Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Storytelling Animal

Title: Joseph Anton
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Random House, 2012, 636 pages

Joseph Anton was the name Salman Rushdie went by while under the ‘protection’ of the British Special Branch, during the Iranian fatwa period for writing The Satanic Verses. (He chose it himself, from the first names of Conrad and Chekov.) In this book, he tells his version of events.

He gets a little whiney in parts, but it’s a good read overall, with his sense of humour coming through to rescue those moments of angst, but given his predicament, it is understandable but it does not become too heavy. It is surprisingly light and readable, with not much of his usual literary gymnastics that make many of his books difficult to read for some.

First a disclaimer: I have been a great fan of Rushdie’s writings for decades. I love his sense of humour and his gymnastics.

So, was Salman Rushdie held under protection, or as a prisoner? In his version, his freedom was certainly curbed, he was under virtual house arrest, and what he was ‘allowed’ to do was severely restricted, while those who threatened his life walked freely and continued to preach violence on his person. Besides, it was not like he was provided with any of the safe houses by the government; he was required to pay for them, only to be upped and moved to another one at his cost (again) at the slightest (real or imagined) breach in security. The media regarded him as a stubborn man, a nuisance, a menace to society, and a drain on taxpayer’s money, and slandered him with impunity when he had no means of self-defence. In short, a piece of shit.

Certainly, he sounds bitter and his arguments are meant to refute many of the charges made against him, and one would be surprised if he didn’t do that when he finally got his chance. But something else nags the reader. Although he does not say it, one wonders if media would have railed against him so much if he had been of a colour different from brown? Would they have called Martin Amis names like that?

That western governments didn’t want to rock the boat initially, and upset business relations with Iran, is not surprising -- to heck with principles when there’s money to be made. We saw that in South Africa before the end of apartheid.

What is really sad is that someone somewhere can make a wild threat and make the whole world go into panic mode, and instead taking action against the perpetrators, the victim is stripped of his freedom and imprisoned for his safety. Speaks volumes about the resilience  and integrity of the entire western civilisation, for all its bravado. Human rights and freedom of speech are fine, as long as they are confined in neat bubbles.

Throughout history, every power, both religious or secular, has sought to restrict what stories can be told and what cannot, and where the start and end. It is testimony to the resilience of the storytelling animal that we are where we are and not still living in caves, or still believing that the sun goes round the earth.