Salman Rushdie’s Journey: The Dreyfus Affair of Our Age
In 1988, the highest bid for the English language rights for The Satanic Verses bettered its nearest rival by a full $100,000. The literary agent Andrew Wylie belied his nickname of “the Jackal” when he told his client to turn the offer down. “Could you just explain again why I should not agree to receive an extra one hundred thousand dollars?” his puzzled author asked. Wylie was adamant. A company owned by Rupert Murdoch “would be the wrong publishers for you”. Salman Rushdie sighed and agreed, contradicting all those who were to claim that he was in writing to get rich as he did it.
After the storm broke, Murdoch told the New Yorker, “I think you should not give offence to people’s religious beliefs. I hope that our people would never have published the Salman Rushdie book.” If Rushdie had gone for the money, Murdoch would have pulped his novel.
Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton — the pseudonym he adopted when he went underground — is as multi-layered as his fiction. At times it reads like a literary Day of the Jackal. You know Rushdie must survive, just as you know that Charles de Gaulle must survive, yet the intensity of the malevolence directed against him makes you wonder how he can live. It is a psychological study of disintegration and redemption. Rushdie is in fear of his life and the lives of his young son and all those associated with his work. Assassins murder one of his translators and wound a second. Terrorists bomb libraries and bookshops from Karachi to the Charing Cross Road. Special Branch move him from house to house so often he can never settle. Whitehall tells him to keep quiet so as not to provoke his enemies. He is humiliated, afraid, isolated and silenced. Rushdie pulls himself together by ignoring the authorities, and taking on his adversaries in argument — and there is a lesson for us all there.
But as the Murdoch example illustrates, most of all and most depressingly, Joseph Anton is an account of how comfortable people in Western democracies react to the threat of political violence.