Several writers have been sentenced to death and reprieved: Dostoyevsky, for example, Arthur Koestler, and the greatest of all South African writers, Herman Charles Bosman. The first participated at a time of revolution in a circle that read subversive literature, the second was a political conspirator, and the third shot his stepbrother dead in a quarrel. But none lived under the shadow of the executioner for a fraction as long as Salman Rushdie—if the Ayatollah Khomeini’s thuggish fatwa can properly be called a death sentence rather than a Mafia-like contract.

Joseph Anton is a memoir of Rushdie’s post-fatwa existence.1 Its title is the false name that he took when he went into police-protected hiding, and consists of the first names of two authors whom Rushdie admires but does not in the least resemble, either in style or quality, Conrad and Chekhov.

The Rushdie affair, as it became known, was an important turning point in world history. In many countries, Islamism rushed in to fill the ideological vacuum left by a decomposing and self-evidently failed Marxism (mankind is always on a search for a theory of everything, when by “everything” is meant its discontents). The Ayatollah’s fatwa was one of the first gauntlets thrown down to the western liberal democracies; to change the metaphor rather drastically, it tested the waters, whether that was its original intention or not.

Apart from the somewhat reluctant British decision to protect Rushdie at all costs, the west responded in a vacillating way. Which was more important to us: our freedom or our trade? Sometimes the one, sometimes the other. Were we prepared to stand up for our right to free speech, or did we prefer to censor ourselves for the sake of not offending a minority, or at any rate the rabble-rousing leaders of a minority, in our midst? Sometimes the one, sometimes the other. And the intellectual class, that one might have hoped would see at once what was at stake, was deeply divided, with prominent members in effect siding with the Ayatollah. Rushdie quite rightly quotes Hugh Trevor-Roper’s remark to the effect that he would not mind if someone would “waylay [Rushdie] in a dark street and improve his manners,” because “society would benefit and literature would not suffer.” In the circumstances, it was an odious thing to have said, combining as it does sniggering schoolboy frivolity with a serious error of historical judgment.

Rushdie’s personality and character, alas, became a confounding factor in the controversy. It was, of course, completely irrelevant to the matter at issue; I am not myself a believer that politics can or should be nothing but the application of first principles by a process of syllogistic reasoning, but if ever there were a case where a principle should have been decisive, this was it. Unfortunately, the fact that Rushdie was widely disliked, was thought to be arrogant and spoilt, a privileged member of an elite posing as a spokesman for the downtrodden of whom he knew nothing and with whom he would have disdained all contact, got in the way of clear thinking. To this day, discussions of the affair quickly degenerate into an assessment of his character. Only a month ago I participated in a serious discussion of the affair in which someone piped up that if only Rushdie had been more simpático, some compromise could have been found.

This seems to me an example of the tendency in modern life to make personal what should be abstract, a tendency that oddly enough coexists with an opposite tendency to make abstract what is personal. In British courts, for example, the victim impact statement has become part of the proceedings in a murder trial (the victim, of course, being the spouse, lover, parent, sibling or best friend of the deceased, rather than the deceased himself). The point about murder, however, is that it is murder, and not that—what F. Tennyson Jesse called—the murderee had lovely eyelashes, a captivating smile, a good sense of humor, will be much missed, etc. Indeed, the whole purpose of the law is to remove such emotionalism from judgment: for it is not only revenge that, as Francis Bacon said, ought to be weeded out as a kind of wild justice. There are other kinds of emotional responses that need to be weeded out.

The judgment of a memoir such as Rushdie’s, however, cannot be the same as the judgment of his case. A memoir is not good because the memoirist as a man deserves, as a matter of fundamental principle, our support and protection; and unfortunately Rushdie’s book is long and he is not a good writer. On the contrary, he is self-indulgent and much of his account is deeply (or perhaps I should say shallowly) banal, consisting of accounts of takeaway meals or brief and semi-clandestine meetings with well-known persons or full-blown celebrities, of whose fame he seems to be in awe. What he says about these meetings does not rise even to the interest of the gossip column.

He uses the curious literary device throughout of referring to himself in the third person, as “he” rather than “I.” Occasionally this is confusing, so that sometimes one is for a moment unsure whether “he” is Rushdie or his interlocutor; but it has a certain psychological advantage for Rushdie, allowing him, for example, to distance himself somewhat from his cad-like behavior towards his third wife and mother of his second son. Here he describes the beginning of his immature affair with the woman who was to become his fourth, but not final, wife:

He was a married man. His wife and their two-year-old child were waiting for him at home, and if things had been different there he would have grasped the obvious truth that an apparition who seemed to embody everything he hoped for in his future, a Lady Liberty of flesh and blood, had to be a mirage, and that to plunge towards her as if she were real was to court disaster for himself, inflict unconscionable pain upon his wife, and place an unfair burden on the Illusion herself.

It is clear that this passage (about things of doubtful public interest or importance, unless the writer believes that all that pertains to him is ipso facto of public interest or importance) would have been much more painful to write, and genuinely confessional, if it had been in the first person. As for the things that would have been different if things had been different, one is reminded of Edmund’s great speech:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeit of our own behavior), we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

In this connection, it worth quoting from the preface to Koestler’s account of his time under sentence of death. “The main difficulty,” he said, “was the temptation to cut a good figure.” This is a thought whose concision and precision is quite beyond Rushdie’s powers; and when Rushdie feels that he cannot cut a good figure, as when he recounts his issuance of a grovellingly insincere recantation of his supposed apostasy, he cannot bring himself (as would be natural) actually to quote it. What Rushdie does not realize is that no one with any imagination would blame him for it; here truly was an instance where, if things had been different, things would not only have been different but very different. Anyone can understand how a man under a real threat of death might recant ignominiously in the hope of living longer. As Koestler says, “To die—even in the service of an impersonal cause—is always a personal affair”: another of his many thoughts that is worth more than the whole of Rushdie’s 656 pages.

To judge by his writing, Rushdie thinks in clichés. I opened the book at random and found the following:

He was deliberately trying to up the ante, and so far the Iranians were hanging tough and refusing to fold. But there was only one way to go now.

Perhaps a desperate need to escape a mind full of clichés explains the exaggerated imagery of much of his writing, the magic realism with both the magic and the realism removed (in contrast to that of his most ill-chosen, because inimitable, model, Gabriel García Márquez). With him, unlikelihood serves for imagination and emphasis for force. Here he imagines how he might one day write about his experiences:

If he ever wrote a book about these years, how would he do it? . . . He began to think of a project provisionally called “Inferno” in which he could try to turn his story into something other than simple autobiography. A hallucinatory portrait of a man whose picture of the world had been broken. . . . He had lived in that picture and understood why it was the way it was, and how to find his way around inside it. Then like a great hammer swinging the fatwa smashed the picture and left him in an absurd formless amoral universe in which danger was everywhere and sense was not to be found. The man in his story tried desperately to hold his world picture together but the pieces of it came away in his hand like mirror shards and cut his hands until they bled. In his demented state, in this dark wood, the man with the bleeding hands who was a version of himself made his way towards the daylight, through the inferno, in which he passed through the numberless circles of hell, the private and public hells, into the secret worlds of terror, and towards the great, forbidden thoughts.

This is rank bad writing, that of an hysterical adolescent; compare it with the opening lines of Koestler’s Dialogue with Death:

For the last six weeks there had been a lull in the fighting. The winter was cold; the wind from the Guadarrama whipped Madrid; the Moors in their trenches caught pneumonia and spat blood.

Comment is redundant.

Sometimes Rushdie, having quoted Hemingway on the art of good writing, and having tired of the effort to be emphatic or imaginative, descends into Hemingwayese:

He flew back to London and had his eyelids adjusted until they looked normal, and celebrated Milan’s second birthday and Zafar’s twentieth and then he was fifty-two.

The comma between normal and and would no doubt have met with Ernest’s disapproval.

The only passages in the book that I found at all interesting or moving were those concerning his parents. His father was a member of India’s anglicized elite, who descended into alcoholism; his mother, with whom his father had a relationship of hostile dependence, had been married before to a man whom she passionately loved but who was unable to give her children. In those days, this was good grounds for divorce; he never remarried, and in the sixteen years of her widowhood, she could have taken up with him (she never ceased to love him) but did not. Here truly was a Chekhovian situation, altogether more interesting than Rushdie’s own rather sordid squabbles which he recounts in their banal detail.

Most of Joseph Anton is decidedly dull, neither revelatory of the experience or psychology of clandestinity nor illuminating about the political aspects of the affair. Koestler’s Dialogue with Death and Herman Charles Bosman’s Cold Stone Jug are incomparably better (and shorter). Rushdie repeatedly says in the book that he is a writer and appears to think that he is a great one, since he has been told so many times by people who ought to know. It is not surprising, then, that he treats with contumely reports that many of his readers cannot get through his novels, finding them badly written, boring, incomprehensible, etc. For him this is an urban legend, but a straw poll of my friends suggests that it is very far from being such a myth. No doubt Rushdie would respond that Mr. and Mrs. Average find Dostoyevsky hard to get through, but my friends are, from the point of view of literary knowledge and appreciation, Mr. and Mrs. Well-Above-Average.

As it happens I was also reading Jan Morris’s book about Trieste while I was reading Joseph Anton. Towards the end of Morris’s book, she writes:

A great city [such as Trieste] that has lost its purpose is like a specialist in retirement. He potters around the house. He tinkers with this hobby or that. He reads a little, watches television for half an hour, does a bit of gardening, determines once more that he really will read Midnight’s Children.

1 Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie; Random House, 656 pages, $30.