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 infamous identity for a new, covert one. “The book has gone out into the world,” Rushdie says, “and the world has remade it.” The same is true of a human being, and the story of Rushdie’s transformation into Anton proves it on an extreme scale.
Joseph Anton is action-packed by memoir standards, and though mainly devoted to simply recounting events as they happened, its secondary, more challenging focus is the depiction of the self, splintered, as it was made by the trauma of living as a wanted man, the internal disconnect that shows his “picture of the world” as “cracked.” This picture, when whole, is Rushdie’s metaphor for sanity, a thing which, in order to do the work of orienting us within the world, must be preserved in one piece.
The most dominant crack in the picture is first caused by a codename, which Rushdie’s bodyguards assure him is necessary as the fatwa threat grows increasingly serious. The advise him not to choose an Asian name, lest any hint of his former identity remain. “To be asked to give up your name is not a small thing,” Rushdie says. “He was to give up his race as well. He would be an invisible man in a whiteface mask.”
He comes to choose “Joseph Anton” by combining the names of two of his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. This gets further abbreviated by the bodyguards — further whitened — to “Joe,” a nickname which Rushdie despises, but which endures.
The ‘whiteface’ mask, it turns out, is only the first of many. Things would get worse “when Rushdie detached itself from Salman and went spiraling off into the headlines, into newsprint, into the video-heavy ether, becoming a slogan, a rallying cry, a term of abuse, or anything else that other people wanted it to be.” Later, supporters would begin wearing I AM SALMAN RUSHDIE buttons, a surreal development that leads Rushdie to wonder whether Joseph Anton might wear one “in solidarity with the person he both was and was not.” Anton becomes a sort of avatar, a version of himself he must carry with him at all times and to all places — one which will bring about the realization that this alien identity is in its way as oppressive as the threat of death that forces him into it in the first place.
The lifestyle he leads as Anton is described more than once as “cloak and dagger,” with its “skulkings and duckings, its fear of plumbers and other repairmen, its fraught search for places of refuge, and its dreadful wigs.” Despite all this, Rushdie’s memoir is a very calm, sane retelling of a series of insane events, written in a very writerly third person. Rushdie-as-character is referred to alternately as he, the Indian writer, the wrong Salman, the victim of the fatwa, “Joseph Anton” in quotes, and Joseph Anton without quotes. The names Salman and Rushdie, separately and apart, are used dissociatively, as broken words that no longer describe the person we are following but whose meaning, in becoming so public, so attached to scandal, has been perverted. The character Anton, and the writer Rushdie, is primarily referred to as ‘he’ within the memoir’s pages. “He” is what suits him best, as a character that lay claim to nothing more specific or constant than the description provided by that most generic of pronouns.
In a sense, writing Joseph Anton in the third person doesn’t seem to be a choice at all, but an instinct. Stories of stolen, lost, or otherwise misplaced identity are the third person’s forte; its innate objectivism has classically acted in literature as kind of shield from intimacy. Rushdie’s narrator sits in a privileged position, high above the story and reasonably detached from its unfolding events, describing a character both Rushdie and not, an “invisible man” who, one senses, is too depleted to be able to exist in the first person voice. “He didn’t exist,” Rushdie writes. “Only Joseph Anton existed; and he could not be seen.” What voice could more appropriately speak about this strange state of non-existence?
Joseph Anton is a novel of overwhelming pain, and pain in literature — more specifically the kind of pain on display here, both excruciating and unconventional — always poses a problem. How best to display it? Shown from too great a distance it risks our empathy; seen too close-up it risks our comfort. Pain often comes with a built-in distance, as when Anton, who must be driven everywhere in two cars (half the journey in one, half in another) to throw off the scent, “detached himself from the body of the man scuttling from vehicle to vehicle, and when he reached his destination […] he was just out with his friends, being himself.” Rushdie told the New York Times in an interview that the first person was too close for a story so personal: “I had always thought that I don’t want this to be a diary or a confessional or a rant […] I realized that one of the things I was really disliking was the first person, this endless ‘I,’ things happening to ‘me,’ and ‘I felt’ and ‘I did’ and ‘people said about me’ and ‘I worried.’ It was just absurdly narcissistic.” But if “I” is too narcissistic for Rushdie’s purposes, it is also potentially perfect for them. There is no prescribed distance to first person writing: it can be at times too close and at other times not close enough, reliable and not, narcissistic and self-effacing by turns. There’s Proust’s essayistic “I,” conversely distant and close, but never so undignified as to veer into messy, overtly confessional territory — it speaks to us openly about everything, yet with the intimation that there are things which it must keep to itself. The “I” of Maugham’s travel writings is similarly distant: a detached voice which is at obvious pains to keep everything at arm’s length, even present in his own autobiography, The Summing Up, written in such an impersonal style that it lead the critic Peter Stern to remark that it had the least amount of “auto” of any he’d read. “I” can also be famously unreliable, possessed by illness, as the near-schizophrenic “I” of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, battling with an equally obscure “He” in “My Life Had Stood — a Loaded Gun”, where the battling identities of “he” and “I” seem less like two different people than two parts of one unquiet mind.
Still the first person, for all its ambiguous charm, is better at obscuring things about its narrator — notably gender and madness — than revealing them. It can never quite pan out and show us the whole truth of a scene without making us doubt that truth’s objectivity. The character is the camera, and our view always cuts off at the point at which they are standing. Its voice both lives in and tells of the story, and is the only thing that cements that character in our minds as a whole. It’s not just adequate distance that the story of Joseph Anton needed, but a panoramic scope, an ever-widening field of vision. For the ambitious task Rushdie set himself, only the third person would do, and no normal third person at that. The brand that Rushdie employs is a rarer breed, in a literary class by itself, used notably by Christopher Isherwood to describe a character named Christopher, the hero of the autobiographical Christopher and His Kind, which details Isherwood’s years in pre-war Berlin. As Christopher Bram points out in Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers That Changed America, “Christopher” denotes a past self, a version of Isherwood far removed enough from the author of the piece as to constitute a different character entirely. Rushdie’s appropriation of this frame of reference situates non-fictional events and characters comfortably within the frame of fiction. It also tends to makes things more cinematic, which is a strange but interesting frame in which to place a work whose story, though stranger than fiction in parts, is already famous as nonfiction.
Again, it’s easy to see why. The Rushdie-fatwa story we know is the story advanced by news sources. Joseph Anton is written from the source: his is the authorized story, shot through the lens of documentary, cleared eyed and over-the-shoulder, in the way of a backward glance. Rushdie-as-narrator follows his character with a tightness native to fiction, but the language used is the language of documentary: it is the language of metaphor, of trying to make some kind of sense out of an insane puzzle of past events, and to reconcile the author of a brave book that soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list as a sign of solidarity, and the figure meanwhile “crouching in shame behind a kitchen counter to avoid being seen by a sheep farmer” within one breast.
Fitzgerald famously said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. He also wrote, in The Last Tycoon, that writers “aren’t exactly people” but “a bunch of people trying to be one person.” This tension is centuries old, and highly literary. Yet as we move further into the information age — an age that, Rushdie admits, would have meant his death had it fully coincided with the fatwa years — it becomes crucially the territory of cinema. Identity issues, stories that necessitate this kind of fractured narration and multiple viewpoints, have become more and more a cinematic concern. Joseph Anton is a cinematic novel in part because of this. Hitchcock’s The Birds is referenced twice in the first 10 pages, with its iconic blackbirds returning as a metaphor throughout. More than chapters there are scenes and visual snapshots of Mexico and Argentina, of a period of time known simply as “the day when,” in which Rushdie and his family are almost killed in a car accident. This, too, is recounted calmly, almost clinically, with a mix of internal narration and external description. Like Isherwood, Rushdie’s eye is a camera lens —firmly placed in one perspective and never out of focus. Instead it is the world that it photographs — a world temporarily gone mad — that shifts, blurs, sharpens and changes with a dizzying swiftness. Joseph Anton borrows heavily from noir in this way, and is written often in the terse, mobile language of the genre, sometimes to the point of parody: “At night he heard I love you but the days were shouting Die.” Noir proverbs abound: “Tell a lie about a man once and many people will not believe you. Tell it a million times and it is the man himself who will no longer be believed.” There are Femmes Fatales, Good Women, and, in true noir tradition, a few uncategorized flings along the way. The officers protecting him are not carrying guns, but “packing heat.”
The other staple of noir, of course, is the transformation of a character on the run into the identity he thought he’d only temporarily assumed; no sooner is one identity shed than another takes its place, and characters find themselves in a compromised place wherein a lie, in the same way, can suddenly transmogrify into truth. Within the genre of noir, Rushdie’s character would be defined, somewhere along the line, as “cracked” — not just his picture of the world, but his whole being as cracked beyond compare. His very desire, to break out of invisibility and emerge as “a part of the argument: to be a protagonist,” within his circumstances, is a cracked one. It’s this desire, however, once formally expressed, that acts as the gateway to the book’s most interesting, open-ended question: can anyone be true a protagonist of their own story? Does the retelling permit it? Does life permit it? If not, how much of that is because pronouns and other such descriptors — those very descriptors that Anton must shed — get in the way of it?
In the space between “he” and “I” lies not only the truth of a character — the things it says and the things we see it doing, the things it seems to feel and the emotions it admits to feeling — but the truth of our own internal lives, moving to and against the pattern of their own, inconsistent narration. To give oneself another name is to create, in however small a way, a different self. Rushdie’s memoir has done this perhaps more successfully than any lightly fictionalized version would have permitted, recreating him as author, narrator, and protagonist at once: the character known and immortalized as he.