As we acknowledge Banned Books Week (September 30-October 6, 2012), there seems to be no more appropriate choice to lead the discussion than Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Published in 1989, the book immediately earned Rushdie worldwide recognition of the worst sort. Based on his interpretation of segments of the book deemed critical of the Islamic religion, Iran’s then clerical leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a death threat, or fatwa, against Rushdie.
Now, more than 20 years later, Rushdie chronicles this intense period in his life in a brutally honest, behind-the-scenes mesmerizing memoir, Joseph Anton. The title is the pseudonym he chose to live under during his years in hiding, and was an honorific compilation of the names of two of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.
Joseph Anton is that most oxymoronic of books, both literary and a page-turner. You know what happens—Khomeini dies and Rushdie lives—yet the suspense of how he manages his professional career and personal life during this time makes for riveting reading.
Time may have softened the memory of the violence and instability of those days, but Rushdie brings it all vividly back to the forefront in this story of his life in hiding: the riots around the world that grew increasingly deadly; the uncertainty of his every action, from the quotidian to the colossal; and the damage done to his reputation, as once-supportive colleagues and peers first supported then denigrated him openly in the press.
I admit that I have never read any of Rushdie’s works, not The Satanic Verses nor Midnight’s Children, for which he won the Booker Prize, nor anything in the years since the fatwa was lifted. Joseph Anton, however, made me a convert to the works of his true alter ego.
When The Satanic Verses was published in the United States in February, 1989, a full-page ad ran in The New York Times, paid for by the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers’ Association, and the American Library Association. It read:
Free people write books. Free people publish books. Free people sell books. Free people buy books. Free people read books. In the spirit of America’s commitment to free expression, we inform the public that this book will be available to readers at bookshops and libraries throughout the country.
For The Satanic Verses or for any of the countless works of literature that have found themselves on this infamous list, there could be no finer words of support. Pick up a banned book today.