Author Salman Rushdie.
By Salman Rushdie. Jonathan Cape. 630pp. $35.
Reviewer: PETER CRAVEN
Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie.
What strange crimes against nature have circled round Salman Rushdie. In the mid '80s I spent an afternoon and an evening with him - less, it became evident, because of the brilliance of the interview we at Scripsi had done with him than because of his blatant attraction to the female member of our triad. He was at that point in his late 30s, the author of at least one masterpiece, Midnight's Children, and a very viable red-blooded successor, Shame. He told us he wanted to write a book about Islam ''which was not simply a secular sneer''. Who would have thought that before the end of the decade the book that resulted, The Satanic Verses, would literally put his life at risk? That he would become the object of a fatwa from the Iranian government that put a price on his head and urged his killing on righteous Muslims everywhere. Joseph Anton, this compelling, mesmeric, sometimes maddening monster of a book is the saga of that ordeal.
Joseph Anton was the pseudonym Salman Rushdie adopted using the first names of his favourite writers, Conrad and Chekhov, during the long period when he was in hiding from his would-be assassins, moving from house to house, being looked after by ''A'' squad and Special Branch and sharing his home with these highly skilled coppers and security men.
It's an extraordinary saga and the last thing anyone should do is blame the victim of this example of state-sponsored terrorism and of fundamentalist religion gone mad and murderous. It's true that Indira Gandhi took Rushdie to court (and won) for the portrait of her in Midnight's Children and that the figure based on General Zia ul Haq in Shame is depicted with a retarded daughter (and the real-life dictator had just such a daughter), except in the novel she becomes an avenging monster. It's true too that Rushdie is, manifestly, a man of histrionic temperament and amour propre and that his capacity for causing a splash suggests, with hindsight, that he was always working his way around to Mohammed.
So what? The fatwa was ghastly, barbarous, inexcusable by any religious or human standard. The fact that Rushdie was supported, with various degrees of fervency, by everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Susan Sontag is to their credit and the fact that he was sneered at and reviled by all sorts of people from Hugh Trevor-Roper to Roald Dahl is to their enduring discredit.
In the course of this long but always very readable history of Rushdie's troubles there is, it has to be admitted, a more or less infinite (and endlessly articulated) demonstration of his capacity for complaint. How dare Douglas Hurd say that his greatest ordeal as Foreign Secretary was having to read The Satanic Verses? How dare the Thatcher government be so faint-hearted in their support of his right to publish and his basic right to life as well as liberty? And how could the Western governments of the world - let alone treacherous publishers such as Penguin - collude with murderous tyranny by not backing him at all costs?
Part of the difficulty in getting Joseph Anton into perspective is that Rushdie is always right in principle though he has the habit of expressing this with overwhelming self-centredness. There are times when you get a hint of why John le Carre might have carried on about the publishers' office girls whose lives were put at risk as being more important than this drama queen's royalties. Or why publishers from Peter Mayer at Penguin to (at one point) Sonny Mehta at Random House might have backed off.
After all, the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses was wounded and the Japanese translator was murdered. But the alpha and omega of this story is that Rushdie was threatened by murderous barbarism - his own highly developed tendency to sound like Laurence Olivier reading from the Book of Job cannot change that.
And part of the fascination of Joseph Anton is the way Rushdie with an almost fantastic histrionic blindness indicates what a fur-lined purgatory his period in hiding was. He was forever being lent James Fenton's house in the country, or Margaret Drabble's or whoever's. And the security people who looked after him - particularly the blokes in the house - come across as an extraordinarily impressive bunch of the best of British.
And, God knows, the terrors and the heartache must have been extraordinary. Rushdie was sustained by the loyalty of the literary world, by and large, and by the amazing efforts of his agents - Gillon Aitken in London and Andrew Wylie in New York - both of whom come across as men who know how to fight Nazis and quislings when they see them.
Joseph Anton is a strange book because it is written in the third person but almost as if Rushdie had pressed a button and got his computer to make every ''I'' a ''he''. He is in no sense an object of narrative irony in this book as the narrator of a Helen Garner or a Janet Malcolm non-fiction story can be. On the other hand, although the figure at the centre of Joseph Anton can appear massively egotistical as he discards wives and leaves children, he does open himself up to the scrutiny of the world in this respect. And we don't quite concur with the critic Hermione Lee who says to him after he has left wife three, Elizabeth West, for the beautiful model Padma Lakshmi (a case of Eve and the Serpent in reverse power ratios it seems) that he is ''a scoundrel''.
Even if you think the fatwa was damaging to the work of the man who became the most famous writer in the world as a consequence, the incidental stories about the rich and famous and powerful, however much they may decorate the chronicle of a beleagured man's remembrance, are pretty dazzling. When he meets Thatcher he is amazed that the Iron Lady is so touchy-feely, running her fingers up and down his arm. There is, at last, a not entirely rewarding meeting with Bill Clinton and a very powerfully worded letter to Tony Blair, detailing their meetings and the PM's inadequacies. There are entirely winning stories about Warren Beatty dazzled by Padma, of Marianne Wiggins (wife two) making up stories about the CIA, of Hugh Grant's screen kiss with Rushdie that went on the floor of the cutting room and Jerry Seinfeld's fear of having offended the great author. There's a wonderfully transgressive joke Garry Shandling made at a dinner that included Steve Martin - a few weeks after September 11.
This is a riveting book by a megalomaniac of a man who is not only one of nature's born raconteurs but a genuine martyr who has somehow survived. It is vainglorious, racketingly self-regarding, sometimes a bit shabby and morally undone, but it is consistently captivating.