Archive for October, 2012

Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

October 10, 2012

A 650-page memoir is bound to be a little indulgent and self-obsessed, but Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton disappoints in almost every way imaginable. I have long been a fan of much of Rushdie’s fiction, particularly his use of magical realism that blends the realms of reality and fantasy in compelling ways. Rushdie’s life story also provides intrinsically interesting material as he went into hiding for over a decade in order to thwart the implementation of an Iranian fatwa demanding his death. Running from international assassins created immense hardships for Rushdie, and his book makes one strongly empathize with the author’s position. That justifies, maybe, 100 pages, and the rest is a mixture of the tedious and the banal.

One major flaw in the work is Rushdie’s lack of insight into religious matters. This is unsurprising perhaps. I have always thought that the most problematic aspect of The Satanic Verses is not its offense to religion but rather its totally superficial treatment of Islam. The novel is simply bad rather than blasphemous. Rushdie has made no progress it seems and still fails to engage with religion in any substantive way. In this sense, Rushdie seems to entirely miss that part of what frustrated the public during the fatwa years was that the battle was fought over somebody who doesn’t have anything to contribute to discussions about faith in the modern world. This in no way lessens the value of Rushdie’s life or the importance of him receiving police protection, but it does make one lament a missed opportunity.

Rushdie also offers little in the way of discerning political commentary in his memoirs. He passionately and eloquently defends free speech, which is a redeeming aspect of the book. But he fails to elaborate on what that free speech means and what we can do with it. I will defend the right of Rushdie and anybody else to express themselves as they see fit, no matter how upsetting it may be. But it is much more fulfilling to hear interesting ideas rather than repetitive proclamations of self-righteousness.

Last, Rushdie focuses an immense amount in Joseph Anton on his personal life and friendships. The lurid details of the 1980s-90s publishing world will interest some, and for the rest there is his series of failed relationships with women. For an author that displays such wonderful and captivating imagination in his fiction, Rushdie exhibits a total absence of creativity in his personal life. He openly admits to lacking any moral backbone but does not even provide any interesting reflections on this character flaw. Here he comes across as simply a sad, pitiable man.