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 Salman Rushdie: His autobiography is as multi-layered as his fiction 

In 1988, the highest bid for the English language rights for The Satanic Verses bettered its nearest rival by a full $100,000. The literary agent Andrew Wylie belied his nickname of "the Jackal" when he told his client to turn the offer down. "Could you just explain again why I should not agree to receive an extra one hundred thousand dollars?" his puzzled author asked. Wylie was adamant. A company owned by Rupert Murdoch "would be the wrong publishers for you". Salman Rushdie sighed and agreed, contradicting all those who were to claim that he was in writing to get rich as he did it.

After the storm broke, Murdoch told the New Yorker, "I think you should not give offence to people's religious beliefs. I hope that our people would never have published the Salman Rushdie book." If Rushdie had gone for the money, Murdoch would have pulped his novel.

Rushdie's autobiography, Joseph Anton — the pseudonym he adopted when he went underground — is as multi-layered as his fiction. At times it reads like a literary Day of the Jackal. You know Rushdie must survive, just as you know that Charles de Gaulle must survive, yet the intensity of the malevolence directed against him makes you wonder how he can live. It is a psychological study of disintegration and redemption. Rushdie is in fear of his life and the lives of his young son and all those associated with his work. Assassins murder one of his translators and wound a second. Terrorists bomb libraries and bookshops from Karachi to the Charing Cross Road. Special Branch move him from house to house so often he can never settle. Whitehall tells him to keep quiet so as not to provoke his enemies. He is humiliated, afraid, isolated and silenced. Rushdie pulls himself together by ignoring the authorities, and taking on his adversaries in argument — and there is a lesson for us all there.

But as the Murdoch example illustrates, most of all and most depressingly, Joseph Anton is an account of how comfortable people in Western democracies react to the threat of political violence.

Not well is the politest available answer.

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Martin Podhurst
December 22nd, 2012
12:12 PM
This is an important review with a great, all too appropriate title. Just read Zoe Heller's smug review and yours is spot on. Thank you.

Ed Cottrill
November 23rd, 2012
11:11 PM
Great piece, Nick. Rushdie did make some comparisons between Britain and Nazi Germany in his essay, "The New Empire Within Britain," published in 1982. Rushdie does say, "Britain isn't Nazi Germany," but he also states that Britain, unlike Nazi Germany, "has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism. It's still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupolous people to exploit it for their own ends." Howe's statement, though, was reported as (I can't say I heard it), "The British Government, the British People, do not have any affection for the book. The book is extremely critical, rude about us. It compares Britain with Hitler's Germany." So Howe was eager to affirm a lack of "affection," on behalf of the government, for a book he had not read. The government apparently so cherished its relationship with Iran that their first concern was to put together a poorly-researched brief distancing themselves from Rushdie. And was Rushdie's 1982 essay fair comment? Look no further than, e.g., the comment section of the 11 September Daily Mail story on Rushdie, for expositions on "what I can't stand about him," and, "we have this guy to blame for the rise of modern day Islamic Extremism." Astonishing.

November 6th, 2012
2:11 PM
Well said Nick. This is a well-written and important book, and its importance has nothing to do with whether you like Salman Rushdie or his work. Their stance on the fatwa is a good rule of thumb for assessing the politicians and writers of the time.

Charles Lambert
October 26th, 2012
9:10 AM
I still remember the despicable Shirley Williams bleating on about the 'deep offence' caused by Satanic Verses (in my opinion, Rushdie's best novel...) and the 'inappropriateness' of his receiving a knighthood... And the tongue-lashing she received from Hitchens (C) as a result.

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