By Salman Rushdie
Knopf Canada, 636 pages, $35
YOU might think that British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie's memoir of his fatwa years and beyond would be a painful and bitter read, but it is surprisingly humorous and enjoyable.
Rushdie, now 65, begins with the ominous phone call in 1989 from a BBC journalist asking "How does it feel to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?"
The infamous fatwa was in reaction to Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie had clearly outraged some Muslims around the world who believed that it ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad, though how many of them had actually read the book remains in question.
Joseph Anton chronicles Rushdie's life, beginning with his childhood in Bombay before he decided at age 13 to go to boarding school in England and later Cambridge. His beloved India, however, left a lasting impact on him and later became the backdrop for his award-winning 1980 novel Midnight's Children.
But it was Rushdie's nine years in hiding after the fatwa, under the oppressive eyes of a round-the-clock protection team, and the outlandish life that ensued as a result, which prevents this book from becoming just another memoir.
The title itself refers to the alias that Rushdie was forced to take on, made up of the first names of two of his favourite authors: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.
Joseph Anton provides an insight into the world of a writer who was so well publicized and yet hardly known at all. Rushdie successfully conveys his sense of frustration and helplessness as he describes his years in hiding and his bid to free himself from being defined by a controversy, made worse by his demonization in the media and inaction of his government.
Rushdie also speaks candidly about his personal life, most notably his series of failed marriages to Clarissa Luard, Marianne Wiggins, Elizabeth West and Padma Lakshmi, and he does take his share of the responsibility for their deterioration.
Deftly interspersed among the self-deprecating humour and moments of scathing wit are passages that are extremely moving. He recounts his sitting at the bed side of his first wife, Luard, as she dies from cancer, and the strain put on the relationship between him and his then nine-year-old son, Zafar, as a result of the fatwa and the difficult years that followed.
With his penchant for breaking the mould, Rushdie writes his memoir in the third person, which can be jarring. The charm of reading a memoir is the sense the reader feels of becoming the author's confidante and yet some of this intimacy is lost in Rushdie's deliberate detachment.
This, along with the fact that the book is a little repetitious and could have been 100 pages shorter, are problems in an otherwise riveting read.
Above all, this memoir is an impassioned battle cry for the defence of literature in a world in which, Rushdie believes, artistic freedom is increasingly under attack, or at the very least stifled.
"There were plenty of people who didn't want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed, they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their own lives."
At a time when the debate between freedom of expression and the sanctity of religion rages on, the publication of Joseph Anton could not be more timely.
Welsh-born Muslim Nadia Kidwai is a journalist based in Winnipeg.