John Le Carre (Left) Salman Rushdie (Right) photo: Syrie Moskowitz
Published: 22 November, 2012
by GERALD ISAAMAN
Is it feuds among so-called friends and callous neighbours that make the world go round – and go mad too? The current catastrophic mayhem in the Middle East certainly provokes the thought that it would be so much easier to kiss and make-up if only the United Nations had the intervention power to do so.
So I welcome the reports that at least two local literary lions, John le Carré and Sir Salman Rushdie, have ended their bitter hostilities that have gone on for 15 years and declared a welcome truce.
“And if I met Salman tomorrow? I would warmly shake the hand of a brilliant fellow writer,” declares le Carré, now white-haired and 81, in response to Rushdie’s initiative, admitting his admiration for “his work and his courage”.
Rushdie, at 65, equally confesses: “I wish we hadn’t done it,” praising le Carré’s iconic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as “one of the great novels of postwar Britain”.
What’s it all about? The fatwa, of course – the sentence of death issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day, 1989, against Rushdie and the publishers of his highly controversial tome The Satanic Verses. On that same tragic day his American novelist wife Marianne Wiggins announced that their year-old marriage had been a mistake.
The fatwa sent Rushdie into permanent hiding from his home in Islington with a government squad of specialist cops to protect him – they called it Operation Malachite – and a life of despair.
This reignited a dispute between the two men following Rushdie’s declaration that le Carré’s novel The Russia House was hardly a work of serious literature.
Indeed, le Carré, aka one-time spy David Cornwell, has always resented the critics who pushed his novels into the spurious genre of thrillers, failing to recognise his masterful talent for exposing our national ills. And proud le Carré refuses to allow his books to be entered for any prizes, and rejects all official honours.
While defenders of free speech jubilantly supported Rushdie’s refusal to deny his use of Qu’ran verses that accept other gods that the Prophet Muhammad disowned, despite the inevitable consequences, le Carré declared otherwise. “My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity,” he wrote in a 1997 letter to the Guardian from his home in Gainsborough Gardens, Hampstead.
“I wrote that there is no absolute standard of free speech in any society. I wrote that tolerance does not come at the same time, and in the same form, to all religions and cultures, and that Christian society too, until very recently, defined the limits of freedom by what was sacred.”
Rushdie responded by claiming this to be “muddled bombast”, adding: “John le Carré is right to say that free speech isn’t an absolute. We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don’t defend.”
Le Carré hit back, insisting: “Rushdie took on a known enemy and screamed ‘foul’ when it acted in character. The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn’t make a martyr of him, nor – much as he would like it to – does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall.”
And so it went on – the exchanges are all online and now part of literary legend – but they do act as a backdrop to Rushdie’s newly acclaimed memoir, Joseph Anton, of those worrying days, nine years in fact, when he led a dubious double life.
Strangely though, the pseudonymous Joseph Anton – Rushdie chose the first names of Conrad and Chekhov – is written in the third person, which gives the saga a touch of surreal fantasy, making it, initially, difficult to read and contemplate.
Nevertheless, Rushdie reveals with compelling passion in more than 630 pages the extraordinary story of his early years and how he coped writing in the dark – and found more than one woman to love – as a marked man.
It is the kind of confidence/arrogance he wore like a crown after his days in Kentish Town when he worked as an advertising copywriter before producing his magical second novel Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker prize in 1981 and subsequently the Best of the Bookers.
I was at the Booker two years later when his short-listed novel Shame failed to emerge as the winner, Rushdie and his party exploding in protest at their table, causing an embarrassing scene that shocked many guests.
Le Carré, for whom deceit and infidelity are trademarks, would never behave in such a way. During years as a close friend I found his ability to charm always perfect, something acquired no doubt from during his diplomatic career, plus years teaching at Eton.
The pages of Joseph Anton are packed with names well known to Hampstead’s literati, from Margaret Drabble to Harold Pinter, and the revelation also that Rushdie’s first hideaway home was in a “shoddy house” on the edge of the Heath.
There are intriguing scenes where friends he visits in Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, tell him they have talked to Yasser Arafat about his predicament, and a moment there when Rushdie talks on the phone to the Czech president Vaclav Havel, in London to see Margaret Thatcher.
It is a brave, bizarre, brilliant book at yet another disturbing time when, alas, the stakes are so much higher than one man’s identity – and future – and we need to concern ourselves about the fundamental fate of the world.
• Joseph Anton: A Memoir. By Salman Rushdie. Jonathan Cape, £25