Threading stories

11 December 2012 - 02:01 By Sophy Kohler
LIFE LINES: Sir Salman Rushdie's latest novel, 'Joseph Anton' deals with the years he spent in hiding
LIFE LINES: Sir Salman Rushdie's latest novel, 'Joseph Anton' deals with the years he spent in hiding

SALMAN Rushdie's eponymous memoir, Joseph Anton - more on that later - is perhaps his best work since The Satanic Verses was unveiled in 1988. That this may be the case is strangely appropriate, as Rushdie uses the platform of biography to document, almost exclusively, the life of this, his most controversial novel.

In intelligent prose, dense with metaphor, Rushdie meticulously recounts his years spent in hiding after receiving a death sentence from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini for alleged blasphemy against Islam.

The name he travelled under? "Joseph Anton" - an amalgamation of the first names of two of his favourite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

Rushdie's account comprises three narrative threads - not all equally interesting, indeed some not interesting at all. The first of these is a series of descriptions of Rushdie's constantly moving house. Flanked by a particularly good-looking group from Special Branch, we pack up Rushdie's belongings and move with him from Hilary Rubenstein's country cottage in Oxfordshire to an old rectory in Essex, and so on, to protect his new identity.

The second of the threads is the stories of other people's tragedies. Joseph Anton is, bizarrely, a book about cancer, among other things. The patients - ranging from Nigella Lawson's sister, Thomasina (whose connection to Rushdie is tangential at best), to Susan Sontag - are treated as part of Rushdie's own narrative. By the time we reach one of the book's most pointed lines - "And then Susan Sontag has cancer" - we are immune to his attempt to elicit sympathy. Rushdie's own brief entry into hospital - to have his wisdom teeth removed - comes across as comical.

The last of these threads is the timeline of Rushdie's publishing history. When not moving house, Rushdie is moving publishers, and what Joseph Anton offers is a series of emotional explanations for why the author is now published by Random House and not Penguin. (How frustrated he must be by the recent merger of the two.)

While few survive Rushdie's treatment with their reputations intact, it is Rushdie himself who comes off worst - with the sole exception of his second wife, Marianne Wiggins, who is portrayed as something of a lunatic almost from the start. The problem is that Rushdie insinuates that flaws in his personality are the result of factors outside his control. Our sense of this peaks with Rushdie's affair with American model Padma Lakshmi, whose "beauty was brighter than the sun".

Name-dropping exceeds the level of necessity and, as Rushdie moves between encounters with Thomas Pynchon and Bill Clinton, we are left wondering to what extent he may have benefited from the furore surrounding The Satanic Verses. While life in exile is surely nothing to be dismissed, Rushdie's failure to properly convey the hardships, to make us feel empathy with him, is significant.

Despite its shortcomings, Joseph Anton does grapple with substantial questions, including how "extraterritoriality" - the ability of governments to reach beyond their borders - removes control from individual lives and instantly allows "the unimaginable [to become] imaginable".

Exquisite writing and the odd moment of insight are not enough to rescue the memoir however, and, after 656 pages, Joseph Anton leaves us with little more than a bad taste in the mouth. - Books LIVE

  • 'Joseph Anton: A Memoir' by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, Exclusive Books, R302