Gone Underground: In a New Memoir, Salman Rushdie Looks Back at His Fatwa

The big reveal: not much happened (to him, anyway).

Mr. Rushdie.

Last June, officials at a software expo in Tehran announced that production had begun on a new computer game—“The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and the Implementation of his Verdict.” “We felt we should find a way,” said a spokesperson, Mohammad-Taqi Fakhrian, “to introduce our third and fourth generation to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and its importance.” Being cast as the bad guy in an educational first-person-shooter wasn’t the first of Mr. Rushdie’s tribulations in the entertainment business. In a well-known episode of Seinfeld, Mr. Rushdie’s life in hiding is the subject of a joke, and in a less well-known movie, International Gorillay, three flying Korans burn the villain, “Salman Rushdie,” with lightning bolts. There were weirder indignities. Bono based a “haunting ballad” on one of his books, then pursued him into a parked car to make Mr. Rushdie listen to it on repeat. Warren Beatty once hit on Mr. Rushdie’s girlfriend while the author watched from the other end of the table, and during the filming of Bridget Jones’s Diary, Hugh Grant kissed him on the mouth. Of his cameo in that movie—he surfaces at a book party to point Renée Zellweger to the toilet—Mr. Rushdie writes in his new memoir, Joseph Anton (Random House, 656 pp., $30), “It was harder than he expected to play a character called Salman Rushdie.”

Salman Rushdie was a private person who became a public problem, and somewhere along the way he got famous. Like the lives of many celebrities, like any life heightened by the attention of strangers, his story has prompted a mix of pity and envy. Mr. Rushdie was already a distinguished author when The Satanic Verses came out in 1988. His first novel, Grimus, had been a flop, but his second was 1980’s Midnight’s Children, which beat out books by Ian McEwan and Doris Lessing to win the Booker Prize. A late-bloomer at 41, he seemed poised for a long career of short lists, but reaction to his third novel was febrile. The Satanic Verses wasn’t loved by its first reviewers. As Mr. Rushdie recalls, there was an “apocryphal ‘Page 15’ club of readers who could not get past that point.” It didn’t matter. The Satanic Verses was an exemplary book of its century: it would belong not to its readers, but to its nonreaders. It was a scandal before it was available. There were riots in India and Pakistan, in which people died; there was a book-burning in Bradford, England; and onValentine’s Day 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeinei issued a fatwa: Mr. Rushdie had been “sentenced to death.” “He was considered to be in more danger than anyone in the country except, perhaps, the queen.” Words had gotten him into a mess they couldn’t get him out of. He went underground.

Mr. Rushdie would spend the next decade in the crabbed embrace of British state security. It was a “calamitous distortion of the quotidian.” “Salman vanished,” as Martin Amis says in the book, “into the front page.” Depending on whom you ask, these were years of frustrationor ascension, of thwarted lockdown or trendy captivity. Mr. Rushdie became a Knight of the British Empire, but he was prohibited, for nine years, from flying British Air, and you get the feeling few of his bowel movements in the ’90s went unnoted by MI6. Book tours, certainly, were never more fraught.

Joseph Anton takes its title from the code name Mr. Rushdie used to communicate with his bodyguards while in hiding, though the pseudonym had a provenance of its own: “[Joseph] Conrad, the translingual creator of wanderers … and [Anton] Chekhov, the master of loneliness and melancholy.” This pedigree failed to register with the “prot” team. “Jolly good,” said one bodyguard. “You won’t mind if we call you Joe?” Actually, Mr. Rushdie writes, he did mind. That he includes this deflationary anecdote while refusing to be taken down a peg by it is only one of many signs that Mr. Rushdie is not fully in control of the irony of his story. The first thing readers will notice about this memoir is that the memoirist has written it in the third person. It is not a perspective often associated with self-awareness.

“Human life was rarely shapely, only intermittently meaningful, its clumsiness the inevitable consequence of the victory of content over form, of what and when over how and why,” Mr. Rushdie writes. Unexpectedly, he seems to be okay with this. Joseph Anton is a book with an agenda—it deals with Mr. Rushdie’s early life in an efficient 80 pages, devoting the remaining 500 to the fatwa years—but it doesn’t have much of a structure. This happens, then that happens, but there are few flashbacks and no deeper patterns of recurrence. The writing is diaristically raw. This conveys, or enacts, something of the delirium of Mr. Rushdie’s predicament, as he lurches from wine with Harold Pinter to a paean to free expression to “crouching in shame behind a kitchen counter to avoid being seen by a sheep farmer.” When an ordinary man is made to feel the pinch of geopolitics, you think, this is what it looks like. Yet it can sometimes lead to a boringness problem. Most of the gossip flies by (Margaret Thatcher was “touchy-feely”; Pinter faxed his bad poetry to friends), but there are also great wads of Clinton-era dope about the book trade, and it doesn’t help that Mr. Rushdie is always off strenuously getting divorced. (He has been married four times.) You are left with an impression of life unvetted by art, a pileup of happenings.

Or rather, non-happenings. “It was the unchangingness that was the story,” he writes, “the intolerable eternity of it.” The memoir is destined for a merciful anticlimax. Since 2000, Mr. Rushdie has lived like anyone else; the threat posed by the fatwa has mostly receded. Although his Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator assaulted and his Norwegian publisher shot three times in the back, the closest Mr. Rushdie himself ever came to harm was in an unrelated car accident with a manure truck.

We are left with the tale of a tormented non-event: the long wait for assassins that don’t arrive, in which the protocols of state protection take center stage. For Mr. Rushdie, this amounted to being told what to do all the time. The book is a nightmare of officiousness. “Everything that was not expressly allowed,” he notes, “was forbidden.” The state would keep him breathing, but beyond that life could wait. Mr. Rushdie’s struggles with his keepers to extend the limits of the allowable give the story what little momentum it has. Finally, his son is allowed to spend the night; finally Mr. Rushdie is allowed to give a speech, to go to America, to go to the movies, to go to dinner in downtown London. These banal gains are farcically hard-won, and you feel his frustration with their slowness. Perhaps, as a reader, you feel it too much.

In Mr. Rushdie’s telling, the mullahs alone don’t bear blame for his ordeal. Much of the book is given over to more local vexations—some of them seemingly trivial. Penguin’s refusal to release a Satanic Verses paperback provides an oddly major subplot that consumes more than a hundred pages. “There was nothing to be gained by bearing a grudge,” Mr. Rushdie writes, and yet here they come, the droves who let him down: prime ministers, presidents, publishers, ex-wives, fellow writers, prize-awarding committees, loose-mouthed policemen, the “he-knew-what-he-was-doing, he-did-it-on-purpose party.”

On the other side are the “Friends Without Whom Life Would Have Been Impossible.” “Your friends are going to close around you like an iron circle,” said Bill Buford, the former Granta editor, “and inside that ring you will be able to lead your life.” Mr. Buford was right. Most tolerated his impositions with a smile; for a book about an “invisible man,” the story is conspicuously, and even promiscuously, social. These favors usually took the form of vacating a house for the novelist to go hide in, though friends also turn out to have been the movers behind Mr. Rushdie’s crucial meetings with John Major, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. This makes it all the more unexpected, in a story so touched by the power of friendship, when Mr. Rushdie points out that his friends were plainly half in love with the pageantry of his personal hell: “When he asked them for memories of those days, they gave him memories of policemen … He was becoming a sideshow and the police were the main event.” Yet he lets it go at that, and the dark thought goes unpursued.

It’s not the first time in this memoir that complexity gets pushed to the side. “The crisis was like an intense light shining down on everyone’s choices and deeds,” Mr. Rushdie writes, “creating a world without shadows, a stark unequivocal place of right and wrong.” One interest of the book is seeing who will thrive in this Manichean glare. The late Christopher Hitchens looks like a contender. Though he was loved for much that Mr. Rushdie lacks—comic timing, a charismatic prose style, a gift for filleting sitting ducks—they shared a belief that the “Rushdie Affair” was simple. Islamists had attacked a basic right. Enlightenment values needed to be affirmed. They were “defending free expression from barbarism,” as Hitchens put it in his memoir.

It doesn’t occur to either writer that they may have had a regressive agenda of their own. Leave it to Norman Mailer to stick his foot in it. “The Ayatollah Khomenei has offered us an opportunity to regain our frail religion,” Mailer wrote in 1989, “which happens to be faith in the power of words and our willingness to suffer for them.” Mr. Rushdie still writes best-sellers, but it bears remembering that he has been caught for two decades in the amber of a crisis from the ’80s, when “literature still felt important.” “He had been lucky to be attacked,” as he says, “just before the dawn of the information age.” Of course, you can’t burn an e-book, but maybe that’s his point.

editorial@observer.com Gone Underground: In a New Memoir, Salman Rushdie Looks Back at His Fatwa