Sunday, October 07, 2012

you must live until you die.

“He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”/He did not quite believe it. Lyric poets/Usually have - as he knew - cold hearts./It is like a medical condition. Perfection in art/Is given in exchange for such an affliction.”*

The poems of Czeslaw Milosz kept echoing in my head as I read Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton. ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ repeated itself, like the swishing of waves against the shore, as Rushdie talked about his four wives, his two sons, all the friends who helped him hide in plain sight during the years of the fatwa.

I was not quite nine when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in February of 1989. Later that year would be the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the trial and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu, all events that remain vivid in my mind, standing out against the insular worlds of school and home. For a man in hiding Rushdie was constantly photographed in the years that followed, at the heart of the literary scene, a celebrity who partied with Martin Amis and Nigella Lawson and who became so famous he had a cameo in one of the Bridget Jones’ Diary movies.

Meanwhile he was married four times, the last time to the then-model Padma Lakshmi who did not want to be in his shadow and was determined find a place in the world for herself, which she did, as a cookbook author and then as the host of Top Chef. His ex-wives painted him as a selfish monster who had affairs and cared only of himself. Probably all this is true. I remember asking my mother, years ago, when talking about a poet friend who liked to believe the world revolved around him, as perhaps it did; “I suppose we must make allowances for poets.” She laughed so much she had to pull over to the side of the road.

Marriage to someone whose life and work are all-consuming and intertwined - not necessarily confined to artists and writers, but mostly so - requires a superhuman strength, patience, confidence, and yet a lack of ego. The tunnel vision of creation builds a vacuum of selfishness around the creator. It must be a lonely kind of life, intensified by the unpredictable claustrophobia of constant security and frequent moving around from house to house, always wondering if the snipers would find you somehow.

I read Joseph Anton in a ravenous gulp spanning two days. As with Umberto Eco, who became friends with Rushdie after the latter wrote a terrible review of Foucalt’s Pendulum, I find his nonfiction easier to read than his fiction. But there is something otherworldly about his story, written in the third person. Joseph Anton is the name Rushdie chose when he went into hiding, so he could open bank accounts and credit cards without revealing his true identity. The third-person voice gives the story a sense of unreality, of inhabiting a netherworld between Salman Rushdie the man and Salman Rushdie the heretic who must be assassinated for the greater good and Salman Rushdie the writer who would become such a celebrity that his invisible face became as recognizable as Ronald MacDonald, perhaps, or Mickey Mouse.

Throughout the story is a single thread: love - love for his sons, which warmed and humanized him, the way the faceless Eurydice does in Milosz’s poem, the need for love which drew him to all sorts of women even when he was married or otherwise entangled with other women, love for and from his friends who surrounded him in a protective circle more impenetrable than any security shield. This is a story about love, about truth, about the nature of history and literature and writing. About the choices we have to make when there seems to be no choice at all. “You must live until you die,” says Joseph Conrad, from whom Joseph Anton takes his name. It is a repeated refrain.

*Milosz, Czeslaw. Orpheus and Euryidice. Second Space. Ecco, 2005. p99.

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