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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Sturgeon's mission: how Brexit changes the SNP's argument for independence

With Labour in disarray and Westminster focused on leaving the European Union, the next Scottish referendum - whenever it happens - is the SNP’s to lose.

If the political events of a single day can set the tone for what follows, the UK is on its last legs. Calling for another independence referendum at Bute House in Edinburgh on the morning of Monday 13 March, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appeared typically poised and (apparently) in control of events, while from Downing Street that afternoon there was the distinct sound of flapping.

Brexit highlights the contradictions on both sides of the constitutional divide. There is an obvious flaw in the SNP leader’s argument that the UK extracting itself from an economically beneficial union – the EU – would prove “catastrophic” while Scotland leaving the UK will be fine. Equally, Theresa May cannot credibly talk up the benefits of UK “independence” while casting the Scottish equivalent as a calamity.

Yet the optics in Edinburgh and London don’t give the full picture. By any empirical measurement, the economic case for Scottish independence is weaker than it was in 2014. However, the trouble for unionists – as for Democrats in the US and Remainers in the UK – is that the political conversation is no longer taking place in the realm of balance sheets or, indeed, of objective reality.

Sturgeon probably knew that this was coming from the moment she put a second independence referendum back “on the table” the morning after a majority of UK voters (but not Scotland) chose to leave the European Union. Yet between then and Monday morning, she had to appear reasonable, as if she had exhausted every possible compromise. The British government’s inflexible response to the First Minister’s quixotic plans for a “differentiated” Scottish settlement strengthened her hand.

No one in the SNP expected Theresa May to deliver the requested compromise. And while many believe that Sturgeon got a little carried away on 24 June 2016 in her expectation that pro-European sentiment would boost support for independence significantly, Brexit has been a political gift. Not only did the differential outcome in Scotland reinforce long-standing arguments about the “democratic deficit”, it also enabled the SNP to recast Scottish nationalism as internationalist and cosmopolitan, in contrast to the “Little Englander” variety.

Nevertheless, the First Minister ended up taking the plunge slightly earlier than anticipated, probably because newspapers had suggested that Article 50 could be triggered on 14 March. Sturgeon will now get a second media “hit” at her party’s spring conference in Aberdeen this weekend. Forcing her hand was not Alex Salmond, as some spurious reports implied, but the realisation that circumstances would never be this good again. Yes, there is the backdrop of Brexit, but equally important are the existence of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament (which is unlikely to be sustained beyond the 2021 Holyrood elections) and the continuing dysfunction of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn might go down in history as an unwitting facilitator of both Brexit and Scottish independence.

This time last year, Nicola Sturgeon was telling interviewers that she would pursue another referendum only if opinion polls showed a sustained lead for independence. Though two recent surveys suggest a modest tilt towards Yes, this has not transpired – at least not in public polling. It seems likely, however, that private polling tells a different story, which is another reason why the SNP leader felt able to move as she did.

Crucial to the next vote is the group that we might call “Yes-Leavers”. With a degree of intellectual consistency, its members want to regain “sovereignty” from both London and Brussels. In an attempt to keep hold of that constituency, the First Minister has attempted in recent months to detach a second referendum from Brexit, arguing that independence “transcends” this and almost every other political consideration. SNP advisers also floated the idea that an independent Scotland might settle for membership of the European Economic Area, like Iceland or Norway (the party’s favourite constitutional case study), rather than full-blooded membership of the EU.

The SNP is confident that, come the crunch, the majority of Yes-Leavers will end up backing independence. The tenuous claims, made during the last Scottish referendum campaign, that an independent Scotland would “automatically” become or remain an EU member are dead in the water. Instead, the Scottish government tacitly accepts – indeed, welcomes – the possibility that it will be outside the EU, at least for the time being.

On 13 March the First Minister said the Yes side would “be frank about the challenges we face”, yet another indication that the independence proposition will be less Pollyannaish than it was in 2014. Its advocates have little choice. Not only have North Sea oil revenues dwindled, but the sizeable gap between what Scotland raises in taxation and what it spends on public services – somewhere between £9bn and £15bn a year – is given an annual airing with the publication of the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures.

Just as the SNP reversed its opposition to membership of Nato in 2012, the party is now closing down potential lines of opposition attack. The benefit of having fought a referendum just a few years ago is that nationalist strategists know where their weaknesses lie. Central to this process is a “growth commission”, led by the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson.

Wilson has said that oil revenues will no longer be “baked” into the economic case for independence. His remarks were not intentional but proved useful, neutralising the oil issue early on, but the twin challenges of currency and the deficit remain. Last time, the SNP adopted the least bad option of a “currency union” with the rest of the UK, but since then opinion within the SNP has shifted in favour of a separate Scottish currency. Whether that becomes policy, however, is not yet clear.

There has also been a change of tone regarding the deficit, if not a wholehearted acceptance that the early years of independence would necessitate both steep tax rises and deep cuts to public spending. “It’s going to be tough for the first few years,” one Salmond-era adviser admits, but how frank the SNP is about that in public will be a test of the new realism.

Like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the SNP has been better at calling for an alternative economic model than articulating what it would be. That won’t matter much in the heat of another referendum battle. The meta-narrative remains strong, and as the EU referendum and US presidential election demonstrated, a beguiling story of apparently easy solutions to difficult problems – even in the absence of any details – can prove a winning formula.

The central role of Andrew Wilson in the SNP’s pivot away from land-of-milk-and-honey predictions is also interesting. He and Sturgeon were colleagues in the first Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2003, but they were far from close, and Wilson is typical of the Salmondista nationalists who once thought the idea of her leading the party was a bad joke but now view her with increasing admiration, not least for her willingness to gamble her career on a second referendum. The First Minister’s kitchen cabinet is small, but over the past few months, as a source puts it, “there’s been some reaching out” to Salmond-era advisers. A divided movement is not in any nationalist’s interest.

So where does that leave those who want to preserve the United Kingdom? Not in a good place, as the initial response demonstrated. The carrot-and-stick approach of the 2014 referendum is subject to the law of diminishing returns; offering yet “more powers” is difficult, now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and Project Fear II would likely suffer the same fate as last year’s Remain campaign. Organisationally, each of the three unionist parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – will fight its own anti-independence campaign, thus appearing disunited (the Yes campaign will probably be much more disciplined than in 2012-14).

More to the point, with Northern Ireland once again in tumult, what precisely is it that binds Ulster, Wales and Scotland to England, beyond a balance sheet? In recent weeks, everyone from the Prime Minister to the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, has attempted to articulate the Holy Grail of a “positive” case for the Union. None has got beyond the usual platitudes about past (the tense is revealing) British greatness and fuzzy rhetoric about “solidarity”. There is also English public opinion to factor in. A few years ago, the English, on balance, wanted Scotland to stay, but who can say if that sentiment will survive Brexit and a second independence referendum?

As Europhiles know all too well, defending a union that can appear harsh and remote is no easy task. It doesn’t matter that independence is a conclusion in search of an argument – oil in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Iraq War in the 2000s and now Brexit – or that economic reality favours the status quo. Success in 2019 (or perhaps even later) will come down to who tells the better story. Brexit gives the Yes side a more compelling good v evil tale than it had in 2014. If the No campaign relies on the same old boring story of economic woe (what else is there?), a second indepen­dence referendum is the SNP’s to lose.

David Torrance has written biographies of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain