MIND THE GAP – Writers on Life, Art & Politics
By Amitava Kumar
“Does the bodyguard’s principal make conversation with the bodyguard, as they wait for the light to change, in the dull grey Citroën? With the second bodyguard, who is driving? What is the tone? Does the bodyguard’s principal comment on the tanned young women who flock along the boulevard? On the young men? On the traffic? Has the bodyguard ever enjoyed a serious political discussion with his principal?”
The lines I have quoted above are from a short story by Donald Barthelme published in the 16 October 1978 issue of The New Yorker. The story, which was titled Concerning the Bodyguard, is a wonderful piece of work and is made up entirely of questions. “When the bodyguard delivers the son of his principal to the school where all of the children are delivered by bodyguards, does he stop at a grocer’s on the way and buy the child a peach? Does he buy himself a peach?”
A little over a year ago, I heard Salman Rushdie read out Barthelme’s story on The New Yorker fiction podcast. In the conversation that followed the reading, Rushdie spoke to the interviewer about the way in which the narration worked to oppose the inertia of the bodyguard’s job. “Security was the art,” Rushdie said, “of making nothing happen. Boredom was good. You didn’t want things to get interesting. Interesting was dangerous. The whole point was to keep everything dull.” His listeners didn’t know this then but Rushdie was quoting from Joseph Anton, a revealing book about a writer as a “principal” condemned to remain hidden, protected by big, armed men who cracked bad jokes.
The idea of telling a story, any story, simply by asking questions would be extremely difficult, and perhaps even tedious, to carry out over the length of a book. (Rushdie used this technique over the course of a short, incantatory passage in his novel Shalimar the Clown,raising questions about the violence of army actions in Kashmir.) But, having admired Rushdie’s reading of the Bartheleme tale, it was difficult for me not to ask how Joseph Anton would read had it been written in the form of questions.
Every evening at seven, by arrangement, does the principal make a phone call? Who does he call? One evening, was there no response when he made the daily agreed-upon call? No response when he called 15 minutes later? No response when he called again and again every few minutes?
Did the bodyguard come in to ask if there had been a break in routine? Was the principal sitting on the floor, with his back wedged against the wall, the phone on his lap? Was he afraid that his son had been killed or kidnapped? Was there a mistake?
The surprising conceit that Rushdie does employ in his memoir is the use of the third-person narration to write about himself. JM Coetzee had done this in his memoirs, the voice suiting his clinical portrayal of the past. But Rushdie is a more gregarious and voluble writer. In Joseph Anton, there is fury, and, what is rarer, also shame. What the distancing device does, more than anything else, is that it allows Rushdie to reveal, at length, the difference between the persona created by the fatwa and the person he had been till then.
There is no art without artifice. It is evident even in the choice of the name Joseph Anton. Drawn from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, this was the identity Rushdie chose when his protection team pointed out that he needed a new name to escape detection. Of course, the best distancing device at the disposal of the writer is the fictional imagination. But, as the events after the publication of The Satanic Verses showed, it hadn’t been enough for the literalists. It is inspiring then to see that the artistic imagination is at work again, triumphantly shaping experience in new ways.
They had wanted to kill Salman Rushdie; they failed. The writer himself has now killed, as only writers can, a character he had invented. RIP, Joseph Anton.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist. Kumar’s book A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb received the 2011 Page Turner award for nonfiction from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop