Salman Rushdie on his memoir of living under threat of assassination

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First aired on As It Happens (19/09/12)


From 1989 until 1998, the name "Joseph Anton" was known only to Britain's secret police, a few landlords and a few bankers. Joseph Anton was the code name adopted by Salman Rushdie while he lived under the threat of assassination -- a nod to two of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. Now it's also the name the author of The Satanic Verses has given his new memoir about those years under the fatwa. Salman Rushdie joined Carol Off in the As It Happens studio last week to discuss his memoir and those tense years of his life.

That tension is no longer a part of Rushdie's life. "People have short memories these days," he said. "Something that ended more than 10 years ago and began 23 years ago is ancient history."

This "ancient history" is exactly what Joseph Anton is about. The book opens on Valentine's Day, 1989, when Rushdie first learned about the fatwa against him. "I got a phone call from a BBC radio journalist," he said. The Satanic Verses had been published in England about six months before, and there had been controversy surrounding the book right from its publication, and Rushdie had been doing a fair bit of debating and arguing publicly with his critics. "I thought that was fair enough. One of the things that books can do in a culture is to start interesting arguments...and then everybody has the argument, maybe everybody learns a little something and you proceed to the next subject. And that's what was more or less happening, and what would have happened until what happened in that February, which is this journalist calling me and asking, 'How does it feel to know that you've just been condemned to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?'"

That was the first Rushdie heard of it, and his immediate thought was that "the story had changed completely," he said. "It was [no longer] an argument about a book, it was a question of life and death."

This was a completely unexpected turn of events, and at the time Rushdie had no idea that the impact on his life and legacy would be so significant. "It was so outrageous that the head of state in another country far away should order the murder of a British citizen in his own country who had committed no crime in that country, so outrageous that everybody thought 'this is going to get fixed,'" he said. "When the police arrived in my life, which was that day, that's what they said -- 'All you need to do is lie low for a couple of days.'"

Of course, that turned out not to be the case. Instead, death threats hung over Rushdie's head for almost a decade. Why did it take so long for Rushdie's safety to be assured? "Beats me," he said. "I just think people couldn't be bothered to disrupt the whole of western relations with Iran for the sake of one troublesome writer."

Indeed, Rushdie often felt unsupported by his own publisher in those troubled times. "I think they were annoyed that they had been plunged into this crisis, and it was much easier to blame the writer in question than the people threatening violence," said Rushdie. "It was an odd piece of blaming the victim and there was a lot of it."

Ultimately, though it took nearly 10 years, freedom of speech won the day -- although Rushdie is hesitant to declare a solid victory. "If you look at it narrowly, we didn't do so badly. There was an attempt to suppress a novel, and the novel is available in 48 languages," he said. "But if you look more broadly at the more chilling fact of that event...people in the publishing industry are very wary of getting involved with the forces of radical Islam now, and there's a reluctance to publish anything that even smacks of a criticism of Islam. So that's a longer battle, I think."