IN A RECENT TED TALK, psychologist Eleanor Longden describes being joined in a particularly stressful time in college by “a disembodied voice which calmly narrated everything [she] did in the third person: She is reading, she is going to a lecture, she is leaving the room.” The voice was “neutral, banal, oddly companionate,” and when she told doctors about it, they linked it at once to schizophrenia, resulting in a period of institutionalization that did more harm than good. Years later, after Longden entered the field herself, she hit upon another theory: that the voice was not necessarily bad, but served as a sort of inner compass, a voice of suppressed or inconvenient reason, part of a seemingly ulterior self that struggles violently, vaguely, to combine all the disparate voices of the self into one, consistent whole.
There’s a similar, nattering presence at work in Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, and it has a similarly ambiguous flavor to it. It is a mostly compassionate voice, sometimes giving way to a heavy-handed foreboding that, despite our knowing how the story ends, does little to diminish its suspense. Joseph Anton is primarily the story of the author’s time spent in exile after the 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses had caused a fatwa to be issued against him, endangering his security and radically changing his concept of normal life for the space of nine years. The seed of the novel was planted in college, in a history course where Rushdie studied the story of Muhammad, “the man who would pluck al-Lah from near obscurity and become his prophet, transforming him into the equal, or at least the equivalent, of the Old Testament God I Am and the New Testament’s Three-in-One,” and who allowed himself to be deceived by the devil on one occasion into reciting certain verses on the mountain which were later understood (though how much later Rushdie points out, is not clear) to be false. The young Rushdie recognized the potential of the story as fiction, and “filed [it] away in the back of his mind for future consideration. Twenty years later he would find out exactly how good a story it was.”
It took no time at all for the novel to be repackaged (mostly by people who hadn’t read it) as blasphemy. A year after the initial release of The Satanic Verses and on the heels of two deadly demonstrations against the book in Pakistan and India, Ayatollah Khomeini, by then a “mortally ill old man,” issued a fatwa on the novelist, calling for his death by assassination, a threat against which serious and often humiliating precautions had to be taken. The fatwa was never officially lifted — only Khomeini could have done that, and he died just months after issuing it — but delegitimized by the Iranian government in 1998. In the years between, there were bodyguards, offered as protection by the British government, there was an apology written by Rushdie at the request of that same government, in hopes of “lowering the temperature.” There were multiple and urgent moves from house to house, both physical and emotional uprooting, yearly “Valentine’s cards” with the promise of death inscribed (the fatwa was issued on Valentine’s Day, 1989). There was the donning of wigs, the banning of books, the distrust and paranoia that accompanies so resounding a threat; most importantly, there was the compulsory shedding of an old, by now infa...read more