Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie – review

Salman Rushdie's account of surviving a fatwa is brutally honest and profound

One of the heroes of Rushdie's memoir is a handsome, tennis-playing, gun-carrying police protection officer called Stan, which may or may not be his real name. His first reaction to the fatwa was simple. "It can't be allowed… threatening a British citizen. It's not on. It'll get sorted." As we know, it took years to sort and arguments against the dying ayatollah's death sentence span out of control into impassioned and often intemperate debates about the blasphemy laws, freedom of speech, the nature of fiction, cultural relativism, Islam, the narrowing of national identities and the alleged cost to the British nation of Stan, his colleagues and Operation Malachite. Rushdie's bold, complex and literary novel, The Satanic Verses, was hijacked by the exterminating angels of wrath, a wrath that still flames around us. Some were killed, many were threatened. It continues.

Rushdie has now told his version of events and it is more gripping than any spy story. Having resisted commercial attempts to fictionalise his life, he has attempted to tell his own truth. It cannot have been easy. He kept a journal, but, being a clever and would-be honest man, he knows we deceive and bowdlerise even in our journals and admits it. Doris Lessing urged him to tell the whole truth, like Rousseau, but he failed, as she did.

For his double life, he was obliged to turn himself into a fictional character and he became Joseph Anton, after Conrad and Chekhov. The former he describes as "the trans-lingual creator of wanderers… of secret agents in a world of killers and bombs, and of at least one immortal coward, hiding from his shame". The reference to Lord Jim (which could also apply to Razumov, in Conrad's novel of anarchy and terrorism, Under Western Eyes) is suggestive and Rushdie (an authority on Shame) is not afraid to show himself as a coward and a clown, hiding from a sheep farmer behind a kitchen dresser in Wales, shutting himself into bathrooms in north London to avoid a plumber or a cleaner. He turns himself into an almost Falstaffian figure, shabby and overweight, letting himself go, smoking, at times drinking too much and quarrelling with a succession of wives.

The surviving wives cannot have looked forward with pleasure to this publication, which tells us more perhaps than we need to know. The disclosures make for powerful reading, but the device of writing in the third person does little to distance the domestic rows about matters great and small – infidelity, video games, pregnancies, fertility, security. They are all too close, all too present. It is a tragicomic account of a life lived under great pressure, where Rushdie's self-confessed "need to be loved" led him to make disastrous mistakes. Wife after wife told him she did not like living under his shadow. Maybe they, too, can now walk free.

Others won't like what they read here. Rushdie has seized the opportunity to settle scores with many of those who, he felt, let him down or abused him. Like most writers, he never forgets a bad review. His foes range bizarrely from outspoken fatwa supporters including the Muslim convert "Stupid" Cat Stevens, the unforgivable (Sir) Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain and the "garden gnome" Kalim Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute, to writers Roald Dahl ("a long unpleasant man with huge strangler's hands"), Arundhati Roy and Louis de Bernières, who had variously criticised him, crossed him or bored him. Broadcaster Mark Lawson is ticked off for having endorsed the view that he was "pompous" and for having complained that Rushdie once hijacked his taxi. MP Keith Vaz and literary journalist James Wood emerge as Vicars of Bray, the first for having supported then rejected the fatwa, the second for having altered the content of a review of a Rushdie novel between the UK and the US to please his US "paymasters".

As gossip, this is very entertaining, though not always very edifying. There is also, in the second half of the book, too much about who won or didn't win the Booker prize: too many prizes and speeches, too much of internecine literary politics. In the orbit of the charismatic Bill Clinton, both Rushdie's entourage and his prose seem to wander a bit off track. Rushdie, as he knows, is far from immune to glamour and celebrity. An invisible man in hiding, he longed for the limelight and for public recognition of his work. Other less party-going writers could have disappeared more easily.

This memoir, like the novel it might have been, is full both of telling trivia and profound insights. The sections that describe Rushdie's family background, the death of his father and his schooldays are excellent. It is at once a personal history, an account of a butterfly's wing called The Satanic Verses and an analysis of the catastrophic chaos that the flapping of those pages unleashed. Rushdie appears to take a gloomy view about the chaos: true, his book was published, he and his family survived, his nation and his publishers were on the whole loyal to him, but the world is now a less safe place and the dream of an opened universe where we are allowed broad-based identities seems further off than ever. His book, as he puts it, was but the prologue and we are still grappling with the "main event". Some will blame him for the hubris of this statement and they will be the same people who blame him for his failures to apologise. He can't know, we can't know, what would have happened if he hadn't published that novel, if the old imam on his deathbed hadn't issued a fatwa against the author of a book he had never read. Walter Benjamin's angel of history looks backward and sees destruction, but can never see what might have been.

As it happens, I spent my 50th birthday, on 5 June 1989, with Salman at our house at Porlock Weir, where he and his then wife, Marianne, had been staying for some weeks. It was two days after the ayatollah's death and a day after Tiananmen Square. As he recounts, the Holroyds and the Rushdies spent the evening "half celebratory, half shocked by history", watching on TV the immense crowd flailing around the bier. Salman (or perhaps Stan) had bought me a chocolate egg in Minehead.

In our absence, he and Special Branch had been unable to get to grips with the problem of the ever-flashing oven clock and had covered it with a strip of Elastoplast. The answer was a ballpoint pen, but I'm not sure he was very pleased to discover the solution was so simple. There's a metaphor there, but I'm not sure what it is.

My first reaction to the news of the fatwa was identical to Stan's. Threatening a British citizen, and in a country that had at last abolished the death penalty, was not on. I was (and remain) outraged and I was happy to help by offering the house as sanctuary. It had a good view and a man under house arrest needs a view. Like Stan, I thought the fatwa would be lifted in a matter of weeks. It wasn't.

I would have been more than happy to offer evidence in court for the literary merit of The Satanic Verses, a defence Salman would have appreciated. Like Michael Foot, I had greatly admired the novel, particularly the passages about Thatcher's subversive, divided multicultural London. But this defence was never required. And, in the long run, it wasn't needed. Rushdie's work has rightly won worldwide recognition. He is a great writer and he has been brave enough to portray himself as a coward scuttling for cover and hiding behind a kitchen dresser. That takes courage, too.

Margaret Drabble

The GuardianTramp

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