Journal of the plague years

(Published in the Business Standard, September 2012)

A meme, defined by Richard Dawkins, is a unit of cultural transmission by which ideas spread through a network. If the idea catches on, it transmits itself, spreading from brain to brain.

The Rushdie meme was born on Valentine’s Day, 1989, after the edict of a “cruel and dying man” was passed against the author. The Ayatollah Khomeini called on proud Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, his editors, publishers and “anyone aware of its contents”, so that “no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth”.

It accomplished three things: it sent the novelist into hiding for years, his life hedged in by security details and policemen in the kitchen, his new identity, Joseph Anton, borrowed from Conrad and Chekhov. It disapparated The Satanic Verses as a novel; as Rushdie writes, the book became an Insult, losing its identity. And it started the Rushdie meme, the reduction of one of the world’s most imaginative and questioning writers into a virus that popped up every time there was a free speech controversy: remember The Satanic Verses! Remember what they did to Rushdie!

If Joseph Anton is a diary of the plague years, it is also an act of reclamation by Rushdie, a writer’s memoir that takes its place alongside Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Living To Tell The Tale, or Coetzee’s Boy and Youth. Like Coetzee, Rushdie uses the third person as a way of telling his story with more objectivity: “…Although he did not know it then, so that the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning, he would not go back to that house, his home for five years, until three years later, by which time it was no longer his.” This works only intermittently—elegant in the first section, it’s stilted and awkward in many later passages.

He tells it all, as it happened; the writer in a marriage already cracked and brittle, the slow acceptance that nothing in his life would stay the way it had been, the few moments when the four horsemen of cowardice, doubt, depression and drink ride roughshod over his life.

Oddly for a man often accused of egotism, he doesn’t lay claim to the many acts of bravery and defences of the word he was responsible for, as an active member and then the President of US PEN. This memoir is largely silent on Rushdie’s activism, though it is eloquent on the subject of his weaknesses. He never forgets the list of those who were killed or injured by Khomeini’s footsoldiers: Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher (who survived), Ettore Capriolo, who was seriously injured. He never forgets the friends who cast a protective circle around him, even as he never forgets or forgives his critics and enemies.

Over the next few years, Khomeini’s fatwa sets out the borders and boundaries of his life; he and his family and their police details are on one side of the frontier, separated from a life of spontaneous normalcy as though it was a distant country, lived in and inhabited by them an age ago.

In one of his worst moments, he cannot reach his son and his first wife, Clarissa, and has to imagine what might have happened to them. In another terrible period, he commits the ultimate act of apostasy, declaring himself a believer, apologizing to the faithful for the offence caused. Reclaiming his true self will take years, but will be a relief.  His personal litany invokes a writer’s gods: “Madame Bovary, Leopold Bloom, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Raskolnikov, Gandalf the Grey, Oskar Matzerath, the Makioka Sisters, the Continental Op, the Earl of Emsworth, Miss Marple, the Baron In The Trees, and Salo the mechanical messenger from the planet Tralfamadore in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.”

The memoir bulges with too much detail; his almost gleeful obsession with celebrity, stories of taking the stage with Bono, of being treated to a view of William Styron’s genitals, too many stories of minor encounters with major celebrities and vice versa, gossip and grudge lists peppering and spicing the memoir. This is both annoying and disarming: he is as honest about this as he is about every other part of his life, even when it’s to his detriment.

He marries often and disastrously, he breaks up a good marriage with Elizabeth West to marry the wrong woman, Padma Lakshmi. But the marriage that stays with the reader longest is the story of Rushdie’s parents, the love between them that depended on Rushdie’s mother maintaining a “forgettery”, the tradition of unbelief and questioning everyone, even Allah, even God, that his father passes on to him.

Hitchcock’s Birds—the apocalyptic blackbirds, landing one by one, signaling a much larger war between Chup and Gup than just the war over Rushdie—give way in the second chapter to “the great wonder tales of the East”, Scheherezade and the Simurgh. Science fiction shapes him as much as Scheherezade; Rushdie discovers over time the ideas that he will live by, and argues here, as he has argued so beautifully in Step Across This Line and in Haroun and The Sea of Stories for the right of storytellers to be free.

His aliases were well chosen: Conrad gave him the wanderer’s freedom, and a commandment—“You must live until you die.” Chekhov gives him “the beauty of the old world destroyed”. Joseph Anton will last, just as much as any of Rushdie’s essays and his fiction. If it is the memoir of an egotist or international celebrity, an adult version of the Boy Who Lived, as some have said, it is also, and most essentially, the memoir of a writer, a teller of tales.