Sunday, October 7, 2012

Salman Rushdie's Memoirs of Joseph Anton: Who Controls Story?

  I have just finished reading “Joseph Anton: A Memoir" written by Salman Rushdie and released last week. It is a remarkable autobiographical account of the days when Salman Rushdie was under death threat issued by Iranian Head Cleric Ayatollah Khomeini for his controversial novel “Satanic Verses”.  Islamic fundamentalists considered this work of fiction as an insult to the prophet Mohammed and the Quran, and this resulted in world-wide protests and ultimately in  death sentence being awarded by a theocratic order.  This was a throwback to the medieval period when burning heretics at the stake  was not considered abnormal.  In our times we have hardly come across a work of pure fiction whose author was sentenced to death simply because that work is not acceptable to a group of people or a community. This is the perspective and the running theme of this beautiful book. It is a wonderful story of how a community of believers tries to control the story and the narrative of people and how the struggle for freedom of expression   generates different perspectives in this complex world.

The Decade of Death 

 Ironically, serious trouble started only after a wave of religious protests from India, Rushdie’s own country, led to government of India banning this book. It was only after the Indian Government took this extreme step that the world Islamic community started realizing that there may be something in the book that offends Islam and Muslims.

 The “Fatwa” (literally meaning an order) to kill,  issued by the Islamist Fundamentalists of Iran and endorsed by the Iranian Government was not merely a symbolic disapproval of Rushdie’s work of art or an empty threat; following the Fatwa, the Islamist fundamentalist groups, spread in various parts of the world,  made several attempts to track down Rushdie and kill him.  In a period of ten years Rushdie moved about secretly, surreptitiously and was closely followed and protected by British police. Initially, to escape death it was made mandatory by the police to keep shifting his dwelling place after every few days. He was always in the company of his protectors who camped in the same house/flat that he occupied.  Death literally hung over his head and even people who otherwise were friendly started avoiding him lest they were exposed to the bullets of the Islamist fundamentalists. Even airlines refused to carry him for fear of attracting the wrath of  fundamentalists. During this period, his protectors wanted him to take up a name, an alias, so as to keep his movements secret. He took up the name, “Joseph Anton”, built up from the names of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

 During the ten long years of the “Fatwa”, Rushdie saw disaster on every front: fractured relationships, broken marriages and depression in personal life. He also found himself engaging with a strange world that was at worst hostile and at best indifferent to his cause.  And yet he rebelled against all that was out to crush him. During the period he traveled secretly to America and other European countries, visiting literary events, universities and meeting  political bosses and  leaders who mattered and who could be roped in on his side in the battle for freedom for expression. He wrote two novels during this period and had them published. On the whole, with a few exceptions, the entire community of writers   stood solidly behind him. But the world of writers and artists is perhaps as abstract and as fragile as the freedom of expression he was fighting for. They stood behind him, but he  found that the world out there was practical, cruel and businesslike.   The support of the community of writers may have given him strength to stand firmly in this battle, but it was not sufficient to end his loneliness and isolation.

Freedom of Expression, Electorates and Cheddar Cheese

 We do some lip service to the cause of freedom of expression from time to time. But this is more like endorsing an ethical principle or taking up a theoretical position in academic life. With the death dancing over your head and the threat of death becoming grimmer with the passage of time, a theoretical meditation on the concept of freedom of expression ceases to be a literary problem. It becomes a problem of survival and a problem of life and death. It is a warlike situation.   And Rushdie, who lived with this problem intensely for over a decade, discovered the other sides of this problem too. He thought that the Western society and the polity would firmly stand behind him in this struggle. He was, however, proved wrong. British and American politicians may have given him necessary protection and some assurance in person; but they perceived this as his own personal battle. In the Muslim protesters of their country they saw their potential voters and they did not want to offend a group of citizens just for defending an abstract and rather vague principle of freedom of expression. British Prime Ministers and other statesmen kept themselves away from him and did not allow themselves to be even photographed lest it be construed  that they publicly backed him. And when he called on Bill Clinton, American President, in a bid to request him to support him and persuade the Iranian government to retract the Fatwa, Clinton had to publicly explain, rather defensively, why he met Rushdie.

 Some countries were more bothered about their trade relations with Iran and perhaps wondered if it was really worth endangering trade relations with Iran for the so called freedom of expression.  Some countries wondered if such a pro-Rushdie stance would adversely affect the sale of ‘cheddar cheese’ to Iran and thereby jeopardize their  national economy. Further, to his disappointment, Rushdie also saw other religions and religious groups strongly condemning his book. He saw a strange solidarity in the community of religions when these groups perceived him to be not only an enemy of Islam but an enemy of all religions.

 Although Rushdie survived the Fatwa and the death, some of his colleagues and those involved in the publication of the book paid the price with their lives. The Japanese translator of the “Satanic Verses” was stabbed to death. The Italian translator was stabbed and was seriously wounded. A friend who took initiative to have the paperback edition of the book published in Europe went in coma after he took in several bullets in his body, and remained in the hospital for more than six months.  

 Who Controls Story?

This book narrates a fantastic story of what hell and suffering Rushdie underwent and how he spent a long period condemned in isolation, humiliation, with death constantly hovering over his head. One wonders how strange the world of writing and  writers is and how the convoluted and fierce battles for controlling the story and the narrative are fought among various institutions, political, religious, social and others and how fragile, abstract and relative is the  freedom of expression in our society.   Rushdie's book is an important part of the twentieth century history of struggle for Freedom of Expression. At the heart of Rushdie’s struggle is the crucial problem: who really controls the story and the narrative? Do we really have control over what we feel, think and write? Who exercises this control? Is it the State? Is it the Community of people who share some belief and feel that people’s stories and narratives threaten their community? 

Struggle for Freedom of Expression

As the book progresses, there arise several questions    and the reader starts meditating on these problems.    Is the freedom of expression of writers and artists absolute with no limits to it? Is there a legitimate point up to which society may tolerate writers and their writing?   Is there only one way that the artists and the writers relate themselves to the society, with one provoking the other and the other  getting provoked in turn? Was the world around Rushdie, even  his world that was supporting him, secretly getting exasperated by his arrogance, indifference and obsession with his own self? And lastly, was this really a struggle for freedom of expression of a writer or a personal battle of Salman Rushdie? The book raises these and other issues, some directly and still others not so directly. As we progress with the book, we  start wondering if  Rushdie was not fighting a personal battle, with the world around standing neutral? 

What does one feel after one finishes reading these memoirs? Rushdie’s   memoirs  are brilliant and scintillating and there is lot of storytelling here. The narrative and the story is authentic and the memoirs are told in third person, presumably because the writer can in this flow ensure some kind of an objectivity.  There is also a lot of reflection on the theme and Rushdie has shown again and again that he is not merely a writer of fiction but a thinking writer. Rushdie's memoirs form perhaps the most important document in the history of struggle for freedom of expression of writers in the twentieth century. 

 But Rushdie's memoirs are also not what many had expected they would be.   I am not sure if he has made sufficient efforts to understand his adversaries, his tormentors and sometimes even his supporters. One suspects that Rushdie  knows only one perspective and denies all others.  Further, he has not been able to hide bitterness, animosity and sometimes loud and strong passions against his tormentors. This is understandable. However, what is not understandable is that he has not been able to show enough gratitude towards his protectors and all those who stood behind him.  

Rushdie is in a hurry as if he is on a battlefield and really  comes off in these memoirs more as a Roman warrior obsessed with only two states, victory and defeat. One may argue that this is what the situation was: a struggle for life and survival.  But then literature is much more than this. Literature is not battle. It is a story, a narrative of the battle, and has to be told in a perspective,  a story seen somewhat telescopically.  True and great art is born of the magical touch of love, healing and understanding, which need to come with such a long telescopic vision. Rushdie may be a brilliant writer, a great craftsman of words, a great fighter; but I am afraid, his memoirs still fall a little short of what we might call Great Work of Art.


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