Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Sacred Rage: A Valentine for Joseph Anton

essay by Linda Rogers

Joseph Anton: a memoir
Salman Rushdie
Knopf Canada

Mr. Joseph Anton, international publisher of American origin, passed away unmourned on the day that Salmon Rushdie, novelist of Indian origin, surfaced from his long underground years and took up part time residence in Pembridge mews, Notting Hill. Mr Rushdie celebrated the moment, even if no one else did.

British-educated author Salman Rushdie, expatriated by the partition of India, had become a star of the Indian literary diaspora. However, with the publication of his philosophical Odyssey The Satanic Verses, his flash in the firmament turned into a literal plane crash. Rushdie’s pragmatic examination of good and evil in a modern world defined by anachronistic prophecy offended fundamental Islamists, who rejected his portrait of a fallible Muhammed, tested, like Jesus in the wilderness, by conflicting voices.

On February 14, 1989, Rushdie received an unfunny valentine from the deranged and dying Ayatolla Khomeini, and his fatwa is the first page in this autobiography, a cry not a whimper for civilization under siege, where silence (and) or death is an unacceptable option. For more than a decade, the condemned novelist lived with the ubiquitous protection of the Special Branch, as one of the Level One Club, a trinity that included the Queen and the Prime Minister - using the name that is now the title of his autobiography. Almost every aspect of his former self, except his voice, became invisible.

Now Rushdie is a free man and Joseph Anton, his doppelganger, is the dark angel he recreates and incinerates on the threshold to personal freedom, a more open life in art.

Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be.

But, he has observed, “…humans are pushing one another to a narrower definition of themselves.” With the limitation of our most significant bond, the species that distinguished itself with the invention of language devolves into nonsense. So much of the newspeak is babble: political correctness, dialects of exclusion and confrontation, jargon and social media jabberwocky. Freedom of speech may occasion unintelligible or derisive language but, as Rushdie has shown, it is an essential component of human rights.

Sentenced to death by the enemies of intelligent skepticism, Rushdie was condemned to live on the edge of a well-tempered sword, the literal conformation of censorship. The record of his extended season in hell is a key for translation of meaning (a noun and a verb in the context of cruelty) for end times, a real possibility for all “intelligent” beings.

The very definition of the Greek skepsis, to examine, is the key to understanding Rushdie’s thirteen years in the wilderness and the post modern world’s absorption with the true social, political and theological meanings of Islam. That Rushdie, the Indian ironist and chat-wallah, approaches his personal social context with humour may have been his indiscretion. Irony, a vital ingredient in skepticism, the leaven that makes loss of faith bearable, is anathema to dogma.

The mullahs felt compelled to erase Rushdie’s laughter from the firmament, requiring him to cover his tracks. Having chosen his undercover name from favourite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, Rushdie’s challenge was to reinvent his life in the third person (first degree of separation) without sacrificing the integrity of his identity. The heart of darkness in his cherry orchard, a literary paradise, is the repudiation of his gift, a magical facility with words and the infrastructure of critical dialogue. As he struggled to keep his balance in a shifting political and familial landscape, so does the world. Privacy, safety and wisdom are all under siege in the technological surge that has turned the global village into an ideological minefield.

He predicted his own trial in the closing paragraph of the Mahound chapter in The Satanic Verses, the knot of his problem with the theo-fascists.

…and then they fall on him from the night sky, the three winged creatures, Lat Uzza Manat, flapping around his head, clawing at his eyes, biting, whipping him with their hair, their wings. He puts up his hands to protect himself, but their revenge is tireless, continuing whenever he rests, whenever he drops his guard. He struggles against them, but they are faster, nimbler, winged.

Mahound’s (Mohammed’s) temptation is his, and, because they are human and curious, they are punished.

Locked in his tower, the raging dragon, a prisoner of political correctness, one of the great issues of our time, breathes prescient windows into the prisons we have been building with our great conversations, agreement and disagreement about personal entitlement, climate change and anachronistic belief systems. Joseph Anton is a metaphor for the expatriated artist, an exile in his own skin. His banishment from normalcy is a soul-eating disease, the malaise of a restless planet of social and political nomads.

Some critics have described the 636 page Joseph Anton as a ramble, but Rushdie’s song-line in his own version of the Biblical desert rewards as it resonates with our familiar landscape. People we know in the age of instant celebrity, events we have vicariously experienced and books we have read come alive as Rushdie puts them in the context of his out of body experience. That is the writer’s holy obligation in an unholy world as he, like the ancient mariner, doomed to tell and retell his story, witnesses devastation and redemption in his personal sphere. He quotes William Blake, “A true poet is of the Devil’s party,” describing his burden and his gift. Truth is the devil’s obligation, and the poet’s as well.

Did we need to be reminded of Heine’s observation, “ Wherever they burn books they will in the end burn human beings?” The fire in Rushdie’s belly, although occasionally tamped down by the inertia of depression, was the belief, not only in the me under lockdown but also in his significant struggle to maintain a sacred rage.

In the battle of reason versus demagoguery, Rushdie had to become his own word-slicing sword, tempered in his Odyssean journey of the soul by betrayal and the temptation of sirens. Like his good friends John Diamond, the articulate husband of Nigella Lawson, and Christopher Hitchens, the avatar of unbelievers, whose tongues were stolen by cancer, Rushdie compensated for the attempted theft of his voice by ideologues whose cancer has infected the beauty of Islam.

In the end it will be people like the author of definitive books about the contemporary experience who may give Islam back to its entitled custodians, the millions disenfranchised by lunatics. In his obituary for Hitchens, he wrote:

He and I found ourselves describing our ideas, without conferring, in almost identical terms. I began to understand that while I had not chosen the battle, it was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humorlessness, philistinism, and the new offence-culture of the age). Then I read Christopher using exactly the same everything-he-loved-versus-everything-he-hated trope, and felt…understood.  

They were true non-believers, magnificent atheists, straining to redefine anachronistic god notions in terms of a more inclusive definition of world community. Heine wrote, “Atheism is the last word of theism.” Rushdie reasons like the rebbes who have argued the meaning of the Pentateuch for millennia, advocating for a flexible heterodoxy that embraces ideological difference. He was the poster child of difference, born on the cusp of India’s emergence from colonialism and exiled to colonial nurseries, prep schools where privileged children of the Raj learned to be proper Englishmen; and his by definition a life of contradiction.

No sooner did India free itself of the Raj than it began the process of re-birth by cell division, the reproductive process of the simplest organisms. But India is not simple and half a century later, the two solitudes, Muslim and Hindu, still struggle with their organic separation. Like Saleem in the Booker Prize winning Midnight’s Children, Rushdie, “…had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country,” when partition was parturition, the unsafe separation of mother and child.

Born into a milieu of split tongues and forced to straddle two continents, language became the writer’s defense and offence. As Rushdie began to make sense of his alternate realities in Midnight’s Children, he earned the right to speak for a generation of exiles. This is the mandate of the imaginative child confronted by an intolerable choice; separation from his roots and loved ones, or compromise. He created his own reality. The child inside the adult writer transcended his material existence, and, with special vision, examined his cultural surround. This is how the “normal” of writers like Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, children of conflict, becomes magic realism.

If the art of the novel revealed anything, it was that human nature was the great constant, in any culture, in any place, in any time, and that, as Heraclitus had said two thousand years earlier, a man’s ethos, his way of being in the world, was his daimon, the guiding principal that shaped his life – or, in the pithier or more familiar formulation of the idea, that character was destiny.

Attack came from every imaginable corner including media that demonized him for his appearance, a hooded eye condition (ptosis) that allegedly made him look satanic. That certainly didn’t scare off the illusory Amazons. In photos, he resembles the cat that has just eaten the serially astonishing birds of paradise standing beside him. Objectivity dictates certain pragmatism and as his various prisons closed in on him, Joseph Anton chose the familiar vertical escape, a gothic rapture. The ballast is family, his dearest relationships, as he levitates from beauty to beauty, one of them described by Rushdie as having a magnificent narcissism and by my friend, the couturier who designed her dress, now in my possession, as “a miserable moose with pumped up tits,” each one initially presenting as a rescuing angel holding the strings that prevent him from falling into a black hole of despond not unlike the seven inch hole that captivated Dr. Aziz in Midnight’s Children.

A stunning succession of partners offers the fictitious Anton illusory shelter and temporary laughter. Like Saleem’s grandfather whose prayer injury precipitates loss of faith, Rushdie reveals the deficit that renders him a victim of carnal love, “This decision made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history.”

Now Saleem’s parallel history with an independent India, a story so sprawling it defies the parameters of moving pictures, has at last been filmed by director Deepa Mehta, with a textured voice-over by the author himself. Saleem’s voices, children of alchemy caught somewhere between straw and gold, are the precursors of Mahound’s confusing angels. We are left to wonder when truth is encoded in babble.

Love is the true language of redemption. Over and over in his litany of battered trust and relationships destroyed by stress, his two sons are described in metaphors of light. They are the infant stars by which he and his fictional characters navigate, loss transformed into hope, ironically another burden for the grandchildren of the Raj, who carry the past, some of it glorious and some of it shameful, into the present.

When writers are compressed, the best route to sanity is to write. Pushing through the barriers of mental and physical imprisonment during the thirteen-year fatwa, Rushdie first fought back with Haroun and the Sea of Stories for his son, Zafar, whose life was horribly impacted by the edict. A novel told in linked stories with humour and fantasy as the magical ingredients, it is a fairytale for our times and a possible last testament from father to son, his apology and legacy, “As I wander far from view/Read and bring me home to you.”

The Shah of Blah explains his compulsion for storytelling to his son with a fine image of a writer’s thirst for life and the physical need to explain, “I drink the warm story waters and then I feel full of steam.” Sadly, the narrative Rushdie and Zafar were drinking from was no joke. “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true,” Haroun asks? The answer could be that they make sense of a scrambled universe. Zafar would have to understand that.

There is no doubt that Joseph Anton allows Rushdie to at last rebut those who either refused to acknowledge the justice of his cause or lacked the courage to stand with the man standing in the crosshairs of depravity. Rebuttal is his prerogative; but in this book bitterness is balanced with the sweetness of irrefutable loyalties. Like every work of fiction, Rushdie’s story has heroes and anti-heroes, laughter and tears, a healthy dramatic balance.

He is a chatterjee blessed with the Indian gift of the gab, malarky that scents night soil with the lotus that grows out of dung and common sense that has correctly identified the scent of oil in America’s bungled intervention and the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East and Asia. Rushdie, the analytical thinker and cosmic joker, would not have survived Anton without a keen sense of irony, the nose that transports midnight’s child, the mid-century voyageur who is blessed with a compass for survival and many friends.

Friendship is the new religion. Orthodoxy in a country or a world divided unto itself is no longer salvation. Every word Rushdie writes is a facet of his grief for the familial comfort that history has denied him. His orthodoxy is heterodoxy, ethical choices. That is what history and the Iranian mullahs attempted to deny him and that is what he rages against in every action and on every page. It is, actually, the highest integrity that comes at the highest personal price.

If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which their countries’ freedom will remain a distant dream.

The details of Rushdie’s life under siege and the protection of Her Majesty’s Government are significant, interesting as back story to the bigger picture and even larger fiction, but when they fade away, it is the gestalt of his principles that will endure long after we have forgotten the kindness of friends, the self-serving diffidence of political cowards like the Prince of Wales (supposedly above politics), self-serving heads of state, particularly in his Indian motherland, and psychopathic clerics. Rushdie has used his considerable gifts to protect intellectual freedom when he could have taken an easier route to fame and fortune.

It is amazing that under threat of death, Joseph Anton managed fatherhood, relationships with the handful of bottom blushing women who enjoyed his jokes and a baker’s dozen of exceptional books. It is unfair to argue for the isolation of a social being, but the results are stunning evidence for the beauty of adversity.

Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider than before.

Rushdie, who only occasionally wavered in his martyrdom, never apologizes for his spectacular courage in speaking out against false religion in his reprise of the satanic verses of false prophecy offered to (Mahound) Mohammed by the three angels, text that already existed when he began his critical journey. The exile will not be banished from his conscience and no man has the right to ask him to recant his opposition to religious hypocrisy, not even the god hidden in obfuscating politics. That god lives as the common good, something Rushdie the skeptic can probably accept, because the matrix of great design is goodness, the honey from a perfect hive, the maintenance of which falls partially on artists whose sacred covenant is freedom.

That is a contract he shares with all great writers, no one more than Joyce, whose liquid poetry is another facet of the Imperial diamond. Perhaps the Prince of W(h)ales has better radar than his obtuse public persona would suggest. Perhaps he is alarmed by the realisation that the language he was born and sworn to protect has its apogee in the mouths of oppressed peoples.

Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s Rosetta Stone (more colonial plunder), a valuable reference point for polyglot armies clashing in the night and the literary beds he makes, where everyone dreams in the same archetypal language. Long live its creator and the human rights he defends, which include the right to redemption, the life-affirming gestalt of sin and salvation, death and renewal.
In the final lines of The Satanic Verses, he predicts his own luck.

It seemed to him that in spite of all his wrong- doing, weakness, guilt –in spite of his humanity – he was getting another chance.

Linda Rogers, author of Homing, selected poems, and The Empress Trilogy, thought she saw Rushdie at Groucho’s in London, owns a dress worn by one of his wives (the alleged moose), missed an interview with Deepa Mehta, the director of Midnight’s Children during her censorship problems with the Indian government, had a poem illustrated by artist Eric Fischl who offended Rushdie, and best of all was blessed with children thanks to a procedure invented by the doctor in whose Bombay clinic Rushdie was born. It is a small world after all.