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Joseph Anton. A Memoir. Salman Rushdie. A Secularist Review.

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Joseph Anton. A Memoir. Salman Rushdie. Jonathan Cape. 2012.

In early September demonstrations against the video The Innocence of Muslims, took place across the world. Wednesday the 19th of the month saw the French leftist satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo published, to more protests, caricatures of Mohammed.

Two days later, Tahar Ben Jelloun argued, in Le Monde (21.9.12) against any concessions to Islamist inspired rage. He began by asking why Islam seemed so fragile that fiction, cartoons, or a bad film, His answer was the some Moslem countries encouraged this reaction to stave off creating states based on individual rights. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was the template for this strategy. It been used by the Iranian regime to quash any criticism of Islam, and to cement an “appartence absolue à la communité” (absolute adhesion to the community). Jelloun had no time for the provocations of Charlie. Yet he recommended ignoring them, and turning to the transcendental spirit of Islam.

Tareq Oubrou, the Rector of the Bordeaux Mosque, wrote on the same Le Monde Débats page, even more clearly against those who wished to suppress ‘blasphemy’. “La liberté de conscience et d’expression est un aquis occidental incontesté et incontenstable. Une avancée et un progrès philosophical-moral réels de notre humanité.” – Freedom of speech and conscience are established, unchallenged, and indisputable facts in the West. This is a step forward and real moral and philosophical progress for humanity”. Oubrou did not just repeat the standard argument (even sued by some Islamists, in the absence of a state ruled by the Sharia) that Muslims should submit to French law. All criticism of writing and art should be within their own terms, “La critique d’art se fait par l’art, la philosophie par la philosophie, and les idées par les idées.”

On the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, at the end that Month Le Monde put the author on the front page followed by a long, respectful, article/interview. It dealt with Rushdie’s criticisms of “Actually Existing Islam” as well as the Satanic Verses and the Khomeini Fatwa that has marked his life.

The present work does not neglect this political-religious theme, “During the worst excesses of Soviet Communism…Western Marxists had tried to distance ‘actually existing Socialism’ from the True Faith, Karl Marx’s vision of equality and justice.” Now, with Communism’s faults there for all to see, “it was no longer possible to believe in a True Faith untainted by the crimes of the real world.” Yet, “as Islamic states forged new tyrannies, and justified many horrors in the name of God, a similar separation was being made by Muslims; so there was the ‘actually existing Islam’ of the bloody theocracies and there was the True Faith of peace and love.” (Page 356) The crisis is profound, and cannot be wished away by this appeal, Rushdie says, “something was eating away at the faith of his grandfather, corroding or corrupting it, making it an ideology of narrowness and intolerance, banning books, persecuting thinkers, erecting absolutions, turning dogma with which to beat the undogmatic. That thing needed to be fought and to fight it one had to name it and the only name that fitted was Islam.”(Pages 356-7)

There is a reply to this view. It was given by left-wing critics of ‘actually existing socialism.” It was, and is, not enough to evoke the pristine words of Marxist democratic thinking, but to act on them against those on the left who supported tyranny. Tahar Ben Jelloun and Tareq Oubrou, to cite but two names, amongst thousands, have been prepared to do the same for what they consider to be Islam.

‘Super-constitutions’, with clauses regulated by religious scholars based on the alleged word of god, beyond popular will, are live subjects in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Islamist-led Government wishes to introduce one. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Constitutional Plebiscite – backed by their Salafist allies – is currently underway. It is said that opposition to it, presently sweeping Egypt, is fuelled by economic distress and administrative incompetence. But the document’s sections penalising criticism of religion, and the kind of mockery of the Prophet alleged in the Satanic Verses, has also been an issue. One could say that the freedom to write like Rushdie, is part of a much wider sphere of liberty that at least some would to see replace ‘actually existing’ Islamism.

The Fatwa and After.

This lengthy introduction is important. That is it gives Joseph Anton a political and religious context. The campaign against the Satanic Verses was not just a British affair, a moment when, in retrospect many Muslims, and not only Islamists, say helped bring their faith to public recognition in the country. It was not just an international awakening of the power of Islamist states – Iran to the core. It was also the time when some extremely important dividing lines became apparent across the political spectrum. If as Rushdie himself says, there were “fellow travellers” of religious hatred across the globe, who chose to ‘understand’ and not to oppose, there were also those from all backgrounds who found that they could not stand by and let their own choices be dictated to by the self-proclaimed faithful.

Wrought around the Satanic Affair – how could it be otherwise? – Joseph Anton is largely about Rushdie experienced the Iranian threats on his life. This was an unprecedented threat, that all Muslims were instructed by Ayatollah Khomeini to sentence the author and “all those involved in its publication” to death, by “all Muslims” who find them. (Page 5) But it this is not all. It is a biographical record, the life of the author not only the political, religious and security issues involved in protecting – trying to protect, or shying away from protecting, or carping about his protection – the writer, the publication, and the “all those”, take centre stage.

Reading much of the press one could be forgiven for thinking that all that the main thing to be said about Joseph Anton is that it has just too much Rushdie centre-stage. Zoë Heller in the New York Review of Books (20,12,12) remarks, with touching sorrow, that, “But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast.” There follows a great deal of haughty scolding about an “embattled, literary immortal-in-waiting”. Rushdie is “tenacious in his grudges”. Some of his most “egregiously uncharitable moments” occur when writing about his four marriages. Worse, we learn that has an unrefined taste for rock-stars, playboy bunnies and ““hot” pop-star girlfriends.”

With more wit A.N. Wilson largely dismisses Joseph Anton for its pretensions, “It really is a most peculiar book, written like the works of Julius Caesar or General de Gaulle, in the third person. If this comparison seems grandiose to you, it would not necessarily do so to the author, who in the first 20 pages has compared himself to King Charles I – who, like Rushdie, did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the judges who condemned him – and Voltaire.”

Yet Wilson spoils his own case by citing as further proof of vainglory, following no doubt exhaustive perusal of the book’s fly-sheet, that Jospeh Anton was Rushdie’s undercover name, taken from the first names of Conrad and Chekov. A fault few would find.

Now there is more than a grain of truth in drawing attention to Rushdie’s flaws – as anybody who has soldiered on through the Memoir’s 636 pages will tell. Rushdie is indeed unpleasantly, obsessively, unkind towards his former wives. We acknowledge that at times Rushdie appears to be addressing the Court of History, beyond the Ayatollah. He has a more than ordinary sense of his own worth, evoking Bulgakov’s echo of Hippocrates on the duration of art) in the Master and Margarita that “manuscripts don’t burn”. His self-comparison with Ovid, Mandelstam and Lorca is equally  not a happy one (Page 628).

Rushdie’s novels, above all Midnight’s Children, Shame and the Satanic Verses, are good, even outstanding. The deal with political-cultural topics (Indian Independence, Colonialism, Immigration, Puritanical Morality, Religion), if with what looks today like a slightly fey ‘Magical realism’. His more recent works, The Moor’s Last Sight, and the Ground Beneath her Feet, are less striking. They are marked by over-wrought syntax and over-thought language. A contrast with, to cite another writer facing censors, Voltaire, is not to Rushdie’s advantage. Voltaire’s luminous and clear French can be read with ease two and a half centuries later. One can guarantee this will not be the case after the same lapse of time with Rushdie’s writings

There are other sour notes. He is churlish towards the Turk Aziz Nesin, who published an unauthorised translation of parts of the Satanic Verses in his paper Aydinlik. Rushdie does not recognise the sectarian nature of the massacre of 37 people at a secularist conference at Sivas, Anatolia. The dead were mostly free-thinking Muslims from the democratic Alevi tradition which suffers continuing persecution in Turkey (Wikipedia has a long article on this – here) . Some supporters, get inappropriate treatment. Some well-meaning people, who backed him, like Tarq Ali (who, it is true, also has a fondness for the Judgement of Time) and the playwright Howard Benton, who wrote a play on the Satanic Controversy, get told off. Rushdie choses not to recognise the compliment paid by the description “dead man on leave” – its origins in a phrase by the German revolutionary German Communist leader Eugen Leviné, at his 1919 trial – Levine was shot. Instead of recognising any generous intent we learn that they wrote a “shoddy, hurried, slapstick thing” with “gibes at his work” (Page 177).

But some enemies deserve what they get. Shabbir Akhtar of the Bradford Council of Mosques who set up his own “literary inquisition” (Page 210) and the “garden gnome” Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute, should not be retrospectively indulged, minor as they figure on the world stage. The Sun, the Sunday Telegraph, Bernie Grant (“Burning books is not a big issue for blacks”), Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, John Le Carré, senior Conservatives and, less senior, Labour politicians, and a long list of those who thought Rushdie “troublesome”, should not be forgotten. John Berger would have been better pontificating on Rushdie’s offence to his neighbours in his remote French patelin than writing in the Guardian, and Germaine, Greer, well, who cares what she says about anything whatsoever?

Many readers will not find Joseph Anton, or at least in such detail (and there’s plenty more) uninteresting and faintly unpleasant. It’s hard, and we can at least try, not to finish the book with the feeling that Rushdie has lots of foes, lots of equivocal friends, a certain understandable fondness for those who came to his side, a less amiable inclination to like them the more powerful they are – which leads to his eventual American exit from Britain – and that he has a formidable taste for score-settling.

Publish and be Dammed?

It would be misleading, though an understandable impression if this is where one leave off. Rushdie has been firmly slammed into the Islamophobic Box by a number of people for a long time, a “phobia” he notes that is held to be “extreme and irrational” (page 344). Zoë Heller does not hesitate to cite him saying that Fundamentalism is a “political fascist movement”, that any “respect for Islam is misguided, “Tartuffe like hypocrisy”. That is he talks about Islam and makes no distinction between different forms of it, reactionary or not. How, she asks, “How are we to reconcile these sentiments with the gratitude that Rushdie expresses elsewhere in the book for Muslim writers who supported him during the Fatwa? Or with his belief in the artist’s role as a promoter of human tolerance?” She adds, “Elsewhere, Rushdie has provided an alternative and rather more convincing account of what he understood about the provocative content of The Satanic Verses, prior to publication. In his 2005 interview with The Paris Review, he recalled, “I knew my work did not appeal to the likes of radical mullahs…. There were one or two early readers, including Edward Said, who noticed that I’d taken these guys on and asked whether I was concerned about it. And in those innocent days, I said no…. The idea that it would even float across their field of vision seemed improbable, and I truthfully didn’t care. Why shouldn’t literature provoke? It always has.”

It is with this conclusion – doubtless forethought throughout the review – which we can look at Zoë’s two main anti-Rushdie arguments.

The first is that Rushdie considered himself above everything. “In a departure from the standard, liberal notion that literature must be free to offend, he proposes that literature, properly understood, cannot offend.” Here he is, she claims, inconsistent, having  acknowledged a wish to “provoke”. He feels, in either case, free to ignore the consequences of his actions.

The second is that we must be careful, very careful, not to offend people who might respond by violence.

Readers will differ in their opinions of whether the free speech represented by The Satanic Verses paperback was worth upholding at any cost. But even those who take Rushdie’s side on this will be hard pressed to match his scorn for the opposing point of view. By the time the Rushdie Affair was over, it had resulted in the deaths of more than fifty people. The questions that Mayer and Mehta and Gottlieb raised about the wisdom and the morality of continuing to publish in such circumstances seemed then, and seem now, perfectly reasonable and humane. (My emphasis).

Zoë therefore manages to say that Rushdie advances his views thinking that only with his own – egotistical – slightness is at stake. We know – proof of syllogism, 50 dead – that he is wrong. At the same time we note that Rushdie is (as close as she can say without libelling him) infected with raving Islamophobia. Which does offend a lot more than just “provoke”. Either way, Zoë considers the game not worth the candle. Or perhaps, on a deeper reading, that Rushdie is irresponsible, prejudiced, and a warning that we should not insult Islam, or any group that will make their reply to criticism, artistic or not, deliberately offensive or not, by killing people whose works (all those associated with their production) they are offended by.

The consequentialist ethics of this argument are inescapable. We not do things because they are right, but in view of what will happen if we do them. Nobody should publish anything that risks lives – unless they are under the illusion that literature “cannot offend”. Perhaps if Rushdie ever gets attacked in person – he will get what’s coming for him!

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6 Responses

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  1. Excellent piece which fulfills a primary function of a serious book review in freeing us from any obligation to read the book itself.

    Which judging from the utterly insufferable narcissist revealed by the Book of the Week adaption on Radio 4 is definitely a bullet dodged,

    But if Rushdie had been a modern-day Tolstoy (who it should be remembered was late in life actually prosecuted by the Tsarist authorities for heresy and atheism) and the Satanic Verses had been a great book there’d have been no damn merit in defending them.

    And bang on re Heller – that the New York Review of Books which took such a robust stand for freedom of speech at the time of the fatwa should have commissioned and published such a review is a true sign of the times.

    (BTW I recommend James Fenton’s 1991 NYRB interview with Rushdie where he covers some of the same ground as the memoir but is far more engaging and sympathetic and makes it comprehensible why people were once willing to put their lives on the line for him http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1991/mar/28/keeping-up-with-salman-rushdie/?pagination=false – some writers are clearly just not made for autobiography).

    Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy)

    December 23, 2012 at 2:39 pm

  2. I can’t get through Rushdie’s novels and as Roger says I’m glad you read his memoir so I don’t have to. Rushdie is definitely not the most likable guy in town. But I was ticked off with the Heller piece and I’m glad you’ve taken her to pieces. She makes reasonable points about Rushdie’s shifting statements on the political nature of works of fiction. I enjoyed her digs about Rushdie’s vanity when estimating his own work. But I think his pride in being in the company of Dostoyevsky and all persecuted writers is absolutely right.

    It’s an anglo habit to roll eyes, and say “who do you think you are?” at grandiose claims, but Rushdie is entitled to some glory. He’s in the line of the speakers-of-truth who piss off the holders-of-power over the ignorant.

    Heller is making the same point that Greer made (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgyeotzLZp8)- that a book isn’t worth other people’s deaths. That Rushdie wasn’t risking his own neck but others. Now that sounds humane and moral but you just can’t let Rage Boy and his clerical coaches dictate what should be written and what shouldn’t.

    Greer’s Female Eunuch caused a lot of upset in its time, not only because of its then new feminism but because of its bawdiness. If anyone epatered the sensibilities of conservative people, it was Greer in the late 60s with her writings on uninhibited female sexuality. That included some nude posing. Her work went viral when works went viral through print instead of digital media. I don’t think death threats would have subdued her and if publishers and translators had been physically attacked by representatives of the patriarchy I don’t think she would have restrained herself from writing. And whatever she’s become now, then she was a truly liberating force.

    Heller is an entertaining catty writer. Her last book, The Believers, had passages of satire against the kind of Orthodox Judaism that won’t allow anyone to use a light switch on Shabbath and is obsessed by menstrual blood. So if there were Rage Boy Jews who would do fatwas against her and her publisher would she desist from writing such stuff? I’d bet she wouldn’t. She would be as proud and scornful as Rushdie – and so she should be.

    Both Greer and Heller stand on the shoulders of earlier free speech martyrs. Greer would have been whipped at a cart’s tail in other ages and Heller would – not sure what – chucked out of the community like Spinoza? Ultimately if you want the free exchange of ideas innocents will end up dead. And those who killed them are to blame, and the filthy clerics who incited the killing are to blame. Fuck ‘em – and keep on fucking ‘em.

    Rosie

    December 24, 2012 at 12:08 am

  3. Heller is a good writer, who knows the left. Though I can’t vouch for her account in The Believers of remote New York leftists she describes London and a kind of WRP well.

    Greer wrote one good book that reached a lot of people, including a number of my former girlfriends.

    The rest of what she writes is as, to use Roger’s phrase, narcissistic.

    I still have a copy of Oz she edited, it’s called ‘Cunt Power Oz’, which is, to say the least, self-regarding.

    That would not go down well with Islamists I suspect.

    There is an astonishing légèreté behind what some of the liberal left critics of Rushdie write about the issues at stake.

    It’s not his – I agree – pretty unreadable (I gave up on whatever was his latest one) – recent books.

    I differ on the three I cite, Shame, Midnight’s Children and the Satanic Verses, though as I am about to -re-read two of them I wonder what I’ll think now.

    There is a real fight carried out by our beloved comrades in places like Egypt and Tunisia for freedom!

    Andrew Coates

    December 24, 2012 at 1:15 pm

  4. I’d certainly read a Heller novel over a Rushdie novel any day of the week.

    I wrote a review of The Believers here:-

    http://rosiebell.typepad.com/rosiebell/2009/02/zoe-hellers-public-hell.html

    Greer’s literary writings eg Slipshod Sibyls are excellent. She can write marvellously, but she gallops off in totally mad directions.

    Rosie

    December 24, 2012 at 11:09 pm

  5. I was never keen on Greer and I will now try Heller but not for many decades have we had a writer of the stature of Rushdie He can be indulged his foibles, he has suffered for his craft. Although I was familiar with the context of Midnight’s Children I still couldn’t put it down and read it almost at a sitting.

    I did the same with Shame although some of the latter books weren’t up to the earlier standards, I thought maybe that was a case of expecting too much, or a case the folkies reaction to Dylan when he went electric!

    themadmullahofbricklane

    December 25, 2012 at 5:06 am

  6. I tend to agree with the Mad Mullah.

    He has clearly suffered, though sometimes one would wish not to be constantly reminded of this.

    Rosie, I find Greer’s display of knowledge about English literature rather wearying.

    As somebody totally soaked in this, and, as you might note, French literature, I observe that there is always somebody who knows more than you.

    I was caught out a few weeks ago at Terry Liddle’s wake with a wrong reference to William Morris’s News From Nowhere, when it should have been the Dream of John Ball.

    I have since made amends for my unpardonable error.

    Greer’s insistence on always being right is, frankly, gobshite.

    Andrew Coates

    December 26, 2012 at 11:56 am


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