Friday, January 25, 2013

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

On February 14, 1989, Salman Rushdie, one of the era's preeminent novelists, awoke to find that he had been sentenced to death.  Not by a court of law after a long trial of evidence for some heinous crime.  Not by a doctor who after exhaustive tests had determined that he had a fatal disease.  No.  Rushdie had been put under a fatwa by radical Islamic extremists who objected to his latest novel, The Satanic Verses.  Most had not read it, but decided that it was blasphemous and that he must die for his ideas.  For the next thirteen years, Rushdie was a marked man who had to live under the strictest security imaginable.

Joseph Anton is Rushdie's memoir of this time in his life.  Joseph Anton was the pseudonym he chose, Joseph for Joseph Conrad and Anton for Anton Chekhov.  For thirteen years, this was his name as he lived undercover.  He was moved from location to location, rarely having the luxury of being in the same place for more than a few months.  Airlines refused to fly him and countries refused to let him enter due to the security issues.  He had four policeman who lived with him for those years.  Imagine how this works.  You are trying to live a family life but there are four strangers always there.  Strangers who decide what you will be allowed to do.  You can't go to your child's school functions, and there are whole months that you can't even see your child.  You can't decide to walk down to the corner store or go see friends.  You can't even go outside to check your mail. 

During this time, life did go on after a fashion.  Friends came and went.  Children were born and they grew, knowing only the reality of a restricted life and the constant fear that their parent would not be there tomorrow.  Marriages were made and broken; a constant wonder about whether love would have lasted without the artificial restraints it was lived under.  Governments showed courage at times, but often only political expediency, and the constant recalculation of whether standing up to the terrorists was a smart political move.

Salman Rushdie has long been one of my favorite authors so I knew I would like this book.  The writing is superb as he takes the reader through the long years of disenfranchisement and constraints.  The issue about whether freedom of ideas and speech is indeed an issue we are willing to protect is paramount.  Does one stand up for that right knowing that death may be the result, or cave in to those who would take it from you?  While Salman survived, there were those who didn't; translators and editors who were targeted and killed, rioters who lost their lives.  Can a society give in to the fear that a dedicated group of extremists is willing to die to defeat?  All these are important questions, and Rushdie's book gives the reader the ability to frame the discussion and make a decision. 

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