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Originally published Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Rushdie's outside-in look at the fatwa experience

In his memoir "Joseph Anton," Salman Rushdie steps outside himself to give a third-person account of what it was like to live under a death sentence for 13 years for writing "The Satanic Verses."

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Joseph Anton'

by Salman Rushdie

Random House, 636 pp., $30

The story of the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, sentencing the novelist to death for writing "The Satanic Verses," has always been much bigger than Rushdie himself.

It involved freedom of speech, religious absolutism, trade negotiations with Iran, the plights of British and American hostages in the Middle East, terror attacks on bookstores and libraries, murderous assaults on publishers and translators, literary sniping, tabloid slander and endless backroom politicking.

It also involved, for Rushdie, near-impossible pressures on being a parent, being a husband, being a friend and continuing to be a writer. He was the ultimate insider on what happened — but what happened was about far more than him.

How to encompass it all in one book?

Rushdie's solution in "Joseph Anton," his new memoir, is to make himself just one character (granted, the central character) in a huge, rolling third-person narrative. That doesn't stop "Joseph Anton" (the name Rushdie assumed while in hiding) from being as naked and soul-searching a story as one can imagine. It also has its fair share of gossip, gallows humor and Keystone Kops mishap.

Rushdie immediately understood both the familiarity and the novelty of his plight. "Voltaire," he notes early on, "once said that it was a good idea for a writer to live near an international frontier so that, if he angered powerful men, he could skip across the border and be safe." The fatwa, however, was an "extraterritorial action," ignoring all notions of national sovereignty.

"Joseph Anton" (the name was Rushdie's nod to Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov) soon became "Joe" to his British government protectors, whom Rushdie portrays vividly and fondly. (Their bosses, with whom they and Rushdie often disagreed on security strategy, were a different story.)

One canard that soon emerged in the tabloids concerned the expense Rushdie was causing the British nation. He makes it clear that, while his protectors were naturally government-funded, his accommodations weren't, and it was up to him to find and rent his own living quarters — no easy feat when you're living incognito.

Friends and colleagues helped out generously and unquestioningly, but it took him a while to register how fully his existence had altered.

"I want to kick a football in a park with my son," he noted in his journal. "Ordinary, banal life: my impossible dream."

Rushdie's marital complications (four wives! — albeit not simultaneously) are an intrinsic part of the narrative. So is his love affair with America, where he was able to resume a normal life more quickly than in England and Europe, as the threat from Iran gradually faded over 13 years.

"Joseph Anton" goes into exhaustive detail sometimes. But the "intolerable eternity" of Rushdie's situation — full of false hopes and grim setbacks, year after year, to the point where it was no longer deemed newsworthy — was at the heart of his ordeal.

By its end, the book leaves you in no doubt as to what living under the fatwa was like. More important, it reminds us, with drive and eloquence, what it was all about: freedom of the imagination and the necessity for a rambunctious writer's storytelling instincts to take him wherever he will go.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer:

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