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Joseph Anton

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The novelist Milan Kundera, who came of age in communist Czechoslovakia, and from whom some critics initially expected politically themed fiction, once said: "The condemnation of totalitarianism doesn't deserve a novel." Indeed, most people, whether in the West or the Soviet bloc, didn’t need to be convinced of the injustice of communist rule. One might reasonably extrapolate that free speech, hardly a contentious matter in Western societies, doesn’t deserve a defense spanning over 600 pages.

But the shameful reality is that many Britons were averse to offering Rushdie protection from his would-be murderers. The culprits were not just the usual suspects, i.e., radical Muslims. There were those on the right who felt nothing but disdain for a British-Indian novelist of Muslim origin and his troublesome efforts to create “an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of [divine] revelation,” others on the left who tied themselves in knots worrying about the sensibilities of Muslims the world over, and many in the middle who fretted about economic ties with Iran and other oil-rich Muslim countries.

This is not to deny that "Joseph Anton" –  surprisingly poignant in its treatment of Rushdie’s relationships with his family, tireless supporters, and dedicated police officers –  features a good deal of grandstanding about the virtues and importance of literature; it just places the issue in context. The book’s other irritants also have straightforward explanations. Consider the incessant name-dropping. It took Iran nearly a decade to begin distancing itself from the fatwa, during which time Rushdie’s personal life was so constricted – police living in his home, solo excursions prohibited, several airlines refusing to fly him – that his social interaction occurred almost exclusively with writers and celebrities in secured locations.

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