Before the storm: Salman Rushdie has told (almost) all in a frank and zestful memoir

 

Sir Salman Rushdie began taking notes for his memoir Joseph Anton almost as soon as the Ayatollah Khomeini delivered an "unfunny Valentine" on 14 February 1989. "Within about a week or less of this beginning" – the religious edict, or fatwa, against The Satanic Verses, which called on all Muslims to murder its author and his publishers – its target said to himself, "'You're never going to remember all this. You should start writing it down."

This was a gesture of hope. "I always had a sense, in a way a kind of optimistic sense, that 'One day when it's over I'll write about it'. Which was a way of telling me that one day it would be over." Early in his ordeal, when the novelist had reluctantly left his family home in Islington to begin more than nine years in hiding, he told an interviewer that "I can't write about it until I know the last chapter." Now, he says, "There were moments, depressed moments, when I thought, the last chapter could be so violent that I'm not going to be person telling the story. As depressing was the idea that there might never be a last chapter – that this might just go on and on for ever."

Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape, £25) is both a precious historical document, and an immersive, page-turning read. Its author compiled it with the help of 120 boxes of personal papers, donated to Emory University in Georgia and then classified over four years. "After that, I had my whole life catalogued – with bar codes." The memoir takes its title from Rushdie's cover identity as an American publisher: a homage to two of his writer-heroes, Conrad and Chekhov.

Names matter in this story. Rushdie himself saw his true identity stolen and grafted on to a detested scapegoat: "It wasn't just that I had to become another person, but that lots of people were reinventing me." Moreover, as he tells us in tender reminiscences of his father Anis, the family tradition of liberal, eclectic, Sufi-tinted Indian Islam led sceptical Anis to change his surname in homage to the great Muslim philosopher of medieval Spain: Ibn Rushd.

Rushdie refers, in the middle of his dark wood of doubt and dread, to the "intolerable eternity" of the death sentence. Then, in 1998 and with Robin Cook as Labour's new foreign secretary pushing hard for progress, the government of Iran agreed not to rescind the dead Ayatollah's ruling (it had no such power) but to take no steps to enforce it. After the 1997 election, the mood "really did change," he recalls. "The energy that came out of Robin Cook and [his deputy] Derek Fatchett was very important in resolving this." So eternity ended. Rushdie has lived entirely in the open for over a decade, mostly in New York, while the Special Branch's Operation Malachite – the unique "prot" squad that guarded him – stood down long ago. He hears from his contact officer from time to time: "It's never been anything serious. But if I need them, I know how to get them."

We talk in his agent's Bloomsbury office. The knighted author, now 65, looks relaxed, speaks warmly and appears younger than in his hidden decade. Normal service resumed? Not quite. On that very day, violent protests against an apparently blasphemous video convulse the Middle East. A key image in Joseph Anton derives from Hitchcock's film The Birds, with the fatwa as "a sort of prologue… the tale of the moment when the first blackbird lands." Now, he says, "We see these storms of birds at the slightest provocation all over the world, chanting their slogans and believing that they can take human life – the lives of people completely unconnected to whatever it is that's supposed to have annoyed them... When it happened to The Satanic Verses, it was kind of an early harbinger of what later became a storm."

Bulky, pacey, intimate, surreal, whipped along by love and scorn, and overflowing with all the tall tales, salty digressions and ripe bit-parts of – well, of a Salman Rushdie novel –Joseph Anton exerts a mesmeric hold with its high-octane storytelling, even as the car-crash fascination of its content grips. It names names. It gives addresses – not just streets, but numbers. We know where he lived, even though he now believes that during those first days of panic and confusion, "I should have said, I'm going home". It annotates his meetings with PMs, presidents and policemen. It pays heartfelt tribute to the sardonic, sympathetic officers of Malachite. So much for the "ungrateful" Rushdie of myth: "They were very friendly relationships, and after all, if you live with someone for a long time, you do get to know a lot about them".

It tells the story of four marriages ("slightly too many marriages"), of two children, and of bereavement (his first wife, Clarissa Luard, died in 1999). It hands out bouquets, to campaigners, champions, sentinels and even tight-lipped London builders: "An enormous number of people did the right thing." And it flings the odd curse too – above all, at liberal appeasers of the zealots' fury: "I think this is a historical mistake of the progressive left. The sense that people who say they're offended have a right to have their offendedness assuaged." For him, free expression ranks as "the right without which all the other rights disappear". It is "the bedrock … If you compromise on that, you lose everything else."

Joseph Anton sits squarely within the canon of Rushdie's books, a swerve into non-fiction but not an outlier. "That was the thing I most wanted for this – that it should feel like one of my books and not like a freak consequence of something that happened to me." Michael Herr, author of the classic Vietnam War reportage Dispatches, crops up among his guardians. With its third-person narration (the writer is "he"), density of circumstantial detail and cracking pace over rich but rough ground, the memoir reminded me of a "non-fiction novel" in the vein of Herr, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson and Truman Capote. If not In Cold Blood (though of course one translator died; another was gravely injured; his Norwegian publisher survived three bullets in the back), then In Cold Sweat. He agrees, and notes that this chronicle of craziness called for a cool, even voice: "What's happening is so surrealistic, melodramatic, over-the-top... don't over-egg it."

I also ask the cliché question: how did his plight – a decade as a dead man walking – change him? He parries with a "cliché answer: 'Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger'." More seriously, "It showed me that I was a more resilient individual that I thought I was. If you had told me the story before it happened and said, 'How do you think you'll deal with that?', I would not have bet on myself to deal with it that way.... But I feel that I was able to come through it, with a lot of help from people who love me. It's information about oneself."

Those "people who love me" – his former wives, apart from the unreconciled second, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins; his sons Zafar and Milan; his sister Sameen; the agents Deborah Rogers, Gillon Aitken and Andrew Wylie; hosts such as Pauline Melville, James Fenton, Margaret Drabble and Liz Calder – kept him alive, and kicking, when the irked state sought to wash its hands. For a start, these friends had to house him. "There was this public idea that I was being accommodated at the expense of the state in government safe houses… But I have never in my life seen a government safe house. It was made very clear to me not only that I could not go home, but that it was up to me to find places to go. One of things I'm most happy about is to have had the chance to talk about how much people helped me."

The Major government proffered only tepid support, with the Foreign Office notably hostile ("that sense I'd made a terrible nuisance of myself and didn't deserve any kind of major effort was there in quite a lot of the civil servants I met"). Other foes dog endeavours to keep his cause afloat. Self-appointed "community leaders" misconstrue the unread The Satanic Verses – with its dream sequence in the mind of a deluded man – and turn co-religionists against him. "One of things that has been very effective, and has probably done the greatest long-term damage... is the campaign inside the Muslim world to demonise me, and to make me out to be an arch-enemy of Islam."

He must also battle his own frailty, especially when – in late 1990, close to despair – he committed his "Great Mistake" and briefly made a profession of faith to pacify his pursuers. At this "bottom of the barrel", he can't draw on the journals because "it's clear, reading them, that the person writing them is in bad mental shape." Yet he knew at once that it was "the stupidest thing I ever did… My body recognised it before my brain. I came out of that meeting literally feeling like throwing up."

In retrospect, "'I see it as a turning-point – not just in this story, but in my life." After that nadir, he chose to fight, embarking on long, weary years of advocacy. Not until 1995, and The Moor's Last Sigh, did Rushdie the novelist of crossed borders and blended cultures return. What's remarkable is that the generous, exuberant post-fatwa novels of mingling and migration read so much as natural extensions of a line that stretches back to Midnight's Children. "One of the things I'm proud of is that early on, I told myself that's what I should try to do. There are these ... elephant-traps: I could have been frightened into writing inoffensive little timid books, or distracted into writing embittered, angry books. And both of those are destruction for me."

Joseph Anton not only reveals political secrets, but personal ones. Its frankness about the strain of marriage on virtual death-row – to Wiggins, then to the editor Elizabeth West, and in the aftermath to actress-presenter Padma Lakshmi – will have jaws dropping. Apart from Wiggins, the ex-wives read and, after amendments, consented to these passages. As for his first marriage, and the woman whose beloved shadow falls across the book, "Clarissa wasn't around to read it, but Zafar [their son] read it, and certainly if he had felt awkward with anything about his mother, I would have respected that. But he liked it very much... With the exception of Marianne, I'm on perfectly good terms with everyone I've been closely connected to, and this isn't going to come to them as a surprise."

There it is," Rushdie concludes. "I can't be more honest, more open, more detailed, than this. Whatever people make of the book, I hope that they will see that it's written by somebody who's really trying to tell the truth – who is not being defensive or revisionist." Currently, he plots a return to fiction, and "can't think of anything nicer than spending a couple of years quietly in a room trying to make up a story." But the moving image has always lured Rushdie - a walk-on actor in Bridget Jones's Diary, author of a monograph on The Wizard of Oz, and with Deepa Mehta's film of Midnight's Children, which he both wrote and narrated, due to open soon. He has a TV project afoot in the US, a "paranoid politics-slash-science fiction series called The Next People, for Showtime". Now, "paranoid politics-slash-science fiction" might strike the reader as a thumbnail sketch of Rushdie's bizarre, afflicted yet oddly exhilarating journey through Joseph Anton. As the blackbirds flock again, let's hope that such a weird hybrid stays firmly in the studio.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent