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Salman Rushdie opens his memoir with an onrush of information. It’s 1989; his marriage is crumbling, his friend Bruce Chatwin has recently died, and his novel The Satanic Verses had prompted the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, to issue a fatwa calling for his death. And though its opening is action-packed, much of the book focuses on Rushdie’s resulting time in hiding, and of the literary and political controversies that emerged.
Written in the third person, Joseph Anton has a detached quality, one that mirrors Rushdie’s isolation from the larger world. Raw emotions break through when the author, in an intentional echo of Saul Bellow’s epistolary Herzog, writes theoretical letters to his adversaries and other figures. As he moves through a series of temporary residences, Rushdie struggles to regain his momentum as a writer, while Western governments apply diplomatic pressure to Iran.
Joseph Anton is instructive in many ways: It provides insight into the working methods of a major author, observations on the late-’80s international literary scene and a passionate defense of free speech. Save a few minor missteps, Rushdie’s prose is precise and his description of his circumstances focused. The story abounds in paradoxes—e.g., artistic breakthroughs alongside personal tragedies—that lend it a power beyond its already-gripping subject. Rushdie describes a meeting early in his career with the writer Angus Wilson, in which he learns that “yesterday’s hot young kid is today’s melancholy, ignored senior citizen.” Given the fatwa and its fallout, even if he wanted to, Rushdie would never be able to enjoy such a literary arc. As it is, this is just one more of “the many futures he would lose.”