When fact reads like fiction ... Salman Rushdie on Joseph Anton, French thinkers and Gaza
Salman Rushdie is probably the world’s best-known living author, partly thanks to his books and perhaps even more thanks to the reaction to one of them - The Satanic Verses – which led a leading Iranian cleric to issue a fatwa condemning him to death. His latest book, Joseph Anton, is a third-person account of his ordeal following the fatwa. Rushdie was in Paris last week to promote the French translation of the book and spoke to RFI.
The fatwa is history, dodging it was surrealist and the French enlightenment philosophers are a great inspiration, Rushdie said. Here are some highlights of the interview.
An Iranian imam recently raised the price on his head but it doesn’t matter:
“This is one priest in Tehran that nobody in Tehran takes seriously and it has nothing to do with the fatwa. The fatwa is something that went away more than a decade ago. This is just one man looking for a headline, and unfortunately you’re all giving it to him. So let’s leave him alone.”
The fatwa is over and done with:
“One of the reasons I waited so long to write this book is that I wanted to wait until I was pretty confident that I was writing about a completed story … Now it’s been almost 11 years since there’s been anything like a serious problem. Every so often somebody in Iran stands up and shakes a fist in my direction, you know. But at this point it is very largely rhetorical.”
Joseph Anton is autobiographical but in the third person:
“When I started it, I, of course, started writing in the first person. And first of all I didn’t like it, I found there was something in the tone of voice that I didn’t like. It felt in a way narcissistic, all this I,I,I,I … One day I just decided to experiment, let me see what happens if I write about myself as if I was another person, my subject rather than me. And I wrote a few lines, a short paragraph and immediately felt that a door had opened … the main reason had to do with objectivity. So I was trying to approach myself both from the inside and from the outside at the same time.”
He used fiction techniques for non-fiction writing:
“I don’t think I was becoming a fictional character but I was using the techniques of fiction to write about real life. I mean, that’s true of all the characters in the book. I tried to create them on the page in the way that one creates a fictional character, language and interior monologue and action, and all the different techniques there are to make a character live on a page … I looked at the form of what’s begun to be called the non-fiction novel. You can think of books like [Thomas Keneally’s] Schindler’s List or Norman Mailer’s great novel The Executioner’s Song or Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff.”
It was like living in a spy novel:
“I thought, do it like that, as there is something strangely novelistic about what happened to me, so that I fell into a kind of spy novel, with … armed men in the kitchen and international terrorists heading across the seas and visits to that building on the River Thames that you’ve scene in James Bond movies, which has the intelligence services inside … But I didn’t want to really fictionalise it, I didn’t want to write a novel with fictional characters because I thought that deprives the book of its strength. The way it is, this is a book that reads like a novel but, actually, it is all true.”
Joseph Anton was the alias he adopted when in hiding from would-be assassins – it is a composite of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov:
“One of the surrealist things about this was that I felt the world of Chekhov and the world of Conrad were both present in my life. Conrad after all wrote a great deal about secret agents and underground activity … and wrote very famously about a journey into the heart of darkness. And Chekhov, particularly in his plays I think, wrote beautifully about alienation and isolations, like his three sisters yearning to be in a Moscow that they could not return to. I felt a kind of yearning to get back to an old life that was kind of barred to me. So I felt somehow both Conradian and Chekhovian oddly. If you think about how strange that is, that shows you how odd those times were.”
He considered Marcel Beckett after Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett:
“But I was just fooling around with different combinations of writers’ names and they all seemed stupid. Marcel Beckett seems very stupid, you know … The reason for choosing Joseph Anton was partly about what I felt about Conrad and Chekhov and also it sounded like a name that might exist. Whereas Marcel Beckett doesn’t sound like a name that could exist.”
Free speech began in France:
“In these years one of the things I did very carefully was to reread the works of writers from the French enlightenment, Voltaire, Rousseau, and reminded myself about where the modern idea of free speech began. After all, it began in France and so those writers were important for me. And then much later on, even writing this book, the autobiography of [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, Confessions, was something that was also important for me … My view was like Rousseau - nobody is compelling you to write an autobiography … but if you’re going to do it, tell the truth and tell as much of the truth as you can.
You’ve got to laugh:
There were actually moments throughout this period when we thought at the time it was funny. There was this ludicrous moment when the police suggested I should wear a wig … On one occasion when I agreed to do this when I got out of the car in the middle of London on the sidewalk, people actually started laughing … So even at the time, OK, so it was kind of embarrassing and humiliating, but it was also funny.
There’ll be no more autobiography:
“I don’t think there is going to be any more autobiography because the reason for writing this book … is that something happened in my life, which I thought was an important story to tell. And then, if I’m going to tell that story which includes at the heart of it a self-portrait, I thought I had to make that self-portrait as full and rich as I can. Having told that story, that’s it, I’m going to go back to writing novels.
Here is the link to the interview in French.