Saturday I finished reading Salman Rushdie’s Memoir, Joseph Anton, about his life under state protection after the Iranian fatwa of 1989. Zoe Heller has a deliciously mean-spirited review in the New York Review of Books. (It’s been called the hatchet job of the year.) I don’t care to take her on point by point. I’ll just say I found the book much more valuable than she did. Indeed, I found it more valuable than most reviewers have. Yes, he comes off as selfish and short-sighted, but the issues he deals with — the right of an author, or of anyone, to say what’s on his or her mind — are larger than the personal failings of a star-struck hound-dog who likes to drop names. (And boy, does he like to drop names.)
The reviews I’ve read barely mention what is for me the most interesting part of the book — the day-to-day workings of "prot," as the police protecton effort was called. The cops who kept Rushdie alive for ten years are, as a group, much more fun to read about than the author’s big-deal pals from the worlds of literature and entertainment, at least as he presents them here. Almost as interesting are the arguments with the higher-ups in the Metropolitan Police and the intelligence service. Invariably, they want him to stay put, and just as invariably, he wants to lead as normal life as possible — and for a prominent author, “normal” means very public. In these sections, Joseph Anton provides a window into a profession and an existence that most of us, luckily, will never see.
As soon as I put down Rushdie’s book, I picked up John Le Carré’s Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which I intend to follow with The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. by George Steiner. I mention them only because Rushdie singles out Steiner and especially Le Carré as two of the so-called liberal authors who gave him a hard time in print during the years of the fatwa.