Salman Rushdie’s Breathtaking New Memoir, Joseph Anton: Without Words, What is Life?
I met Salman Rushdie once at a party. I was reluctantly pulled toward him, while my captor belted out, "SALMAN, YOU ARE HER FAVORITE AUTHOR!" He and I both blinked at each other, aware of the awkwardness of the situation. I stammered out, "Yes, you're my favorite author," and Mr. Rushdie said, "Oh, that's nice. Thank you." Then we both walked away, not wanting to prolong the forced moment. Afterward, I was annoyed with my captor for thrusting me into the meeting so abruptly, without giving me time to prepare. If I had been able to collect my thoughts, I imagine the scene would have played out similarly to one in Rushdie's new memoir, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. He recalls a reading of Midnight's Children in which an Indian lady stood up and told him, "Thank you, Mr. Rushdie, because you have told my story." Rushdie remembers this moment emotionally, recalling a "lump rise in his throat." What a moment we would have had then!
Because he told my hyphenated story so well, in different forms, over the years, I was thrilled to finally be able to read his story. Joseph Anton is written in the third person, as a novel might be, with the kind of flowing narrative only Rushdie can create. The title is taken from his protective moniker used during the fatwa years, which are the main focus of the memoir: Joseph, for Joseph Conrad, and Anton for Anton Chekov. The decision to cobble together an identity from two favorite authors speaks as much to Rushdie's story as does the story itself. His fight was not, as certain parties have suggested, born out of arrogance or attention-seeking. His fight was always for the art of literature, the art of the word. Throughout Rushdie's memoir this is what he seeks to stress, and what comes through clearly: Words have driven his life and fed his soul, and he was, and will always be, dedicated to their cause. His struggles boiled down to a simple belief: Without freedom of words, what is life?
In Joseph Anton, Rushdie mentions a few instances where, upon the publication of a new book, the reviews were centered more around his political life than the book itself. I would like not to make the same mistake, though it becomes difficult when the book is about his political life. But, at the end of the day, what this book is really about is books themselves: the beauty of books, the freedom to write books, and the freedom to read books. So again, though he is telling his own story, Rushdie has deftly managed to tell mine. Thank you, Mr. Rushdie, for telling our story.