EXCERPT: 'Joseph Anton'

"Joseph Anton" by Salman Rushdie (Random House, September

"Joseph Anton" by Salman Rushdie (Random House, September 2012) (Credit: Handout)

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The Pakistani film "International Gorillay" (International guerrillas), produced by Sajjad Gul, told the story of a group of local heroes -- of the type that would, in the language of a later age, come to be known as jihadis or terrorists -- who vowed to find and kill an author called "Salman Rushdie." The quest for "Rushdie" formed the main action of the film and "his" death was the film's version of a happy ending.

"Rushdie" himself was depicted as a drunk, constantly swigging from a bottle of liquor, and a sadist. He lived in what looked very like a palace on what looked very like an island in the Philippines (clearly all novelists had second homes of this kind), being protected by what looked very like the Israeli army (this presumably being a service offered by Israel to all novelists), and he was plotting the overthrow of Pakistan by the fiendish means of opening chains of discothèques and gambling dens across that pure and virtuous land, a perfidious notion for which, as the British Muslim "leader" Iqbal Sacranie might have said, death was too light a punishment. "Rushdie" was dressed exclusively in a series of hideously colored safari suits -- vermilion safari suits, aubergine safari suits, cerise safari suits -- and the camera, whenever it fell upon the figure of this vile personage, invariably started at his feet and then panned with slow menace up to his face. So the safari suits got a lot of screen time, and when he saw a videotape of the film the fashion insult wounded him deeply. It was, however, oddly satisfying to read that one result of the film's popularity in Pakistan was that the actor playing "Rushdie" became so hated by the filmgoing public that he had to go into hiding.

At a certain point in the film one of the "international gorillay" was captured by the Israeli army and tied to a tree in the garden of the palace in the Philippines so that "Rushdie" could have his evil way with him. Once "Rushdie" had finished drinking from his bottle and lashing the poor terrorist with a whip, once he had slaked his filthy lust for violence upon the young man's body, he handed the innocent would-be murderer over to the Israeli soldiers and uttered the only genuinely funny line in the film. "Take him away," he cried, "and read to him from 'The Satanic Verses' all night!" Well, of course, the poor fellow cracked completely. Not that, anything but that, he blubbered as the Israelis led him away.

At the end of the film "Rushdie" was indeed killed -- not by the "international gorillay," but by the Word itself, by thunderbolts unleashed by three large Qur'ans hanging in the sky over his head, which reduced the monster to ash. Personally fried by the Book of the Almighty: There was dignity in that.

On July 22, 1990, the British Board of Film Classification refused "International Gorillay" a certificate, on the fairly self-evident grounds that it was libelous (and because the BBFC feared that if it were to license the film and the real Rushdie were to sue for defamation, the board could be accused of having become party to the libel, and could therefore be sued for damages as well). This placed the real Rushdie in something of a quandary. He was fighting a battle for free speech and yet he was being defended, in this case, by an act of censorship. On the other hand the film was a nasty piece of work. In the end he wrote a letter to the BBFC formally giving up his right of legal recourse, assuring the board that he would pursue neither the filmmaker nor the board itself in the courts, and that he did not wish to be accorded "the dubious protection of censorship." The film should be shown so that it could be seen for the "distorted, incompetent piece of trash that it is." On August 17, as a direct result of his intervention, the board unanimously voted to license the film; whereupon, in spite of all the producer's efforts to promote it, it immediately sank without trace, because it was a rotten movie, and no matter what its intended audience may have thought about "Rushdie" or even Rushdie, they were too wise to throw their money away on tickets for a dreadful film.

It was, for him, an object lesson in the importance of the "better out than in" free speech argument -- that it was better to allow even the most reprehensible speech than to sweep it under the carpet, better to publicly contest and perhaps deride what was loathsome than to give it the glamour of taboo, and that, for the most part, people could be trusted to tell the good from the bad. If "International Gorillay" had been banned, it would have become the hottest of hot videos and in the parlors of Bradford and Whitechapel young Muslim men would have gathered behind closed drapes to rejoice in the frying of the apostate. Out in the open, subjected to the judgment of the market, it shriveled like a vampire in sunlight, and was gone.

 

Excerpted from "Joseph Anton" by Salman Rushdie. Copyright © 2012 by Salman Rushdie. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

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