LONDON (Reuters) - British author Salman Rushdie’s memoir of more than nine years in hiding after Iran’s supreme leader issued a death sentence against him hits the shelves on Tuesday, ending the wait for his account of a furor that has echoes across the world today.
“Joseph Anton: A Memoir” opens with the moment when Rushdie, already a member of London’s literary elite, received a call from a journalist asking for his reaction to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa, or religious edict, calling for his head.
“It doesn’t feel good” was his understated reply, but at the time he recalled thinking to himself: “I‘m a dead man.”
What followed was nearly a decade of life on the run, fearing for his own safety and that of his family.
The fatwa, in response to the 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses”, turned Rushdie into a household name that will forever be linked with the tussle between the right to freedom of expression and the need to respect religious sensitivities.
The topic is back in the headlines after violent protests spread across the Muslim world in response to a U.S.-made video mocking the Prophet Mohammad.
“I always said that what happened to me was a prologue and there will be many, many more episodes like it,” Rushdie told the Daily Telegraph at the launch of his memoir.
“Clearly, (the film is) a piece of crap, is very poorly done and is malevolent. To react to it with this kind of violence is just ludicrously inappropriate. People are being attacked who had nothing to do with it and that is not right.”
On the weekend, a state-linked Iranian religious foundation increased the bounty on his head to $3.3 million. Its leader argued that had Rushdie been killed, later cases of Islam being insulted would have been avoided.
English PEN, a branch of the international group promoting free expression in literature, defended Rushdie.
“The film that has caused this round of unrest is an insult to everyone’s intelligence, but the means of combating that is more intelligence, not threats of reinstated fatwas and killings,” said author and campaigner Lisa Appignanesi.
The 633-page Joseph Anton, written in the third person singular, recalls Rushdie’s days as a student at Cambridge and his early literary career, including the day he won the coveted Booker Prize for “Midnight’s Children” in 1981.
Seven years later The Satanic Verses appeared, and for a few weeks it was, he fondly remembered, “only a novel”.
Then it was banned in India and South Africa, copies were burned in the streets of northern England, fellow authors turned against him, his first wife Clarissa received threatening calls and book stores were firebombed.
Rushdie found himself at the eye of a storm which grew fiercer still on Valentine’s Day, 1989, the day the fatwa was issued, forcing on him nearly a decade of fear, frustration and guilt living under armed guard and moving from house to house.
He was asked to change his name for security reasons and Rushdie chose a combination of the first names of two of his favorite authors, Conrad and Chekhov, and, for 11 years, was known as Joseph Anton.
Outside the “prisons” he inhabited with his protection officers, violent protests raged, the novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death and a Muslim leader in Belgium who criticized the fatwa was slain.
Early reviews posted online on Tuesday were mixed.
“Joseph Anton demonstrates Mr. Rushdie’s ability as a stylist and storyteller,” wrote Michael C. Moynihan in The Wall Street Journal. “It also serves as an important moral balance sheet.”
But in the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra was less impressed with what he called “failures of analysis.”
“A peevish righteousness comes to pervade the memoir as Rushdie routinely and often repetitively censures those who criticized or disagreed with him,” he said.
Much of the content of the memoir, published by Jonathan Cape of the Random House Group, is deeply personal.
In one passage, Rushdie feared the worst when his son Zafar, whom he was able to see only occasionally, failed to answer the telephone at the appointed time. He also recounted the breakdown of his second marriage to American novelist Marianne Wiggins and the death of Clarissa in 1999.
Rushdie survived by engaging in the literary world - writing novels, newspaper articles and reviews and receiving awards. He travelled where he could and lobbied for his freedom, and ironically became an international celebrity.
But in the dark early days, his frustration was clear and friends who saw him then said he looked “a beaten man”.
“I am gagged and imprisoned,” he wrote in his journal. “I can’t even speak. I want to kick a football in a park with my son. Ordinary, banal life: my impossible dream.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato