Seeing Salman Rushdie talking Joseph Anton

It’s hard for me to overstate the eminent position Salman Rushdie holds in my reading of (postcolonial) literature, but I’ll give it a shot–my feelings on seeing him in person were akin to those of a Regency Romance convention beholding Jane Austen. I bought my battered 1982 Picador edition of Midnight’s Children second-hand,  back when I was a penniless high school student, and I’ve read over a dozen times and love it unequivocally despite having written two papers on it in grad school.

I’ve read all but one of Rushdie’s novels, and all his essay collections, and while I’ve followed his writing for over two decades, I’ve stayed triumphantly uninformed about his personal life.  But Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton is as much about the man as his writing, and heck yes! I wanted to know more about both.

The book’s main focus is Rushdie’s underground existence starting 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeni sentenced him to death for insulting Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. When asked to assume another identity, Rushdie chose the name Joseph Anton, a combination of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov (his first choice Ajeeb Mamooli, which translates to strange everyman, was rejected by his police team as too-Asian).  But Rushdie also covers his schooldays (at Rugby) and university years, his love life, his relationship with family back in India and Pakistan, his friendships (many with noted writers), his son, and much more in this enormous book.

I was about halfway through Joseph Anton when I attended Rushdie’s talk  at the Lincoln Alexander Center in Hamilton last Friday, October 26.  The 334 pages I’d read had impressed and  frustrated  me in near-equal measure. Much of the time, I was indeed reading, as the jacket copy said, a work “of vital importance in its political insight and wisdom”, a story of “why literature matters”.  Moreover, there were thrilling (to me) revelations about the genesis of Midnight’s Children–Rushdie noting how he decided not to “write his book in cool Forsterian English. India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try and find that language.” Oh, yes.  Other times, I was struck by Rushdie’s fascination with celebrity, and the pettiness of his long-cherished, carefully-nourished grudges.  In person, I imagined, Rushdie would be an entertaining if occasionally  infuriating amalgam of Gandalf the Wise and George Costanza insisting he paid for Elaine’s big salad.

Well, there was no sign of George on Friday night, which began with a reading from the book, followed by a Q&A with Charles Foran.  Rushdie obviously loves to talk–Foran sometimes (c)would interject a question when Rushdie paused for breath. Fortunately for the audience, Rushdie proved a wonderful speaker.  So very articulate,  always witty,  succumbing at times to the seduction of the sound-bite, yes, but often brilliant, occasionally moving (his honest pride at how his young son coped with his exile was lovely to watch)–he had the audience eating out of his hand.

Foran’s questions about Rushdie’s life and writing were mostly answered in the book, so I’m not going to describe that conversation here (read the book, folks!)  Rushdie then took questions from the audience. He spoke about his friendship with Christopher Hitchens and the literary games they’d invented along with other friends (btw, when he talks about friends, he’s referring to Martin Amis and Ian McEwan).  He spoke about his love for P.G.Wodehouse (yes!) and Monty Python and the Bombay film industry and his gossipy mom. Asked which books he most enjoyed writing, he mentioned Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor’s Last Sigh–the former written for his young son, and the latter because it was the first book he wrote while underground, proving (to himself) that despite everything, he still had it in him to write.

At the end of the event, my blood was zinging–I wanted to walk a picket line and defend Literature, hang out with writers and invent literary drinking games with clever sexual innuendos , and write a novel that would change the world.  I was brought back with a bump when the organizers announced that Rushdie would speed-sign books because there was a time constraint–he needed to catch a bus back to Toronto.  A bus, repeated Rushdie, sounding a tad bemused. Oh, damn, those budget cuts in publishing are getting quite serious.

And now seems a good time to set down my appreciation of Bryan Prince Bookseller  and  A Different Drummer Books (and IFOA) for making this evening happen–it’s not often an event of this magnitude occurs in my backyard. During the talk, there was a brief mention of how vital these stores are to fostering the literary culture in this region, and really, it can’t be said often enough–we need to cherish our indie bookstores. I feel freakin’ LUCKY to live minutes away from two of the best indies in Canada. May they live long and prosper.

And do click  here for a note by Rushdie in praise of indies.

Disclosure: Review copy of Joseph Anton from Random House and event ticket from Bryan Prince Booksellers.  Excessive emotion in this post solely mine.