'Joseph Anton': Salman Rushdie, incognito
Covering the world of books as a newspaper reporter was an upbeat job. Authors were intelligent, publishers appreciated the attention and booksellers welcomed the free advertising.
In 1989, that world changed when the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini in his dying gasp leveled a fatwa or death sentence against novelist Salman Rushdie for writing "The Satanic Verses." Anybody connected with the publication or sale of the book was covered by the threat, so when I started calling bookstores to check on the supplies of Mr. Rushdie's novel, I sensed fear in the voices of the staffers.
Random House ($30).
"The book isn't here and won't be anytime soon," one told me, then asked that I not use her name. Her reaction was common and uncharacteristic of a business that was built on the concept of freedom. Now that concept was compromised, if not in jeopardy. It was a time not easily forgotten.
Echoes of the 27-year-old fatwa are ringing out again as riots in Muslim countries were touched off by an amateurish video critical of Muhammad. Mr. Rushdie was again cited by clerics in this latest wave.
Ironically, the unrest and bloodshed hit the news cycle as "Joseph Anton" was released, enhancing publicity for the book as Mr. Rushdie moves from talk show to talk show as an expert in Islamic intolerance -- and recently published author of a book about just that subject. I've seen him on three shows so far, including Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."
In his book, Mr. Rushdie appears to have forgotten nothing from his decade in secret guarded by British security, especially the celebrities he partied with, from well-known writers to top government officials. Mr. Rushdie drops names like a wet dog shaking off drops of water. After a few dozen, we're no longer impressed. (The book's title is Mr. Rushdie's pseudonym during his period of hiding, inspired by his favorite writers Conrad and Chekhov.)
In its most elemental, "The Satanic Verses" pits good against evil. Mr. Rushdie's memoir mirrors that dichotomy; there's the good Rushdie, expansive, fatherly, steadfast in his principles in the face of death, and the bad Salman, settling scores, cheating on wives, petulant and demanding.
And, annoying, egotistical and tone-deaf. Written in the third person, the memoir ridicules a writer who refers to herself in the third person.
Mr. Rushdie is a superb novelist, magical, intellectually satisfying and with a singular style that lures readers to his fantastical worlds. He seems to view the memoir, however, as granting him the license to be a pedestrian writer and his ordeal as giving him the right to say what he pleases, to insult former lovers and friends and to justify, despite some self-flagellation, his bad behavior, especially cheating on his wives. Somehow it was their fault.
For gossip fans, there's dirt on wife No. 4, Padma Lakshmi, the "Top Chef" star whose ego is, amazingly, larger than Mr. Rushdie's, if he's to be believed. He dumped No. 3 for her when their son was 2. (He and Ms. Lakshmi parted ways in 2007.)
Given the extraordinary nature of his decade in exile, Mr. Rushdie dwells on the uninteresting details rather than how his exile changed him as an individual and a writer. Luckily his literary accomplishments and defense of artistic freedom will survive the unappealing portrait he painted of himself in "Joseph Anton."
First Published October 7, 2012 12:00 am