Salman Rushdie. Photograph: Getty Images
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Salman Rushdie versus the mullocracy

Colin MacCabe reviews "Joseph Anton: a Memoir".

Joseph Anton: a Memoir
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape, 656pp, £25

The first policeman would arrive at our house up to an hour early to make an initial search. It was before the days of mobile phones but there would be a lot of traffic on sophisticated walkie-talkies and then a large black car would pull up outside. Our front door would be opened as the car stopped and a man wearing a baseball cap would emerge. Once he was inside, the cap would be removed, the door shut and, except for the policemen watching television upstairs in one of the children’s rooms, it would be just another dinner party in Islington.

Nobody thought it extraordinary at the time but this book reminds us that it was. Ours was one of many houses in which Salman Rushdie was always welcome as a guest after he had been condemned to death by the mullocracy in Tehran. What was extraordinary, as this book insists on several occasions, was not just that so many friends – and we were in the outer circle – were determined to offer him hospitality and refuge but that they kept it secret. In nearly ten years, no word of any kind leaked out. The chattering classes didn’t chatter.

The title page of Joseph Anton announces a memoir, the genre of our age, and from one perspective that is an accurate description. The book takes us through a childhood in Bombay and then boarding school at Rugby; our pro­tagonist studies at Cambridge before becoming an advertising copywriter in London. He is desperate to become a writer and desperate to understand his translated situation, to conjugate his Indian and his English selves. These twin desperations fuse and give rise to a great novel, Midnight’s Children, which is both Rushdie’s story and the story of modern India. He follows this with Shame, a much shorter novel but equally fine, which takes as its topic Pakistan.

If these two novels bear witness to Rushdie’s experience of being brought up as an Indian Muslim and to a partitioned subcontinent, they do not address his experience in England or his experience as a Londoner. London is the site of his comfortable, middle-class existence and the destination of the vast numbers of immigrants who have made the journey from the subcontinent in altogether more uncertain circumstances. He thus conceives of a book with ambition far outstripping that of his previous, very ambitious books; it is an attempt, as Milton put it, to achieve “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”.

If this memoir were a conventional addition to the form, then the part of the story that takes us through the first two-thirds of the writer’s life would have taken up about 400 pages of this book of more than 600 pages. Yet a little more than 70 pages are devoted to it. The reason for this is that the ambitious book Rushdie publishes, at the age of 42, is The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton is not, then, a memoir in the sense of a subjective account of a life; rather, that account is part of a history, of an objective account of what happened after the author was condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini.

The book opens with a bravura account of 14 February 1989, the day Rushdie was woken by a phone call from a BBC reporter asking him how it felt to be sentenced to death. This prologue is followed by the account of his life up to that day, a story that will be familiar to readers of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, for Rushdie shares many details of his life with Saleem Sinai and Saladin Chamcha, his fictional alter egos.

Rushdie further signals his distance from the memoir form with his decision to write not in the first but in the third person. This device, slightly odd in the discussion of his early life, pays off once Khomeini has pronounced his sentence. For at that moment Rushdie the writer, well known internationally in literary circles, becomes a world-historical figure – his name instantly recognisable around the globe. Rushdie is well aware of the almost accidental nature of this fame and the distancing device by which he turns himself into a figure in a wider history works brilliantly. It is the formal analogue of the extraordinary psychic adjustment that he had to make in order to cope with events that would have driven many insane. Indeed, he could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia or megalomania.

The extent of Rushdie’s fame was brought home to me in 1997 when, while he was still under full security protection, he came to give a reading at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach. When he entered a hall packed with 800 members of the faculty and students, the audience erupted into a five-minute ovation quite unlike any reception I have ever witnessed in an academic setting.

Equally memorable was the occasion when I took him to an Italian restaurant high above Mount Washington so that he could enjoy a spectacular view of Pittsburgh and its three rivers. The restaurant had not been alerted to the visit but we were barely through the front door when the barman, who looked more like a character from The Sopranos than a habitué of libraries and bookshops, abandoned his post to greet us formally: “Mr Rushdie, it is a great honour to welcome you to our restaurant.”

Anybody who comes under the kind of protection that Rushdie was accorded after the fatwa must choose a pseudonym, a nom de guerre. He composed his, Joseph Anton, from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov and this name gives the book its title. Rushdie is a historian by training and the book is perhaps best described as a chronicle. It takes us step by step through the events following the fatwa: first, the battle of ideas, then the political struggle. In both strands, there are the good, who defend stalwartly a friend and a cause; the bad, who through fear, jealousy or stupidity abandon the most elementary defence of freedom; and the ugly, a succession of clerics and bigots who want the unbeliever killed as quickly as possible. In this unlovely gallery, Iqbal Sacranie, Tony Blair’s favourite Muslim, cuts a peculiarly disgusting figure.

The story Rushdie tells is never less than gripping. And there are moments, particularly in his description of his now regretted reconversion to Islam, when he writes as well as he has ever done. And there are also the personal details: an account of a much-married, uxorious man and most insistently, perhaps, the thoughts of a devoted father.

When Rushdie first told me in the mid-1980s of the new novel he was writing, which had as its centre Quranic verses accepting other gods that the Prophet then disowned, he was emphatic that what he wanted to do was to create a space in which one could pay one’s respects to Islamic culture without believing in God. This was his unforgiveable sin. If he had written a book that repeated the ludicrous slanders of medieval Christianity to the effect that a Christian necromancer had dictated the Quran to Muhammad or that he had died making love to a Jewess and then his body was eaten by pigs, no mullah would have felt threatened. For Muhammad, unlike Moses and Jesus, is a fully historical prophet. We know exactly how he lived and died.

Equally, a full-frontal attack from the perspective of modern atheism, à la Richard Daw­kins or Christopher Hitchens, in which the whole edifice of belief is reduced to nonsense would have troubled no one. What Rushdie dared to do was to attempt to appropriate the Islamic tradition for unbelievers, to take it out of the hands of the clerics. Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t have to read the book to recognise it for the threat it was and perhaps still is.

Sadly – but probably inevitably – reading this otherwise inspiring book jostles with the recognition that Rushdie has now given up this struggle. Islam is as the Islamophobes would have it. Early on in Joseph Anton, as he describes the moment at which Midnight’s Children took shape, he writes: “He was a historian by training and the great point of history, which was to understand how indi­vidual lives, communities, nations and social classes were shaped by great force yet retained at times, the ability to change the direction of those forces, must also be the point of his fiction.”

However, no attempt is made to offer a historical explanation of Islamic fundamentalism; instead, in the architecture of the book, it becomes as incomprehensible as the malignant birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great movie.

Islamic fundamentalism, like its Christian counterpart, is a recent phenomenon. “Born again” as an adjective does not occur in American English until 1959. The thinking of al-Qaeda springs from the writings of Sayyid Qutb in the same decade. To an old-fashioned Marxist, the explanation is obvious: these fundamental­isms indicate the failures of capitalism to offer even the hope of a system of global justice in which the staggering advances in knowledge and science over the past 400 years would contribute to the general well-being of the species.

The academic Darko Suvin once remarked that the desire to be born again amounted to an immanent critique of capitalism. Islamic fundamentalism is born in the failures of third-world socialism. If its intolerant ideas must be continuously contested – and Rushdie’s book shows him as eloquent as ever in this contest – they will only evaporate with social and political changes of which there is currently little sign.

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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The political centre can still change the terms of Brexit – Labour's ambiguity can't last

If Labour continues to favour leaving the single market, then we are essentially for the same policy as the government.

This was on any basis an extraordinary election, unique in recent British experience and with major political consequence. The country is deeply divided: between young and old; metropolitan and outside the cities; better off and worse off.

And the country is suffering from the state of its politics. This time last year we were the fastest growing economy in the G7. We are now the slowest. The international investment community is negative on us. The savings rate is at its lowest in 50 years. Incomes are stagnating. The international reputation of Britain is rapidly losing altitude. There is a daily drip of worrying news on Brexit. The Grenfell Tower tragedy sums up for many the sorry condition of our social cohesion.

There is a slightly anarchic feel to our politics, intensified by the realisation that the government is weak and drifting. There is more followership than leadership.

We feel like a country which has lost its footing and is stumbling; but seemingly with no choice but to stagger on. This is where everything has changed and nothing has changed.

The election result should enable a fundamental re-appraisal of Brexit. Large numbers of people voted to stop a hard Brexit and rejected explicitly the mandate Theresa May was demanding. Instead, both main parties remain wedded to leaving the single market.

Now we argue over long transitional periods, and complicated methods of re-creating new regulatory mechanisms with Europe – which essentially mean we will have to keep close to European regulation – when all such things do is re-emphasise the inherent dangers of the whole venture.

I agree that if the will of the British people remains as it was last June, then Brexit will happen. But, to state what in a less surreal world would be blindingly obvious, it is possible, that, as we know more about what Brexit means, our "will" changes.

Our leaders should at least lead a proper debate about the options before us. They should become the nation’s educators, engaging us, explaining to us, laying out every alternative and what it means.

Rational consideration would sensibly include one option of negotiating for Britain to stay within a Europe itself prepared to reform and meet us half way.

Emmanuel Macron's victory in France changes the political dynamics of Europe. The members of the eurozone will integrate economic decision-making. Inevitably, therefore, Europe will comprise an inner and outer circle. Reform is now on Europe’s agenda. The European leaders, certainly from my discussions, are willing to consider changes to accommodate Britain, including around freedom of movement. Yet this option is excluded.

In the week before the election, my Institute along with Luntz Global Partners conducted a poll in France, Germany and the UK around attitudes to Europe, Brexit and politics.

The British people’s attitude to Europe is ambivalent. They do think "Brexit means Brexit" and for now there is no groundswell for a second referendum.

But, they want a strong relationship with Europe. A majority oppose hard Brexit. The opposition to free movement of people, once you break it down, is much more nuanced. The French and Germans share some of the British worries, notably around immigration, and would compromise on freedom of movement.

There is no evidence that Britain wants to pay a high economic price for Brexit. A majority would probably coalesce around a "soft Brexit".

However, the problem is that the difference between a hard and a soft Brexit has a very simple starting point: membership of the single market and customs union. If we stay within those rules of trade, where more than 50 per cent of our exports go, then the economic damage of Brexit will be limited. But, we will have to abide by the rules. 

The political difficulties of this are evident. It would lead in short order to a scratching of the British collective head and feeling of "well, in that case, what's the point of leaving?"

On the other hand, if we do leave the single market and customs union, then it is also clear that the economic damage is potentially large. No one who has seriously examined these issues believes that a third country free trade agreement (FTA) is remotely a substitute for membership of the single market. A "jobs first" Brexit outside the single market is a contradiction in terms.

So when people blithely say "we will get roughly the same terms as we do now with the single market", I literally know no one in the European system who believes this.

***

We have over-estimated, as ever, the weakness of Europe. Growth rates are recovering. Politics is stabilising. Yes many clouds remain – from Italian and Spanish banks to popular anger at cuts, low pay and immigration concerns. Europe is not out of the woods. But it thinks it sees a path out of those woods and our poll shows that French and Germans see Europe as a guide not an obstacle.

The EU27 will basically stick together in defending the rules of the single market. But we are all learning, as we proceed, the damage Brexit will do. 

Europe knows it will be poorer and less powerful without us. We know our currency is down around 12 per cent; already jobs are going; there is not £350m a week more for the NHS; and we actually need most of the migrants who come to work in the UK. On any basis, leaving is complex and will take years.

Brexit is the biggest political decision since the Second World War. Given what is at stake, and what, daily, we are discovering about the costs of Brexit, how can it be right to deliberately take off the table the option of compromise between Britain and Europe so that Britain stays within a reformed Europe?

We are doing so because the Tories fear that if Brexit in some form does not happen, they will re-open the fissure within their party. For three decades this internal Conservative battle has wreaked havoc with the politics of the country, rather as empire tariff debates did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Meanwhile, the true challenges of the country are unaddressed. The legislative programme is dominated by Brexit to the virtual exclusion of anything else. The Government may ask for "new ideas" from all sides of politics, but the reality is it has no bandwidth seriously to do anything other than Brexit.

It is not too late for the country to grip its own destiny, change the terms of the Brexit debate and turn its attention to the true challenges the nation faces.

This is where what happens to the Labour Party matters so much. The ambiguity of Labour’s position on Europe may have helped us access both Remain and Leave votes, though I am dubious.

However, it can't last. If Labour continues to be for leaving the single market, and the signs are that it will, then we are essentially for the same policy as the government.

This will become apparent to those who voted Remain. But more than that, it puts us in the same damaging position for the economy as the Tories; and in circumstances where we are also trying to end austerity through spending programmes which, to be clear, are larger than any Labour Party has ever proposed.   

I agree Labour had a remarkable result which I did not foresee. I pay tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s temperament in the campaign, to the mobilisation of younger voters and enthusiasm this generated. His supporters shouldn't exaggerate it; but his critics including me shouldn't under-state it. He tapped into something real and powerful, as Bernie Sanders has in the US and left-wing groups have done all over Europe.

There is a genuine and widespread desire for change and for the politics of social justice. This should alter the context in which we debate politics; and help influence the policy solutions.

But it doesn't alter the judgement about the risks of an unchanged Corbyn programme, if he became prime minister and tried to implement it at the same time as Brexit.

If a right-wing populist punch in the form of Brexit was followed by a left-wing populist punch in the form of unreconstructed hard-left economics, Britain would hit the canvas, flat on our back and be out for a long count.

The conventional wisdom is that the centre ground in British politics is now marginalised. It is true that the country didn't vote for centrist politics on June 8; but neither was it on offer. The space for the centre may seem smaller; but the need for it is ever bigger.

Our poll shows that a majority in all three countries surveyed still identify most with the centre of politics; and that the policies people want are those which produce real change, but from basically a centrist position.

Both main UK parties now face a fundamental choice of direction. The Tories could go back to that of David Cameron, in the style of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Or they could stick with the politics of the last year, defined by Brexit and immigration.

Labour’s leadership could champion a position on Europe radically distinct from the Tories, and reach out to those in the parliamentary Labour Party with experience of government to craft a programme of credibility as well as change.

Or they could dismiss the need for compromise and double down in their efforts to make their takeover of the Labour Party complete. 

The Labour Party should be cautious in thinking "one more heave" will deliver victory next time. The Corbyn campaign was a positive factor in the election result; but the determining factor was the Tory campaign.  

In all the elections since 1979, the result at the end was more or less what I expected at the beginning. Not this time. There is no doubt in my mind that at the beginning of the campaign the public were indeed about to give the Tories a landslide. After all, we had just had a really poor local election result, a normally reliable predictor.

***

What happened is a perfect illustration of why the Greeks were right that hubris is always followed by nemesis. Their error was less in calling the election than in the conduct of it.

The winning strategy was the one they started with: Theresa May is a leader above party, asking for a strong negotiating hand to get the best Brexit deal. But instead of keeping to it, they shattered it. Brexit policy turned into hard Brexit or "no deal" Brexit, rather than the "best deal for Britain". The manifesto was not above party but absolutely of the Tory Party: austerity, typical tough Tory policy on social care and school meals, plus fox hunting.

The public recoiled. The 16m who voted Remain realised they had to vote to defeat the Brexit mandate she was seeking. Anyone who cared about the public realm, and wished for an end to or an amelioration of austerity, understood this was their only opportunity to register that wish. Not foreseeable; but on reflection completely explicable.

The Labour electoral performance was unexpected. But that is exactly why we have to be careful in interpreting it. Victories in Kensington and Canterbury were amazing. But losses in Middlesbrough and Stoke were equally alarming. 

The Corbyn enthusiasm, especially among the young, is real, but I would hesitate before saying that all those who voted Labour voted to make him prime minister; or that they supported the body of the programme rather than its tone.

I think they thought that the likelihood was that the Tories would be the government, but were determined to neuter the mandate. This is why you could have – another unique dimension to the election – candidates standing for Labour overtly distancing from Jeremy Corbyn and yet still being elected, some with big majorities.

The common refrain among some Labour MPs is that the policies were popular, and if we retain them and unite, we will win next time. We should beware our own form of hubris. The Tories are not going to run another campaign like that one.

Next time, Labour’s economic programme will come under vastly greater scrutiny. No one is going to believe that there is not a real possibility of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. The campaign mishaps which happened every time the spending figures were put under the spotlight won't pass so easily. 

Understandably, some Labour MPs who, only weeks ago, thought their best hope of salvation rested on disassociation from the leader, now feel disoriented. But policies which were wrong in May didn't suddenly become right in June.

Many in this election voted with profound reluctance. There were an unusual number of voters making up their mind very late. Ultimately, neither party won a majority.

It is true that politics has changed dramatically from ten years ago. Our poll shows people want change and by large numbers, in all three countries. Years of austerity and an acute sense of an elite separated from the rest has led to a belief that the promise of generational progress has ended. This generation believes it has done better than the last. But it does not believe the next generation will do better than them. That is the market of anxiety in which the populists peddle quack solutions. 

But the poll also shows that support for the centre stays strong. People will default to populism when a radical centre is not on offer; where it is, they will vote it in, as Macron has shown.

I am not advocating a new party. Quite apart from the desirability of such a thing, our political system puts formidable barriers in its path. In any event, as a member of the Labour Party of more than 40 years standing, I want Labour to capture this ground.

But there are millions of politically homeless in Britain. They are not going to wander the byways of politics, bedding down uncomfortably, forever, not with their country in the dire shape it is in.

The challenge for the centre is to be the place of changing the status quo, not managing it. If it does, it still beats everything else.

What the progressive centre lacks is a radical policy agenda. This is the most immediate task and the one to which my new Institute is devoted.

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the election campaign was the absence of serious debate about the real challenges Britain faces. AI, automation and Big Data will usher in a new workplace revolution. The NHS, our school and skills system, "early years" education, welfare and retirement need to be redesigned fundamentally to take account of technology, scientific development, and changing demographics and lifestyle.

Communities and people left behind by globalisation need to be helped by specific measures which connect them to the mainstream economy. The infrastructure of Britain has to be built anew to link up the regions of the country and take advantage of our assets – geography, history, language and a culture which, despite everything, the world still admires. We need an ambitious affordable housing programme. Austerity should end; but its ending should place an even greater responsibility on government to seek solutions which change systems and not just pump money into them.

Britain has to escape the cul de sac of backward-looking pessimism with a programme of national renaissance, drawing on the best and most creative minds, to produce the new thinking which can shape our future; and can re-kindle optimism. This is why Brexit matters so much. It is not merely damaging in itself; it is a massive distraction. While other countries are moving down the fast lane of progress, we are stuck on the hard shoulder of nostalgia.

In this time of accelerating change, we are offered two different types of conservatism, one of the right and one of the left. The election was fought like one from the 1980s, but with two competing visions of the 1960s. Neither answers the call of the future.

Politics today is volatile and unpredictable. In these times, best hold to what you believe. The centre may appear marginalised; but in the hearts and minds of many, it simply needs to be renewed. Brexit makes this renewal urgent.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special