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I am currently reading Salman Rushdie’s new book – Joseph Anton: A Memoir
It describes Rushdie’s life since the fatwa against him was declared on February 14 1989 – Valentines Day. This was the day he was “sentenced to death” by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for his novel The Satanic Verses. This fatwa is still in place – Rushdie says he still receives a “sort of Valentine’s card” from Iran each year on 14 February letting him know the country has not forgotten the vow to kill him. He said, “It’s reached the point where it’s a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.” Still, a semi-official religious foundation in Iran recently increased the reward it had offered for the killing of Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million dollars.

One might have thought after 24 years this would be old news, the book should more a contribution to the historical record and not a best seller. Sadly, this is not so. Other authors have received similar fatwas or had been assassinated -  such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Tahar_Djaout, Farag FoudaAziz Nesin, Ugur Mumcu and Taslima Nasreen. Religious violence erupted again recently over a silly US video about Islam. A 14 year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousufzai’, was recently shot for he public stand against extremist Taliban militants who used fear and intimidation to prevent girls attending schools. People are still dying. The issue hasn’t gone away.

It’s worth reading this week’s NZ Listener. It has an interesting interview with Rushdie and its front cover declares:

“Religious fanaticism has to stop.”

I think that is an important message and more and more people are coming to that conclusions.

Irony and gossip

Joseph Anton may be Rushdie’s best book. Mind you it probably depends on genre preferences. But it’s certainly about a very important issue and an important time in history. Rushdie also brings to the book his skill with colourful language obvious in his novels. But he also writes humorously and with much irony. There was certainly a lot to be ironic about. Prince Charles was one of his critics – complaining about the cost to the nation of Rushdie’s security. The author Ian McEwan told Spanish journalists: “Prince Charles costs much more to protect than Rushdie and has never written anything of interest.”

Of course his narrative is “one side” of the story, and this may be relevant when he writes about personal disputes and conflicts, but that is what we must expect of a memoir.

At over 600 pages some readers may hesitate but the important story, the lively writing, the personal and political conflicts, and, above all, the psychological stress the author undergoes makes the length irrelevant. Readers will probably wish it was longer.

So where does the name Joseph Anton come from? Early on Rushdie’s security team asked for a new name. One they could use continually for him and thus prevent mistaken reference to him in public. He chose the first names of the writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. And in keeping with the change of name he writes the book in the third person. A device which, he claims, helped his writing, but which occasionally makes the reader stop and think when they encounter pronouns in situations involving several people.

I highly recommend the book. It’s surprisingly relevant to today’s situation (unfortunately) and will even satisfy those who love to gossip.

See also:
Salman Rushdie’s new book, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s reaction
Rushdie Relives Difficult Years Spent in Hiding
Life During Fatwa: Hiding in a World Newly Broken
Muslim Rage & The Last Gasp of Islamic Hate

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