the publishers, many of whom were menaced and receiving anonymous phone calls of the very menacing kind and so, almost everybody — not everybody, but almost everybody held the line.

And at the end of the day, there was an attempt to suppress a book. The book wasn’t suppressed. It’s freely available in whatever it is, close to 50 languages. There was an attempt to suppress the writer. And I’m happy to say the writer wasn’t suppressed.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s here with us.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. So, I think we didn’t do so badly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Coincidentally, amazingly enough, here we are again, right, just as your book came out.


JEFFREY BROWN: The film that caused all the uproar in the Muslim world.


JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote and you have said that what happened to you, you see as a kind of prologue…


JEFFREY BROWN: … to the confrontation that is still with us. Where are we today then?


Well, we’re still in the middle of it. And it doesn’t show any sign of going away. And these attacks that were — that seemed so odd at the time, with “Satanic Verses,” because we didn’t have any context for this. You know, where did that come from? It seemed to come out of nowhere.

Since then, in the 20 years that have passed, we have seen many other not just writers and intellectuals, but including writers and intellectuals in the Muslim world being attacked and murdered by Islamic fanatics, accused of exactly the same things that I was, these medieval crimes of apostasy And heresy, but then broadening from that into a broader attack on all of us.

And I remember after — I was living in New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks. And I remember, you know, in those weeks that followed, when none of us spoke about anything else really, a number of friends of mine, people I knew, including very experienced journalists, I heard them saying things like, well, now we understand what happened to you.

And I think what happened is that that terrible event showed everybody that there was a big narrative that we were all involved in, of which this had been, if you like, an opening chapter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the film is of a different nature, right? It is a kind of provocation. It is purposefully…

SALMAN RUSHDIE: The film is a piece of trash. But YouTube is full of pieces of trash.

If you want to look on YouTube and find something that insults you, you can probably find it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you don’t see the confrontation that you went through going away?


But I — and I just think it’s very — one of the problems of defending the extraordinary principle of freedom of speech is that you have to defend freedom of speech for people like that too.

You don’t just — you often have to defend the freedoms of people you don’t like, you know, whose work you don’t like, because freedom of speech is not just for serious people. It’s also for trashy people. So, and, unfortunately, this is at the trashy end of the scale.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to continue this conversation online. And I hope viewers will join us later on, on Art Beat.

But, for now, the new memoir is “Joseph Anton.”

Salman Rushdie, thanks so much.