What’s in a name?https://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/whats-in-a-name-8/

What’s in a name?

It takes what I must presume is a typo to render yet more edgy Salman Rushdie’s new book,Joseph Anton,his memoir of the hiding years after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in February 1989.

It takes what I must presume is a typo to render yet more edgy Salman Rushdie’s new book,Joseph Anton,his memoir of the hiding years after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in February 1989.

It takes what I must presume is a typo to render yet more edgy Salman Rushdie’s new book,Joseph Anton,his memoir of the hiding years after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in February 1989. Joseph Anton is the pseudonym Rushdie settled on when one was demanded by the cops on his protection team — Joseph as in Conrad and Anton as in Chekhov. Rushdie,obviously being Rushdie,had first suggested Ajeeb Mamouli,the name of “a fragment of a character in a notebook”,“Mr Odd Ordinary,Mr Strange Normal,Mr Peculiar Everyday”. But his security team shot it down,demanding a less Asian sounding option. Rushdie thereupon tried various combinations of names of his favourite writers,and finally came up with Joseph Anton.

It is tempting to inquire whether the book would have been any different had a more Rushdie-esque name been okayed. Perhaps not. Nonetheless,the act of renaming put his writing self at a clear remove from this writer-on-the-run that the threat perception following the fatwa and protests had turned him into. That remove is accentuated by his adoption of the third-person narrative in Joseph Anton. By so doing,he becomes,in a sense,his own biographer,and the separation between “Joseph Anton” and “Salman Rushdie” uniquely centre stages the essential tension in the biography: the lingering sense,even in the company of the most skilled biographer,that the reader too is implicated somehow in the act of prying that lies at the heart of the biographer’s endeavour. How much,we wonder when we read of a life,would the subject of the biography have been comfortable with having revealed,analysed or speculated? We may go on then to argue that it does not matter,but the question never totally fades away.

It could be argued that such tension would be limited in a book like this one: a writer writes about himself in the third person,and so is in full control of what it is that he wants to share,and in what manner. It is particularly effective too,as the third-person conveys the effect of being on the run for fear of being watched — indeed,the effect of being watched by his minders while being hidden from harm’s way. It even helps Rushdie retrieve control of his own story of the decade of his underground existence as Joseph Anton.

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But as I said,it takes a typo to revive the biographer’s tension,and the tension is made more curious for splitting the writer into subject and biographer. About a third of the way into the book,there occurs this phrase: “his aunt told my mother”. “His” and “my” are possessive pronouns referencing the same person,and,I have to say,I read that phrase again and again,before I was convinced — well,almost — that it was an editing oversight,at least in my e-book edition.

If it is indeed a mistake,it is one I am thankful for,because it alerted me to the high-risk venture Rushdie has undertaken in using this narrative voice. Yes,the third-person is a tool of evasion,allowing him to reveal as much or as little of his thoughts or actions as he would choose. It also helps him keep the story from lapsing into an interior dialogue,as could so easily happen to an account of being forced underground. Yet,maintaining that distance between narrator and subject must have been a constant — line by line — effort. And the “my”,at most an innocuous slip,is a prompt for the reader to keep in mind the larger challenge posed by this use of the third person. After all,it is little children and megalomaniacs who most often refer to themselves in the third person,and to use the voice is to risk sounding overly innocent or hysterically self-congratulatory. To use it,is to be mindful of keeping a sense of proportion,as much as risk allegations of conceit or of evading accountability for revealing as liberally the affairs of others as his own. Try referring to yourself in the third person just for the length of a paragraph,and it will be evident that this is a ploy nobody will harness in a rush.

Even so,the his-my pronoun mix-up is an invitation to begin revisiting the art of biography amidst the literary form’s new turns.

mini.kapoor@expressindia.com