Salman Rushdie and the Establishment of the Left

Couple of years ago, Salman Rushdie wrote a memoir of his time in hiding from the Iranian fatwa. It’s called “Joseph Anton”, and I had read two-thirds of it when I decided to give up. It wasn’t badly written. It was just depressing me a bit, and I couldn’t understand why.

Yes, Rushdie comes over as being something of a wanker. He is shifty and inauthentic and views himself and his books as actual bulwarks of Western literature – except when it doesn’t suit him, and he just wants to be an ordinary person again. He seems constitutionally incapable of acknowledging any other point of view but his own, and I don’t mean simply on the fatwa but on anything. His wives are wrong, the police are wrong, the public, the media, his publishers, all wrong. Apart from his son, an idealised portrait of beatific childhood lifted wholesale from one of those Victorian melodramas which end with the infant being bodily assumed into Heaven, everybody in the world is at best a coward and at worst a monster. The consistent leitmotif of the book is that anyone whose interests diverge however minutely from the agenda of Salman Rushdie gets it both barrels.

None of which I mind, by the way. The character of “Joseph Anton” (Rushdie’s pseudonym throughout his years in hiding, and a decent indication of where he sees himself in the canon) is a magical piece of comic caricature, right up there with Adrian Mole and Mister Pooter. Rushdie’s lack of self-awareness never quite grows endearing, but it is usually funny, except when he is being gratuitously mean to and/or about someone who has helped him but not enough, which he usually is. No, what I found depressing about “Joseph Anton” was the absence from its pages of any kind of ordinary person – by which I mean someone who is unlikely to have went to Oxbridge or to public school.

The ‘ordinary’ people in “Joseph Anton” are the kind of off-stage rabble you get in village hall productions of Les Miserables. You don’t see them, you rarely hear them, and if they play any significant part in the story at all it is in the nameless role of “the waitress” or “the driver”. They are invariably slack and incompetent, with the implication continually being made that Rushdie’s life is dependent upon the random bumblings of ‘these kinds’ of people. There are several moving passages in which Rushdie speaks about the indignity of having to hide in his room whenever a cleaner comes round. The indignity of having to clean other people’s houses for a living goes strangely unremarked upon.

And what makes “Joseph Anton” interesting is that, finally, it all boils down to human dignity, a subject about which Salman Rushdie has an awful lot to say. Specifically, the circumstances in which it is impossible to maintain one’s dignity. There are things, Rushdie comes to realise, which are basic human rights, and which it is intolerable to be expected to live without. These are some of the rights for which Rushdie makes fairly explicit provision.

  1. The right to freedom of speech.
  2. The right to spend time with your family.
  3. The right to live and work wherever you like.
  4. The right to go on foreign holidays, anywhere, anytime.
  5. The right to go to awards ceremonies, and receive awards.
  6. The right to have your book published to your exact specifications and timetable, regardless of the potential economic, moral or human cost.

And so on. You will have no doubt have noticed that most, perhaps even all of these rights are currently denied to the average citizen of the United Kingdom. Rushdie doesn’t. For the vast majority of the book, Rushdie and his web of Oxbridge contacts are making strenuous appeal for the author to be allowed to live an ordinary life. The problem is, the disconnect between Rushdie’s idea of a ‘normal’ life and anybody else’s is so vast that it feels as if you are being personally insulted on every single page – which you probably would be, by the way, if you’d met him.

It is just an accepted fact that folk like, say, Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie are ‘men of the left’ – but what does it actually mean? Well, what reading “Joseph Anton” has made me realise is that it means exactly fuck all. It means that they are part of a familial squabble which, to the extent that it is happening at all, is taking place in an entirely different room and has nothing to do with the rest of us. Because the Establishment has a left wing as well. It’s the left to which writers, journalists, Labour politicians and the BBC belong. It is a left which is concerned with culture and heritage and being kind to animals and other such vague and worthy generalisations. It is a left which behaves as if the important battles against poverty and privilege have already been won, because, of course, those battles have been won, at least to the satisfaction of Amis and company; and they are therefore perfectly entitled to spend the rest of human history in public school debates about whether the Turner Prize winner is art this year or not.

To the Establishment Left, politics is basically extra-curricular. It’s something you do for extra credits instead of cricket. There’s nothing at stake. “Joseph Anton” is a book about a man who finds, to his horror, that everything is at stake; that his life depends upon the one box out of a million which an unseen bureaucrat might choose to tick that day, or might not. In other words, Salman Rushdie wakes up one morning to find that his life is now, well, ordinary.

Or almost. Rushdie still has his friends. He meets the Prime Minister. He meets the President. The Tory government are too busy dismantling the welfare state to talk to any of the people whose lives they’ve ruined, but they talk to Rushdie. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, presumably did not have the ear of the Prime Minister of Japan, and is stabbed to death. Rushdie has the same reaction to this as he does to every other tragedy that comes of the fatwa, which is one part unconvincing regret to four parts defensive insistence that it’s not his fault.

And it isn’t, of course. The Kafka parallels are obvious. For all his faults, Rushdie has not actually done anything wrong. But unlike Joseph K, ‘Joseph Anton’ affects to have no conception whatsoever that he might have done anything wrong, ever. And that’s interesting. Very few of us, except maybe psychopaths and leaders, have led such blameless lives that, when something terrible happens to us, we have no cosmic inkling that we might have had it coming. Is that, in the end, what separates us from the Establishment? Is that all it is – guilt?