Salman Rushdie in 1992, three years after the fatwa was pronounced © Corbis

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, £25/Random House, $30, 656 pages

Salman Rushdie’s many detractors would argue that he knew what he was doing when he borrowed from the so-called “Satanic Verses” in his 1988 novel named after them. Those who wished him dead thought him an enemy of the true faith whose purpose was to degrade it; the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa – a last act, writes Rushdie in this memoir, of “a cruel and dying old man” – gave murder theological underpinning. Those who merely disapproved thought he was manufacturing a controversy. The story of Joseph Anton (Rushdie’s code name while in hiding, homage to Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov), is of the years of enforced disappearance that the fatwa imposed.

That the emotions stirred up by the “Rushdie affair” are still close to the surface could not have been clearer over the past two weeks. Innocence of Muslims, a ridiculously malignant film produced by – it seems – a group of anti-Islamic Coptic Christians in the US, has provoked riots and deaths in Muslim communities around the world. On Wednesday, further provocation arrived with the publication of a series of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. As with the anger manufactured over Submission, the 2004 Dutch film by Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and that in 2005 over cartoons representing the Prophet in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, the current convulsions have their template in the long and bloody struggle over The Satanic Verses.

The import and provenance of the story on which Rushdie drew have been debated – generally peaceably – for centuries. In the western orientalist telling, now largely rejected by Muslim scholars, the Prophet utters the verses to commend three female winged goddesses worshipped by the citizens of Mecca. Later, he recants, claiming he had been influenced by the devil into endorsing polytheism.

Whatever its title may suggest, neither the verses nor Islam as whole were at the core of a novel that Rushdie sees as a parable of the immigrant experience. Raised in a largely non-observant Muslim family in Mumbai, he had agreed with his Cambridge-educated lawyer father – “a godless man who knew and thought a great deal about God” – that holy texts, such as the Koran, were products of their time rather than revelations for eternity. It was in this spirit that he wrote The Satanic Verses, at a happy moment when, after an education at Rugby and Cambridge, a spell in copywriting hell and bad-first-fiction purgatory, he had climbed briskly to the summit of literary fame with the Booker prizewinning Midnight’s Children (1981), followed by Shame (1983).

Rushdie did know what he was doing. Like any serious novelist, he was working elements of his world into a narrative – in this case, into one that, even more than his previous work, shifted registers constantly between fantasy, social commentary, comedy and acute characterisation. He used the verses as he did all else in his fiction – ruthlessly, that is, taken from one context and shaped into another, just as (I discovered in reading Joseph Anton) he had worked a story about a New Statesman critic offering himself naked to an uninterested woman into a comic passage about one of his characters, Gibreel.

Thus built into the memoir is this root disjunction – between those who wished to avenge an insult or scorned Rushdie for self-promotion, and those who saw him as a free man in a democratic country, who had written a novel. The would-be murderers did not succeed, though there were plots; the critics, however, grew in number as time passed.

Conservative politicians disliked Rushdie’s anti-colonialist radicalism and delighted in pointing out that this leftist had thrown himself into the protection of the British state. The author John le Carré tore into Rushdie as one who had participated in his own downfall. Religious leaders, including the then archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi, used the affair to seek legal protection against blasphemy. The left also weighed in – Keith Vaz, the longest-serving Asian MP (for Leicester East), a former Labour minister for Europe and now chairman of the home affairs select committee, led a march calling for the book to be banned, though he later shifted position.

The story of Joseph Anton is largely one of Rushdie’s enforced “submission” to protection, shuttled about Britain in various safe houses, surrounded by generally stoic Special Branch protectors, whom he came almost to love. His marriage to the US novelist Marianne Wiggins ends in bitterness (Rushdie writes extensively and sourly about what he portrays as her betrayals); another to the book editor Elizabeth West, who bore his second son, also ends; while the memoir concludes with his marriage to Padma Lakshmi, an actor and cookbook author, whom he (not much) later divorced. Both the expense of the security operation and the disturbances to his private life drew tabloid denigration – usually from the Daily Mail, his long-time tormentor. For a time, too, he torments himself: in December 1990, on the urging of some Muslim scholars, he signs an apology for the offence he caused and claims that he remained a Muslim. He was ashamed of that insincerity ever after.

Tabloids love to hate liberal elites and this book is replete with them: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Bill Buford and Christopher Hitchens; meetings with Bill Clinton and Václav Havel; receptions, prize ceremonies and speeches. Scores are settled, but kindnesses and courage are recognised and there is a wealth of anecdote – of Harold Pinter’s flaring rages, sometimes against helpless victims; of a Special Branch man accidentally firing his gun, the closest Rushdie came to being shot; of a drunken quarrel with Amis on the merits of Dostoyevsky (infuriatingly, without a description of the content). His friends are lionised, critics repaid in kind.

Joseph Anton is overlong and too richly endowed with famed authors and starry events: Rushdie, as he writes, loves to be loved. But as a story of refusal to be cowed the book speaks to the heart, and to conscience. The Rushdie affair was, for its main character as well as the public, a lesson in freedom – to think, write, publish and argue. It may be a lesson not yet learnt: in a recent BBC interview, he suggested that The Satanic Verses could not be published today, and that may be right. Yet Rushdie’s example shows how a man of great talent can also draw upon, and develop, sufficient character to stand – for all his excesses and faults – as a symbol of that freedom.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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