He chose the name by combining that of two writers: Joseph (for Conrad) and Anton (for Chekhov). Encrypted in this way, he would have them, as a consolation, in his private heart. Joseph Anton was from then on the alias used by Salman Rushdie to contact the armed police team that would protect him after having entered, from one moment to the next, in a clandestinity that lasted decades.
After the criminal and extemporaneous attack he suffered a few days ago in New York, some intellectuals proposed reading a book by the Anglo-Indian writer, now a US national, as a form of protest or vindication. Others proposed that they give him the Nobel Prize, forgetting that at the time the Swedish committee turned its back on him in a remembered and bitter controversy.
“The memories joseph anton allow them to put themselves in their shoes and share their ordeal firsthand”
An ethical argument does not have to translate into aesthetic voluntarism. After condemning the obvious – the heinous, medieval attack he suffered – Rushdie should be read by those who think his books might interest them. Or, possibly, those who want to corroborate the imbecility of any fundamentalism: if they go to the satanic verses you will find that it is no big deal, not even in heretical terms. If forced to a novel, the natural thing would be to end up in the multi-awarded children of midnight, a key work for the acceptance of postcolonial literature in the heart of the old empire. For a Latin American reader –beyond the interest of the story, centered on a character who was born in coincidence with the independence of India–, it will sound less original than to an English ear. Rushdie remembers, with his stories with a thousand-one-night air, a somewhat delayed follower of magical realism who, in addition, read Borges (there are other echoes too, confessed, such as that of Günter Grass).
However, a barely cited title of his in these days of inevitable semblances could serve to show virtual solidarity with Rushdie. Why? Because he allows you to put yourself in his shoes and share his ordeal firsthand. And understand to what extent his experience has been absurd and cruel. It is about his memoirs, reasonably called, in homage to that false name, joseph anton. An autobiography, but distant, as if the author had become someone else: it is narrated in the third person and that is why there is no lack of disconcerted references to his “old self”, the one before Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa.
“A BBC journalist – whose name he cannot remember – surprised him with a call in February 1989 to ask him what he thought of the death sentence issued from Tehran”
The vital chronology of Rushdie’s first forty years – birth in Bombay, family, studies at Cambridge, the failure of his initial literary attempts, his first marriage – consumes, in fact, barely a hundred pages. What awaits us in the remaining six hundred, the reader wonders? Who warns does not betray. The introductory chapter already proposed a detailed chronicle of the day when everything was turned upside down in a seismic way. A BBC journalist – whose name he cannot remember – surprised him by calling in February 1989 to ask him what he thought of the death sentence issued from Tehran. “It was her – she thought later, when that same day she was read the exact words of Khomeini in a television interview – the edict of a cruel, dying old man”. In Iran, banners were already appearing showing the image of the writer’s face with his eyes gouged out, “as in Hitchcock’s The Birds”, while he attended the religious service for the recent death of his friend, the traveling writer Bruce Chatwin. He only one more time he would sleep in his house. All the rest of what he tells, from then on, is not literature. Or yes: because the story of that hidden and nomadic life, with few and calculated public appearances, is also an immense non-fiction novel, without euphemisms. joseph anton it is a unique book, although Rushdie – so would we – would have preferred to be spared the plot.
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Salman Rushdie aka Joseph Anton