Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Living Under the Fatwa. . .

Joseph Anton is written in the third person, which seems appropriate, not only because this is mainly the story of Rushdie's life living under this pseudonym concocted for the police who were protecting him, but as a skeptical but appreciative reader of memoirs, why not "construct" your life as a separate character? One is never going to discover the full truths of a person's life or personality through their autobiography and even less so, I imagine, if the author is a talented writer.

I was a bookseller when The Satanic Verses came out and yes, there was a copy sloppily set on fire in the store, and I well remember all the heightened security when we hosted an event  for The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  The ongoing story of the fatwa and the debates over the cost and need for Rushdie's protection were never as intensely covered in Canada as they were in the U.K. and it was this detailed account, as well as insight into the enormous and time consuming efforts by hundreds of people and organisations lobbying to remove the fatwa that made this an absorbing and important read. The nuances, egotism, political interests and manipulation of language in the taut tightrope that is international diplomacy are fascinating.  I also enjoyed the parts where Rushdie described his inspiration behind his novels and the difficulties - ironically -  his sheltered life created for his writing one.  The almost decade long struggle to get out the paperback edition of The Satanic Verses was also very interesting and disheartening to read about.  His agents were relentless and tireless in their support; sadly his publishers were not.

There is a lot of famous name dropping, some of it valid in terms of the writers and politicians who supported him (and those who didn't),  and a lot of it quite inconsequential; I didn't really care which celebrities he fleetingly bumped into at parties. His genuine concern for the safety of his family and friends, particularly his sons, is very moving; his views on the relationships with the women in his life leave a rather disagreeable taint, in the sense that none of them come off in a particularly positive light and it feels as if the reader is reluctantly forced into invading their privacy. But I gather that would always be a risk if one got involved with a writer.

His story will always be an important and celebrated one in the history of censorship and freedom of speech, and it has been well worthwhile to read his own account of it.  Here he sums up exactly what was and continues to be at stake:

Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. 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. Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed towards ever narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat, or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha'i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became, the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them. Literature's view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, towards narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.  There were plenty of people who didn't want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their lives.

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