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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Joseph Anton’

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JOSEPH ANTON: A MEMOIR
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, $30, 636 pages

When the British government gave Salman Rushdie its protection following the Iranian fatwa calling for his murder, it required him to adopt a pseudonym. Ever the literary gent, Mr. Rushdie took the first names of his two favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. His protection officers called him Joe. Sadly, this revelation is one of the few surprises in the more than 600 pages of this look back at the time -- well more than a decade -- that he spent as far under the radar as possible. Mr. Rushdie seems to have a prodigious memory for incidents, encounters and emotions, and the book is packed with detail. However, his recollections are curiously detached and utterly lacking in any shape -- literary or otherwise.

Although primarily an account of those undercover years, "Joseph Anton" is also an autobiography of sorts of the 40-plus years of Mr. Rushdie's life before he became one of the most famous -- or, in certain circles, notorious -- people on the planet. We hear about his early years in India, his schooling in England at Rugby (of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" fame) and Cambridge, his time as an advertising copywriter in London and his struggles as a fledgling writer. He says repeatedly how desperately unhappy he was at Rugby and how Cambridge left him feeling only somewhat less miserable, yet he is unwilling or unable to give any texture to all this misery. It is shocking to see an author as seasoned as Mr. Rushdie make the elementary mistake that is a staple warning given in almost all creative-writing classes: Never just tell; be sure to show.

As an account of the extraordinary experience of being Salman Rushdie after the fatwa, "Joseph Anton" falls strangely flat. There isn't much there that you couldn't predict or that anyone with a modicum of imagination and a nodding acquaintance with spy novels wouldn't have guessed. There is the odd amusing tale, like the time when Mr. Rushdie's security detail persuaded him to get a wig, assuring him that it would enable him to go about unrecognized. Against his better judgment, he donned the disguise, only to have everyone stare at him with obvious recognition.

After he heard a man say, "There goes that bastard Rushdie in a wig," he hurried back to his bulletproof car and never wore it again. For the most part, there are more grumbles about inconvenience than insight into fear and anxiety. He does have the grace to be full of praise for the officers who not only protected his life at the risk of their own but offered all manner of support and kindness, not only to him but to his young son.

The fatal decision Mr. Rushdie made on how to tell his tale was his choice of the third person. Whatever he thought he was doing, the result is detachment and distance, the last things you want here. If you are to empathize, you need to feel the immediacy of Mr. Rushdie's amazing experience. But all these experiences only serve to reinforce the distance not just between readers and Mr. Rushdie, but between him and the book's narration. At times it seems like a mere mannerism, more often like a wall.

The most striking impression "Joseph Anton" leaves is of its stunning lack of artistry. It reads like a torrent of undigested words and thoughts, poured out as they come rather than shaped. It is understandable that Mr. Rushdie, the man, has a compulsion to disgorge such an account of his years in the caldron. Mr. Rushdie, the writer, should have been prepared to hone and refine it into some kind of literary artifact.

As it is, Mr. Rushdie seems to have used this book as an opportunity to rail against anyone -- public figures, writers, politicians -- he thinks did not give him sufficient support. (To be fair, he also is unequivocal in his praise for those who were staunch.) More unattractively, he is unrelenting in settling scores with ex-wives, publishers and others who let him down. His self-centeredness is astounding: The welfare of hostages in the Middle East or who might be affected by robust official support for him pales beside his own case, which "Joseph Anton" singularly fails to enhance.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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