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TV REVIEW: Imagine: The Story Of Joseph Anton, The Alias Used By Salman Rushdie During Years Under Fatwa

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Salman Rushdie's ad for his new book, sorry I mean Alan Yentob's insightful investigation of years spent living a secret life, turned up on our screens with particularly piquant timing.

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Alan Yentob with Salman Rushdie - if Special Branch had ever needed a decoy, they need have looked no further

The author, who spent a decade living under the constant threat of the 1989 fatwa placed on him by an irate Ayatollah following the publication of his Satanic Verses, said he would only write the book of his life once he felt confident he would be able to write the final page.

Now, after another decade of living freely, he's put pen to page. And the very week the book hits the shops, a bounty has been put back on his head, following the release of the film Innocence of Muslims.

This turn of events was not referred to in the Imagine story on screen last night, which concentrated on the personal aspects of Rushdie's time in exile from his family, friends and a home to call his own. It was a time when he took the name Joseph Anton, from the forenames of his two favourite authors (Conrad, Chekhov), which is the title of the new memoir.

salman rushdie
William Nygaard, shot outside his home for publishing the Satanic Verses in Norway

Presenter Alan Yentob managed to put himself front and centre of this globally significant event - all its, cultural and political international consequences briefly put aside - retelling the tale of how Rushdie emerged from Bruce Chatwin's memorial service on the day of the fatwa declaration and jumped into - guess who - Alan Yentob's car. The pally pair even went so far as to recreate that memorable day, driving around the Moscow Road with a camera crew, which seemed to verge on the self-indulgent.

But despite Yentob almost comically photo-bombing these significant events, it was clear that a) what Rushdie went through was almost unbearable - constantly moving from house to house, being separated from his family, at the lowest point fearing for the safety of his young son, and b) he was surrounded and supported by a lot of very brave people, intent on upholding their commitment to free speech, often at personal cost, particularly the honourable Norwegian publisher William Nygaard who was shot for his efforts, but said he was proud to have been part of the book's publication.

Rushdie is lucky to have a lot of friends, and the viewer was lucky to find them mostly a bunch of smart writers, able both to reflect on events and communicate them feelingly. We heard their pain at seeing their friend simultaneously everywhere and nowhere - as Martin Amis wrily described, "he disappeared into the front page" - Hanif Kureishi's memory of hearing Rushdie's first talk of the book several years publication… in one of literature's great understatements, the author had predicted "it may cause trouble", and most movingly, Ian McEwan's realisation during one of their clandestine meetings that the chink of the wine glasses couldn't veil the great burden of fear over all of them - "I felt great love for him, but it really was happening to him, not us."

Rushdie's great friends and all supporters of free speech will be joined this week in hoping that this week's renewed burden proves to be of much shorter duration than its predecessor.

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Around the Web

Salman Rushdie - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Salman Rushdie - The Official Website

Salman Rushdie (SalmanRushdie) on Twitter