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A Novel of India's Coming of Age
By CLARK BLAISE
The literary map of India is about to be redrawn. The familiar
outline - E.M. Forster's outline essentially - will always be
there, because India will always offer the dualities essential
for the Forsterian vision: the open sewer and the whispering glade,
Mother Theresa and the Taj Mahal. Serious English-language novelists
from India (often called Indo-Anglians), or those from abroad
who use Indian material, have steered a steady course between
these two vast, mutually obliterating realities; hence the vivid
patches of local color provided by the timeless South India of
R.K. Narayan's novels and the cool pastels added by the later
fiction of Anita Desai. The Indian novels of Paul Scott and Ruth
Jhabvala also fall comfortably between those two poles. For a
long time it has seemed that novels from India write their own
blurbs: poised, witty, delicate, sparkling.
What this fiction has been missing is a different kind of ambition,
something just a little coarse, a hunger to swallow India whole
and spit it out. It needed a touch of Saul Bellow's Augie March
brashness, Bombay rather than Chicago-born, and going at things
in its own special Bombay way. Now, in ''Midnight's Children,''
Salman Rushdie has realized that ambition.
If I am to do more than describe my pleasure in this book, if
I am to summarize and interpret, I would have to start by saying
that ''Midnight's Children'' is about the narrator's growing up
in Bombay between 1947 and 1977 (and about the 32 years of his
grandparents' and parents' lives before that). It is also a novel
of India's growing up; from its special, gifted infancy to its
very ordinary, drained adulthood. It is a record of betrayal and
corruption, the loss of ideals, culminating with ''The Widow's''
Emergency rule. As a growing-up novel with allegorical dimensions,
it will remind readers of ''Augie March'' and maybe of Gunter
Grass's ''The Tin Drum,'' Laurence Sterne's ''Tristram Shandy,''
and Celine's ''Death on the Installment Plan'' as well as the
less-portentous portions of V.S. Naipaul. But it would be a disservice
to Salman Rushdie's very original genius to dwell on literary
analogues and ancestors. This is a book to accept on its own terms,
and an author to welcome into world company.
The ''midnight's children'' of the title are the 1,001 children
born in the first hour of Indian independence, Aug. 15, 1947.
Two of these babies are born in the same Bombay nursing home on
the very stroke of midnight: a boy born to wealth and a boy born
to the streets. And, of course, a nursemaid switches babies: a
street singer cuckolded by a departing Englishman is given the
aristocratic Muslim infant and names him Shiva; a wealthy Kashmiri-descended
family, the Aziz/Sinais, is given the ''cucumber-nosed'' English-Hindu
and names him Saleem. Shiva and Saleem (the narrator) are destined
to be mortal enemies from the stroke of midnight.
Saleem receives all the attention. His birth is celebrated with
fireworks, and Prime Minister Nehru sends a letter saying that
his fate will forever be entwined with that of India. Growing
up on a Bombay estate, he bumps his head one day while hiding
in his mother's laundry hamper and discovers a gift for telepathy.
From the age of nine, he can enter other lives at will, see through
walls, plumb all secrets, including the secret of his true parentage.
But his telepathic gifts bring death and destruction and very
little happiness. He discovers that every one of the midnight
children is miraculously gifted; only Saleem is telepathic, but
some can travel through time (and even report that India is destined
to be ruled by a ''urinedrinking dotard'') and one can change
sex at will. The extravagance of Mr. Rushdie's inventions will
call to mind the hovering presence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez;
call it a tropical synchronicity.
The midnight children are the hope of the nation, and they await
Saleem's calling of a ''midnight parliament.'' The only thing
inhibiting Saleem from embracing his political destiny arises
from his fear of the murdering street tough Shiva, whom he knows
to be the rightful inheritor of all his privileges. And so, because
of Saleem's fear and guilt, the gifts of the midnight children
are never pooled. When they do finally meet, it is during Mrs.
Gandhi's ''Emergency.'' Because of the threat they pose to the
Only True Succession, the 581 surviving midnight's children are
sterilized, and then treated to an even deadlier procedure: They
are sperectomized - drained of hope.
(Perhaps you wondered about the real reasons for the Emergency,
the various Indo-Pakistani wars, the deaths of certain Indian
and Pakistani political figures? Simple: to destroy Saleem, the
Sinais and the gifted extended family of midnight's children.
The plot of this novel is complicated enough, and flexible enough,
to smuggle Saleem into every major event in the subcontinent's
past 30 years. Saleem the Nose - variously called Snotnose, Stainface,
Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and Piece-of-the-Moon - knows).
The complex plotting of the book can be gauged (and its playfulness
appreciated) by observing how closely an old seer's prophecy is
followed. Of Saleem, it is predicted shortly before his birth:
'' 'A son ... who will never be older than his motherland - neither
older nor younger. ... There will be two heads - but you shall
see only one - there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees.
... Newspaper praises him, two mothers raise him! Bicyclists love
him - but, crowds will shove him! Sisters will weep; cobras will
creep. ... Washing will hide him - voices will guide him! Friends
mutilate him - blood will betray him! ... Spittoons will brain
him - doctors will drain him - jungle will claim him - wizards
reclaim him! Soldiers will try him - tyrants will fry him ...
He will have sons without having sons! He will be old before he
is old! And he will die ... before he is dead.' ''
As a Bombay book, which is to say, a big-city book, ''Midnight's
Children'' is coarse, knowing, comfortable with Indian pop culture
and, above all, aggressive. Salman Rushdie assumes that the differences
between Colaba and Chembur are as important, and can be made as
interesting, as the differences between Brooklyn and The Bronx.
''We headed north,'' Saleem notes, ''past Breach Candy Hospital
and Mahalaxmi Temple, north along Hornby Vellard past Vallabhbhai
Patel Stadium and Haji Ali's island tomb ... We were heading towards
the anonymous mass of tenements and fishing-villages and textile-plants
and film-studios that the city became in these northern zones.
...'' Its characters speak in many voices: ''Once upon a time
there were Radha and Krishna, and Rama and Sita, and Laila and
Majnu; also (because we were not unaffected by the West) Romeo
and Juliet, and Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.'' Much of
the dialogue (the best parts) reads like the hip vulgarity - yaar!
- of the Hindi film magazine. The desiccated syllables of T.S.
Eliot, so strong an influence upon other Anglo-Indian writers,
are gone. ''Midnight's Children'' sounds like a continent finding
How Indian is it? It is slangy, and a taste for India (or a knowledge
of Bombay) obviously heightens the response. Here is a description
of a cafe where Saleem's mother goes secretly to meet her dishonored
first husband: ''The Pioneer Cafe was not much when compared to
the Gaylords and Kwalitys of the city's more glamorous parts;
a real rutputty joint, with painted boards proclaiming LOVELY
LASSI and FUNTABULOUS FALOODA and BHEL-PURI BOMBAY FASHION, with
filmi playback music blaring out from a cheap radio by the cash-till,
a long narrow greeny room lit by flickering neon, a forbidding
world in which broken-toothed men sat at reccine-covered tables
with crumpled cards and expressionless eyes.'' Very Indian.
Of course there are a few false notes. There is a shorter, purer
novel locked inside this shaggy monster. A different author might
have teased it out, a different editor might have insisted upon
it. I'm glad they didn't. There are moments when the effects are
strained, particularly in the early chapters, when an ancient
Kashmiri boatman begins sounding like ''The Two-Thousand-Year-Old
Man.'' On a more serious level, Mr. Rushdie at first has a difficult
time endowing the villains of Indian politics with mythic stature
(Grass's Germany made it so easy); petty household intrigues seem
more momentous than the misaffairs of state (Marquez's Latin America
made it easy too). But with Ayub Khan, the Bangladesh war, ''The
Widow'' and her son, the later pages darken quite handsomely.
The flow of the book is toward the integration of a dozen strongly
developed narratives, and in ways that are marvelous to behold,
integration is achieved. The myriad personalities of Saleem, imposed
by the time, place and circumstance of his extraordinary birth
(''So much, yaar, inside one person,'' remarks a Pakistani soldier,
of the Saleem then known as Buddha, the tracker, ''so many bad
things, no wonder he kept his mouth shut!''), are reduced to a
single, eloquent, ordinary soul. The flow of the book rushes to
its conclusion in counterpointed harmony: myths intact, history
accounted for, and a remarkable character fully alive.
Clark Blaise's most recent books are ''Lunar Attractions,'' a
novel, and ''Days and Nights in Calcutta'' (with Bharati Mukherjee),
a memoir. He teaches at Skidmore College.
[Credit: The New York Times, April 1981.]
By ROBERT TOWERS
wo years ago a 34-year-old Indian Moslem named Salman Rushdie
published ''Midnight's Children,'' an astonishing novel that attempted
nothing less than to create a fantastic fictional counterpart
to the convulsive, often tragic events that have rocked the Indian
subcontinent during the past 60 years. It was highly praised,
both here and in England. In its fecundity, extravagance and scope,
''Midnight's Children'' reminded me of some vast Hindu temple,
a multilayered structure intricately embellished with carvings
of gods, demons, heroes, lovers and beasts.
Such an achievement casts a long shadow from which its successor
must struggle to escape if it is to find light and space for its
own development. Aware of this, Mr. Rushdie has moved the setting
of his new novel from India proper to the somewhat thinner soil
of a country that is ''not quite Pakistan'' and has erected a
less imposing, though equally fantastic, edifice. ''Shame'' is
a lively, amusing and exasperating work that will present certain
problems for an American reader.
In the second chapter of ''Shame,'' Mr. Rushdie's narrator, who,
like Mr. Rushdie, now lives in England, breaks into the story
to tell of a recent visit to Pakistan during which he tried, at
a party, to raise a question about the execution of Zulfikar Ali
Bhutto, who, until 1977, had been Prime Minister of the country.
Before it could be completed, the question was interrupted by
a painful under-table kick on the narrator's shins, following
which the topic of conversation was switched to sports and the
incipient video boom. The deliverer of the kick was a friend,
a poet who had spent many months in jail for ''social reasons.''
''That is to say,'' writes Mr. Rushdie, ''he knew somebody who
knew somebody who knew somebody who was the wife of the second
cousin . . . of the step-uncle of somebody who might or might
not have shared a flat with someone who was running guns to the
guerrillas of Baluchistan. You can get anywhere in Pakistan if
you know people, even into jail.'' It turns out that a suspected
Government informer was present at the party.
The national disgrace reflected in this anecdote serves to introduce
the theme, which is also the title, of the book. ''Wherever I
turn,'' Mr. Rushdie continues, ''there is something of which to
be ashamed. But shame is like everything else; live with it long
enough and it becomes part of the furniture.'' Nor, he is quick
to add, is shame the exclusive prop Robert Towers's new novel
is ''The Summoning.'' He teaches at Queens College. erty of the
East. Perhaps it is Mr. Rushdie's friend who should be telling
a story about shame - and its counterpart, shamelessness - in
the national life; but he, after the horrors of his imprisonment,
''doesn't write poetry any more. So here am I instead,'' concludes
the novelist, ''inventing what never happened to me.''
What he invents, with enormous gusto, is ''a sort of modern fairy
tale,'' which the author says nobody need take seriously and which,
since it is set in ''not quite Pakistan,'' need not provoke the
authorities to ban the book or have it burned. But the link between
certain bizarre happenings in the fairy tale and other equally
bizarre political events in a certain nation is inescapable. The
political allegory may prove a stumbling block to those readers
who prefer, more or less, to take their fiction pure, without
recourse to recent history. My own feeling is that the material
of ''Shame'' is sufficiently entertaining to stand pretty much
on its own - though whether one can usefully re gard it as a novel
is another matter.
It is probably easier to play croquet (as in ''Alice in Wonderland'')
with flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls than to give
a coherent plot summary of ''Shame.'' Here are some of the elements:
Shortly after the story opens, its nominal (and marginal) hero,
Omar Khayyam Shakil, is born collectively to three unmarried sisters
and suckled at six flowing breasts. The sisters inhabit their
dead father's huge and labyrinthine mansion in the town of Q.
(Quetta), a house that can be entered only by means of an ingenious
dumbwaiter that ascends and descends an outside wall.
Immured in the house until he is 12, Omar, a fat boy, surveys
the outside world (and the ''incomprehensibly appealing figure''
of 14-year-old Farah Zoroaster) through a brass telescope. Eventually
he descends by the dumbwaiter, goes to school, endures various
humiliations, impregnates Farah after hypnotizing her, only to
be dropped for long stretches of the story while the narrator
concentrates on what interests him most - the personal and political
destiny of two archrivals for power in their nation. One is a
famous warrior, Gen. Raza Hyder (read: Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq),
who ultimately becomes president-dictator of his country; the
other is a rich landlord and playboy, Iskander Harappa (read:
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) who enjoys a successfully demagogic reign
as Prime Minister until he is overthrown by Raza Hyder and eventually
hanged (when already a corpse) after a rigged trial for the murder
of a relative.
The families of these two men play an equally large part in the
fairy tale, for the position of wives and daughters in ''not quite
Pakistan'' is central to Mr. Rushdie's development of his theme
in its myriad aspects. When Raza Hyder marries the modest Bilquis,
he brings her temporarily to his grandmother's house in Karachi,
where she must sleep in a cavernous chamber with all the other
women of the huge family; there the married ladies are visited
surreptitiously by their husbands (''the forty thieves'') who
tiptoe ''along the midnight avenues of the dormitory'' past the
snoring figure of the grandmother.
'' 'They still live in the old village way,' Raza warned Bilquis
before depositing her in that house in which it was believed that
the mere fact of being married did not absolve a woman of the
shame and dishonor that results from the knowledge that she sleeps
regularly with a man.'' To which Bilquis ''thought but did not
say: 'O God. Ignoramuses from somewhere. Backward types, village
idiots, unsophisticated completely, and I am stuck with them.'
Aloud, she told Raza meekly: 'Much to be said for the old traditions.'
Raza nodded seriously in simple agreement; her heart sank further
Rani, the wife of Iskander Harappa, is exiled to her husband's
country estate while he sports with his mistress, Pinkie Aurangzeb,
and the film starlets who form part of his entourage. There, submissive
but unresigned, Rani spends her time embroidering a series of
magically wrought shawls on which are depicted all of the shameful
events in the life of the family. Their daughter Arjumand (the
''virgin Ironpants'') finds her fulfillment in her father's career.
THE men, meanwhile, are extremely touchy on the subject of honor,
any breach of which can result in shame. Referring to the murder
(in London) of a Pakistani girl by her father, a murder perpetrated
to wipe away with blood the dishonor she had brought upon her
family by sleeping with an English boy, Mr. Rushdie's narrator
states that the news, while horrifying, did not seem alien to
him. ''We who have grown up on a diet of honor and shame can still
grasp what must seem unthinkable in the aftermath of the death
of God and of tragedy: that men will sacrifice their dearest love
on the implacable altars of their pride.''
Shame reaches its ultimate embodiment in the person of Sufiya
Zinobia, the idiot daughter born to Raza Hyder and Bilquis. Hyder
so desperately wanted a son that he refuses to accept the anatomical
evidence of his daughter's sex, shrieking at the doctor: '' 'There!
I ask you, sir, what is that? . . . A bump! . . . Is it not, doctor,
an absolute and unquestionable bump?' '' Whereupon the baby blushes
- a sign of her shame. Later, the utterly rejected Sufiya Zinobia's
blushes become so incandescent that they burn the lips of an old
lady who kisses her, necessitating ''twice daily applications
of lip salve for a week.''
Shame turned inward breeds monsters, and that is what happens
to Sufiya Zinobia; she becomes a hideous monster strong enough
to wrench the heads off men and animals with her bare hands before
disemboweling them. ''I had thought,'' writes the narrator in
one of his typical intrusions, ''that what I had on my hands was
an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry,
ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge. But the
women seem to have taken over.'' Even the final act of revenge
that concludes a tale full of such acts is performed by women
- the three sisters, now aged crones, who had given birth to the
peripheral hero of ''Shame.''
Cruel and ugly incidents and repulsive physical details throng
the pages of the book. At times the author's unconcealed anger
burns as fiercely as Sufiya Zinobia's blushes. Yet the prevailing
narrative mode is as gleeful as it is ironic or indignant. There
are some wonderfully comic episodes. Mr. Rushdie particularly
delights in palpable absurdities such as those resulting from
Raza Hyder's attempt to impose Islamic fundamentalism upon his
country after seizing power. When asked by a fatuously deferential
British television interviewer if the reinstitution of such Islamic
punishments as flogging and the cutting off of hands might not
be seen ''in certain quarters'' as barbaric, Hyder smiles into
the camera and counts off three reasons why such practices are
not barbaric. ''Number two . . . We will not simply order people
to stick out their hands, like this, and go fataakh! with a butcher's
knife. No, sir. All will be done under the most hygienic conditions,
with proper medical supervision, use of anaesthetic etcetera.'
SOME of Mr. Rushdie's devices misfire; others are so exaggerated
that the reader simply backs away, untouched and unamused. The
false starts, loose ends and general extravagance of the tale
can become irritating. The theme of ubiquitous shame is driven
home at times with all the subtlety of a street-drill. Many of
the allusions to recent Pakistani history will be lost upon the
average Westerner. And yet the book in its own peculiar fashion
''Shame'' can, I think, be best enjoyed if we see it not as a
novel but as one of those unclassifiable works in which certain
writers of the 18th century excelled - Swift in ''Gulliver's Travels,''
Voltaire in ''Candide,'' Sterne in ''Tristram Shandy.'' The genius
of these not-quite novelists expresses itself in a taste for absurd
juxtapositions, for fantastic happenings, for the physically grotesque,
for mockery and parody, for sexual innuendo and, on occasion,
scatology. Often their talents are put to the service of satire.
Salman Rushdie, it seems to me, is very much a latter-day member
of their company.
The affinity with Sterne is especially striking in the voice he
assumes - a voice at once whimsical, sly and exclamatory, full
of apostrophes and asides, flexible enough to incorporate the
up-to-date slang and obscenities of the warring men and the peculiar
speech rhythms (often reminiscent of Yiddish-English) of the Pakistani
ladies in a state of excitement. I found Mr. Rushdie's style a
source of delight, a bright stream of words that lifted me happily
past the most threatening snags and whirlpools of this impossible
[Credit: The New York Times.]
Magical Mystery Pilrimage
By A. G. MOJTABAI
Salman Rushdie, author most famously of ''Midnight's Children,''
opens his fourth and latest novel, ''Satanic Verses,'' with a
scene of human figures tumbling from the debris of a hijacked
jumbo jetliner. The plane is named Bostan, which is both a Farsi
word for garden and the title of the great didactic poem by the
13th-century Persian poet Sadi, proclaiming the virtues of justice,
benevolence, self-restraint, gratitude, penitence and so on. This
detail is not insignificant in Mr. Rushdie's work, where each
act of naming is dense with implication. And the name ''Bostan''
might prompt us to ask, isn't this precisely what the fabled Oriental
garden has become in our day - a terrorized, disintegrating jumbo
Falling slowly over the English Channel, the sole survivors are
a strange twosome: Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Gibreel
is a celebrated face and figure of the Indian cinema, star of
the genre films known as ''theologicals.'' Chamcha is a star of
the dubbing trade on British radio and television, a man of a
thousand and one voices, none of them his own. His face is unknown
to his audiences. He is an ardent Anglophile, a self-created man,
who, with poetic license (and poetic justice) is about to be transformed
by forces beyond his control.
Washed up on the wintry English coast, salvaged by an aged widow,
who is imaginatively reliving her early married life on the Argentine
pampas, the survivors feel themselves to be ''born again'' in
some sense yet to unfold. Gibreel seems to be acquiring a radiance;
Chamcha is slowly developing horns, hoofs excessive body hair
and a tail. The two men are ''conjoined opposites'' in relation
to one another and within themselves. Gibreel (Gabriel), who has
a halo - an angelic countenance without, treachery and poisonous
jealousy within - will do the work of Azraeel, the angel of death,
as his radiance intensifies to consuming fire. Chamcha, a suffering
mass of misunderstood, kindly intentions, will exact a terrible
revenge before the end. Interestingly, it is only when Chamcha
begins to vent his anger and rage that his satanic stigmata start
The book moves with Gibreel and Chamcha from their past lives
in Bombay to London, and back to Bombay again. For Gibreel, there
is many an imaginary journey on the way - most notably to a city
of sand called Jahilia (for ignorance), where a very decent, embattled
businessman-turned-prophet by the name of Mahound is rising to
After his air disaster and rescue, Chamcha is led away to a detention
center for illegal aliens while Gibreel silently looks on. Escaping,
only to discover his British wife in bed with his best friend,
Chamcha seeks refuge within an Asian enclave in London's Brickhall
High Street district. From here, after taking revenge on Gibreel,
he will be summoned to his father's deathbed in Bombay.
Gibreel's adventures are more interior. He pursues his latest
love (a beautiful mountain climber named Alleluia Cone), begins
to stage a comeback as an actor, but mainly he broods and dreams.
Gibreel's dreams, the nightmares that ''leak into his waking life,''
form the spinoff narratives that keep the novel whirling.
One of the most vivid of these concerns an epileptic woman, a
seer, who leads a pilgrimage to Mecca, a tale evoking the Sufi
theme of the immolation of the moth, the Exodus account (with
the promise of the Arabian Sea parting for the pilgrims), the
Pied Piper, Jonestown and other more recent religio-political
movements in which the faithful follow a charismatic leader into
the depths of destruction. There are many magical embellishments:
The pilgrims follow a cloud of butterflies by day; their leader
is literally clothed in butterflies, and feeds upon them for her
sustenance. Her name is Ayesha, which is - but only coincidentally
here, I think - the name of the youngest and favorite wife of
the prophet Mohammed.
Which brings us to the controversial part of the book - the tales
of Mahound and Jahilia that embroider upon the life of Mohammed
and the founding of Islam. Indeed, the title ''The Satanic Verses''
refers to an incident in the life of Mohammed, recorded by two
early Arab historians (al-Waqidi, A.D. 747-823, and at-Tabari,
A.D. c. 839-923), discredited by later commentators on the Koran,
but taken up in Western accounts as the ''lapse of Mohammed''
or his ''compromise with idolatry.''
The story goes like this: confronted by the resistance of the
leading merchants of Mecca to his monotheism, Mohammmed is reported
to have accepted three local deities - al-Lat, al-Uzzah and Manat
- as intercessory beings (or angels - ''daughters of Allah'').
This would have been a shrewd diplomatic concession, at least
in the short run, since Mecca depended upon the income from the
pilgrimage trade to the shrines of these deities.
But Mohammed soon withdrew the verse of acceptance, saying that
Satan had placed the words of concession upon his tongue. In the
Koran, Mohammed concludes:
''Have you thought on al-Lat and al-Uzzah, and thirdly on Manat?
Is He [ Allah ] to have daughters and you sons? This is indeed
an unfair distinction!
''They are but names which you and your fathers have invented.''
Mr. Rushdie's revival of this story, the duplicitous Gibreel/Satan
agonizing over his role in the incident, compounded by the story
of a scribe who deliberately placed erroneous words into his transcription
of the Koran, was bound to touch an angry nerve in the world of
Islam, where the Koran (''al-qu'ran'' means ''the recitation'')
is believed to be the word of God, transmitted without error.
And, to be sure, ''The Satanic Verses'' has sparked bitter controversy
among Muslims in South Africa, where the author was prevented
from appearing at a book fair by arson and death threats against
all concerned with the event. Last fall the importation of the
British edition of the book was banned in India as a precautionary
measure against religious leaders using it to incite their followers
to sectarian violence. Recently, the publisher's New York office
has received several bomb threats and many angry letters.
As with Martin Scorsese's film ''The Last Temptation of Christ,''
much of the outrage has been fueled by hearsay. Some of the noisiest
objections have been raised by people who have never read the
book and have no intention of ever reading it. This opposition
does little to educate a woefully ignorant and prejudiced Western
public about the Islamic faith. Banning the book only increases
its notoriety: it answers nothing. And there are, I think, real
problems in the text that need to be addressed. Let us consider
two issues by way of example: One of the furor-provoking episodes
crops up in Gibreel's story ''Return to Jahilia,'' where the women
of a brothel called the Curtain decide to improve their trade
by impersonating the wives of the Prophet. What the objectors
have overlooked here is that the entire episode is one of Gibreel's
dreams, a cinematic fantasy. Prior to his return to Jahilia, he
signed a contract ''for a series of films both historical and
contemporary'' based on his dreams. Granted, the brothel episode
is rather too consciously elaborated to be convincingly dreamlike.
As a cinematic fantasy based on a dream, however, it seems all
too plausible. The script may strike the reader as tasteless,
but this poor taste is an accurate satiric reflection of the state
of much contemporary cinema.
Deeper ground for puzzlement, if not complaint, lies elsewhere
- particularly in the choice of the name ''Mahound'' for Mohammed.
In the medieval Christian mystery plays, Mahound (spelled variously
''Mahowne,'' ''Mahon,'' ''Mahum'' or ''Mahun'') is sometimes the
friend of Pontius Pilate or Caesar, sometimes the friend or cousin
of Herod, but always a satanic figure. (The name ''Mahound'' seems
to have been created by the conflation of ''Mahomet'' and ''hound.'')
How are we to understand the adoption - by a writer born a Muslim
- of so defamatory a name for the prophet of Islam? And how are
we to account for Mr. Rushdie's incorporation of this name into
the creed of Islam: ''There is no God except Al-Lah, and Mahound
is his Prophet''?
To understand the shock of this, Westerners might try a satanic
substitution in the text of the Nicene Creed. Few orthodox Christians
would find the alteration a laughing matter. So why Mahound? Again,
it must be remembered that this is fiction. ''It was so, it was
not.'' . . . as the storytellers say. More precisely, this is
a dream within a fiction - twice removed from the actual. Before
his ill-fated flight, the dreamer, Gibreel, had a crisis in faith
and did a lot of reading. And the insanity defense might be invoked,
although it tends to explain away and diminish his visions. Gibreel
is, we are told, in the grip of ''paranoid schizophrenia.'' Yet,
clearly, something more programmatic is afoot here. In a direct
aside to the reader, the author offers this by way of explanation:
''Here he [ the prophet in Gibreel's dream ] is neither Mahomet
nor MoeHammered; has adopted, instead, the demon-tag the farangis
[ Europeans or foreigners ] hung around his neck. To turn insults
into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all choose to wear with
pride the names they were given in scorn.''
A sort of self-immunization, then? But it doesn't work like this,
and who knows it better than Salman Rushdie? For much of the power
of the novel lies in its ability to make clear the efficacy of
our impersonations, of our monstrous descriptions of one another,
to create monsters in fact. It is all very puzzling. Salman Rushdie,
born in Bombay in 1947, now residing in London, considers himself
a ''British Indian novelist.'' Although his family moved to Pakistan
when he was 17, Mr. Rushdie has, in large part, lived in England
since the age of 14, attending a British public school and Cambridge
It is Mr. Rushdie's wide-ranging power of assimilation and imaginative
boldness that make his work so different from that of other well-known
Indian novelists, such as R. K. Narayan, and the exuberance of
his comic gift that distinguishes his writing from that of V.
S. Naipaul. In Salman Rushdie's work, both India and England are
repeopled and take on new shapes. For the Indian subcontinent
there is a more commensurate bigness and teemingness, a registration
of the pandemonium and sleaze of contemporary life. London neighborhoods
suddenly leap to light as rich collages of transplanted Asian
and African cultures. His fiction also takes on fashionable literary
gestures - Joycean wordplay, magic realism and the hyperactivity,
the ''jouncing and bouncing'' of the Coca-Cola ads that typify
American culture to much of the world.
For the Western reader unfamiliar with Mr. Rushdie's work, to
what can this latest novel be compared?
In its entirety, it resembles only itself, but there are, in its
parts, strands and shades of resemblance: to Sterne, for one,
in the joys of digression; to Swift in scathingness of political
satire; to the fairy and folktales of the Brothers Grimm, to Ovid's
''Metamorphoses,'' ''The ''Arabian Nights,'' Thomas Mann's ''Transposed
Heads'' and the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass,
Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Italo Calvino, ''Saturday Night Live''
and Douglas Adams's ''Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'' - to
name a few!
Although Mr. Rushdie explicitly evokes ''Othello'' - Chamcha playing
a sort of Iago to Gibreel's Othello, with the mountaineering Alleluia
Cone, the ice maiden, as Desdemona, it is not this play but the
comic uproar of ''A Midsummer Night's Dream '' that kept coming
to mind. But the lightheartedness of that midsummer frolic is
not to be found here. Mr. Rushdie's work, at its strongest, is
burdened with history and political freight.
Talent? Not in question. Big talent. Ambition? Boundless ambition.
Salman Rushdie is a storyteller of prodigious powers, able to
conjure up whole geographies, causalities, climates, creatures,
customs, out of thin air. Yet, in the end, what have we? As a
display of narrative energy and wealth of invention, ''The Satanic
Verses'' is impressive. As a sustained exploration of the human
condition, it flies apart into delirium as ''pilgrimage, prophet,
adversary merge, fade into mists, emerge.'' Does it require so
much fantasia and fanfare to remind us that good and evil are
deeply, subtly intermixed in humankind? And why then trouble ourselves
about it? In a world of mirages, of dreams within dreams, what
is death and what is life, and why should it matter to choose
For, often, the result of all this high-wire virtuosity is a dulling
of affect, much like the blurring created by rapid hopping between
channels on television: nothing seems quite real. Mr. Rushdie
himself, an astute observer of the effects of fast-forwarding
and remote-control devices on the way we perceive the world, takes
careful note of the channel-hopping phenomenon, observing that
''all the set's emissions, commercials, murders, game-shows, the
thousand and one varying joys and terrors of the real and the
imagined'' begin to acquire ''an equal weight.''
But, of course, they aren't of equal weight, and after closing
''The Satanic Verses'' the real strengths of the book assert themselves.
What finally lingers, what lives most vibrantly, for this reader,
are the scenes that are grounded - the places where magic doesn't
overwhelm the realism - the moments when Mr. Rushdie looks ''history
in the eye.'' They are scenes of expatriation, of political exile,
and the story of Chamcha's patrimony - indeed, the whole, nearly
complete novel-within-the-novel concerning Chamcha and his father.
But I suspect that Mr. Rushdie already knows this. His book is
large enough to contain, implicitly, its own self-criticism and
its own advice to the author. The words of advice come near the
end of the novel. They are addressed to Chamcha. Zeeny Vakil,
the first Indian woman Chamcha has ever loved, is letting him
''If you're serious about shaking off your foreignness, Salad
baba, then don't fall into some kind of rootless limbo instead.
Okay? We're all here. We're right in front of you. You should
really try and make an adult acquaintance with this place, this
time. Try and embrace this city, as it is, not some childhood
memory that makes you both nostalgic and sick. Draw it close.
The actually existing place.''
A. G. Mojtabai is writer in residence at the University of Tulsa.
She is the author, most recently, of ''Blessed Assurance,'' which
concerns nuclear weapons manufacture and fundamentalist religious
belief, and the forthcoming novel ''Ordinary Time.''
[Credit: The New York Times, January 29, 1989.]
Another Dangerous Story From Salman Rushdie
By ALISON LURIE
Behind many of the greatest and most joyful children's fantasies
move the shadows of real and often unhappy events in their authors'
lives. Many of Beatrix Potter's animals escape from claustrophobic
domestic environments like that of her own respectably repressive
Victorian parents. J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, like Barrie himself,
never attains maturity, and must borrow or steal other people's
children for his playmates. And E. B. White, who both as child
and adult was described as resembling a mouse, made the hero of
"Stuart Little" a mouse born into a human family.
Salman Rushdie's remarkable new children's book belongs in this
company. The only difference is that the experiences that lie
behind "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" are nearly as
fantastic as anything in the tale. Before the fact, who could
have believed that a world-famous spiritual leader would publicly
exhort his millions of followers to murder a novelist in another
country, and promise them eternal salvation should they succeed?'
On the surface, "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" is a
lively, wonderfully inventive comic tale with an updated Arabian
Nights background. It follows the classic folk tale in which the
hero travels to strange lands to lift a spell on his native country
or cure his father of a fatal ailment. In the course of the story
he is aided by supernatural companions and confronts and defeats
a wicked magician.
Mr. Rushdie's young hero, Haroun, is the son of the famous story-teller
Rashid (a near-anagram of "Rushdie") Khalifa (Caliph)
who is known as the "Ocean of Notions." Rashid is able,
like Orpheus, to command the fascinated attention even of the
birds and beasts. But "luck has a way of running out without
the slightest warning." One day Rashid's wife leaves him
for a thin, whiny neighbor who hates stories; he loses his gift
and can only croak "ark, ark, ark."
This affliction of speech, central to the book, is paralleled
by the affliction of the country, which is called Alifbay ("alphabet"
in Hindustani; most of the names in the book derive from this
language, and a convenient glossary is provided at the end). Haroun
lives in "a sad city . . . a city so ruinously sad that it
had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish."
In this tale, sorrow causes one to forget one's name and lose
the ability to speak; and no wonder, considering the recent life
of its author: under how many false and forgettable names, in
how many sad cities, one wonders, has Mr. Rushdie had to conceal
himself in the past two years since the publication of his novel
"The Satanic Verses"?
THE villain responsible for Rashid's affliction is the sinister
tyrant of the dark land of Chup, Khattam-Shud, whose name means
"completely finished," "over and done with."
He is "the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself."
Khattam-Shud's fanatical followers have sworn a vow of silence,
and are working round the clock to poison the Sea of Stories.
Their country is not only dark and soundless, but freezing cold:
"a place of shadows, of books that wear padlocks and tongues
"But why do you hate stories so much?" Haroun asks when
he finally confronts the tyrant. "Stories are fun."
"The world, however, is not for Fun. . . . The world is for
Controlling," replies Khattam-Shud (who, though he will not
allow anyone else to speak, talks continually in a flat, monotonous
voice.) "And inside every single story, inside every Stream
in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot
Rule at all."
Though there is darkness and silence at the center of Chup, most
of "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" is full of comic
energy and lively verbal invention. In the course of his travels
Haroun, like Dorothy in Oz, acquires three fantastical companions:
Iff the Water Genie; Mr. Butt, the crazy bus driver, who turns
into a mechanical bird with telepathic abilities; and Mali, a
"Floating Gardener First Class," made of seaweed. Haroun
also visits odd, self-contained communities like those in the
Oz books: in Moody Land, for example, the climate is affected
by the mood of the inhabitants rather than vice versa.
There are other echoes from earlier children's classics. Mr. Rushdie's
puns and anagrams, and his exuberant wordplay, suggest "Alice
in Wonderland" and Norton Juster's "Phantom Tollbooth."
The army (or "Library") of the good land of Gup is composed
of Pages in thin uniforms covered with writing, who are organized
into Chapters and Volumes; its general is called Kitab ("Book").
Their love of free speech gives them a strategic advantage over
the silent soldiers of Gup, whose "habits of secrecy had
made them suspicious and distrustful of one another."
Though "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" is sure to be
enjoyed by children, it also contains amusements for adults. On
his journey, for instance, Haroun meets two Plentimaw Fish ("there
really are Plentimaw Fish in the Sea") who talk in rhymed
doggerel, and a Shadow Warrior who can only speak in gesture,
but coughs "Gogogol . . . Kafkafka." The extremely foolish
and incompetent prince and the ugly princess of Gup ("that
nose, those teeth") not only recall Thackeray's burlesque
fairy tale "The Rose and the Ring": they may also remind
some readers of the British royal family. ("After all,"
says one of Haroun's companions, "it's not as if we really
let our crowned heads do anything very important around here.")
One of the ill effects of the poisoning of the Sea of Stories
is that, as the Floating Gardener says, "Certain popular
romances have become just long lists of shopping expeditions.
Children's stories also."
IF there is one encouraging conclusion to be drawn from the recent
fate of Salman Rushdie, it is that literature has power -- so
much power that it is dreaded by dictators. A single storyteller
like Rashid is more dangerous to a tyrant than an army. "What
starts with stories ends with spying ," says Khattam-Shud.
" Stories make trouble." So they do; that is one reason
we need them.
It is Salman Rushdie's good fortune, ours, and our children's,
that in spite of everything he has not been silenced. He has survived
the death threats of his own Khattam-Shud, and the Sea of Stories
from which he drew this entertaining and moving book has not been
poisoned, but continues to flow as clear and brilliant as ever.
Alison Lurie won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "Foreign
Affairs." Her most recent book is a collection of essays,
"Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature."
COMPLAIN TO THE WALRUS
"My father has definitely not given up. You can't cut off
his Story Water supply."
"Orders," said Iff. "All queries to be taken up
with the Grand Comptroller."
"Grand Comptroller of what?" Haroun wanted to know.
"Of the Processes Too Complicated To Explain, of course.
At P2C2E House, Gup City, Kahani. All letters to be addressed
to the Walrus."
"Who's the Walrus?"
"You don't concentrate, do you?" Iff replied. "At
P2C2E House in Gup City there are many brilliant persons employed,
but there is only one Grand Comptroller. They are the Eggheads.
He is the Walrus. Got it now? Understood?"
Haroun absorbed all this information. "And how does the letter
get there?" he asked. The Water Genie giggled softly. "It
doesn't," he answered. "You see the beauty of the scheme."
"I certainly don't," Haroun retorted. "And anyway,
even if you do turn off your Story Water, my father will still
be able to tell stories."
"Anybody can tell stories," Iff replied. "Liars,
and cheats, and crooks, for example. But for stories with that
Extra Ingredient, ah, for those, even the best storytellers need
the Story Waters. Storytelling needs fuel."
-- From "Haroun and the Sea of Stories."
The New York Times, November 11, 1990.] TOP
Always the Outsider
By ROBERT TOWERS
The subtitle of "Imaginary Homelands" -- "Essays
and Criticism 1981-1991" -- is perhaps too grand a term for
this assemblage of Salman Rushdie's seminar papers, television
broadcasts, book reviews, movie reviews, public lectures, interviews
and articles. Would it have been published now -- and in its present
form -- were it not for the high and terrible drama of the author's
recent life? Probably not, given the scrappy and occasional nature
of a considerable part of its content. Still, enough strong pieces
are included to make the book welcome to anyone who has grappled
-- in delight or exasperation or both -- with Mr. Rushdie's tumultuous
novels or who shares his interest in the political and cultural
plight of the migrant.
In his view, the migrant -- whether from one country to another,
from one language or culture to another or even from a traditional
rural society to a modern metropolis -- "is, perhaps, the
central or defining figure of the twentieth century." On
the complex situation of this emblematic figure, Mr. Rushdie himself
can of course speak with unique authority, for he has embodied
the outsider, "the Other," all of his life: first as
a Muslim in predominantly Hindu India, then as an Indian migrant
to Pakistan, next as an Indian-Pakistani living in Britain and,
since the publication of "The Satanic Verses," as a
"blasphemer" against Islam, a man in hiding, marked
Mr. Rushdie does not pull his punches when it comes to the failings
of his adopted land (and by extension Western Europe and the United
States) in the matter of racial prejudice. Writing from the position
of the British left, in a 1984 essay with the neo-Orwellian title
"Outside the Whale," Mr. Rushdie voices his scorn for
the current nostalgia for the empire and the raj as exemplified
in what he calls "the blackface minstrel-show of 'The Far
Pavilions' in its TV serial incarnation" and the "overpraised"
"Jewel in the Crown"; nor has he much good to say about
Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" or David Lean's film
of "A Passage to India." He writes that "there
can be little doubt that in Britain today the refurbishment of
the Empire's tarnished image is under way. The continuing decline,
the growing poverty and the meanness of spirit of much of Thatcherite
Britain encourages many Britons to turn their eyes nostalgically
to the lost hour of their precedence. The recrudescence of imperialist
ideology and the popularity of Raj fictions put one in mind of
the phantom twitchings of an amputated limb."
In a piece called "Home Front" (1984), Mr. Rushdie analyzes
racism in terms of "the fear of the primal Dark" and
"the idea of the Other, the reversed twin in the looking-glass,
the double, the negative image, who by his oppositeness tells
one what one is" -- only to conclude that "it will not
suffice to blame racism and the creation of lying images of black
peoples on some deep-bubbling, universal failing in humanity."
Nor will it do to excuse racial prejudice on the grounds of its
universality. While "it is obviously true that blacks and
Asians need to face up to and deal with our own prejudices, it
seems equally clear that the most attention must be paid to the
most serious problem, and in Britain, that is white racism. If
we were speaking of India or Africa, we would have other forms
of racism to fight against. But you fight hardest where you live:
on the home front."
Turning to the literary front, we find Mr. Rushdie attributing
his eagerness to break with traditional literary forms in part
to his status as a migrant; denied his roots, his original language
and the social norms he grew up with, the migrant "is obliged
to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human."
Mr. Rushdie is most persuasive when writing about those novelists
whose approach to fiction is similar to his own: writers like
Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, who mix
fantasy and naturalism, who employ all of the radically disjunctive
techniques of modernism and post-modernism to create fictional
worlds of their own that are nonetheless linked in a thousand
ways to the world as we experience it. In his essay on Mr. Grass
("half a migrant"), he speaks of books that give aspiring
writers ("these would-be migrants from the World to the Book")
the "permission to become the sort of writers they have it
in themselves to be. A book is a kind of passport." For the
author of "Midnight's Children," the passports included
"The Film Sense" by Sergei Eisenstein, the "Crow"
poems of Ted Hughes, Jorge Luis Borges's "Ficciones,"
Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," Eugene Ionesco's
play "Rhinoceros" and Mr. Grass's novel "The Tin
Drum." "This is what Grass's great novel said to me
in its drumbeats: Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense
with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking.
Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with
The writing throughout is attractive: lively, allusive, a little
flippant. But one could wish that "Imaginary Homelands"
had not been quite so inclusive. What is the point of reprinting
a 1983 campaign diatribe against Margaret Thatcher ("A General
Election")? The account of a two-week trip to Pittsburgh,
New York and San Francisco in 1985 ("Travels With a Golden
Ass") seems both glib and dated as it revives once again
that hoary old comparison of the follies and horrors of American
life to those of Rome in its decadence. The reviews of works by
E. L. Doctorow, Richard Ford, Saul Bellow and Grace Paley are
hardly more than brief appreciations.
Whatever weaknesses the collection contains are more than redeemed
by the eloquence and pathos of the three concluding pieces, published
in 1990. These deal directly with Mr. Rushdie's response to the
fanatical (and often politically motivated) reaction to "The
Satanic Verses" in parts of the Muslim world.
In the first piece ("In Good Faith"), he again proclaims
his allegiance to those novels that "attempt radical reformulations
of language, form and ideas" and his "determination
to create a literary language and literary forms in which the
experience of formerly colonized, still-disadvantaged peoples
might find full expression." He defends his own novel as
being, "in part, a secular man's reckoning with the religious
spirit" and goes on to say: " I am not a Muslim. It
feels bizarre, and wholly inappropriate, to be described as some
sort of heretic after having lived my life as a secular, pluralist,
eclectic man. . . . The many Muslims I respect would be horrified
by the idea that they belong to their faith purely by virtue of
birth, and that any person so born who freely chose not to be
a Muslim could therefore be put to death."
In the second ("Is Nothing Sacred?"), Mr. Rushdie, without
repudiating his secularism, acknowledges the potency of the sacred
and the human yearning for transcendence. He proposes that art
-- particularly literature -- can be "the third principle
that mediates between the material and spiritual worlds,"
that it can offer us "something that might even be called
a secular definition of transcendence."
It is the very eloquence of the reasoning in the two preceding
essays that makes his statement of submission in the final piece,
"Why I Have Embraced Islam," seem so desperately sad.
Robert Towers teaches in the graduate writing division of the
Columbia University School of the Arts. His most recent novel
is "The Summoning."
A KISS BEFORE READING
I grew up kissing books and bread.
In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapati
or a "slice," which was our word for a triangle of buttered
leavened bread, the fallen object was required not only to be
picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy
disrespect. I was as careless and butterfingered as any child
and, accordingly, during my childhood years, I kissed a large
number of "slices" and also my fair share of books.
Devout households in India often contained, and still contain,
persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything.
We kissed dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels
and Superman comics. If I'd ever dropped the telephone directory
I'd probably have kissed that, too.
All this happened before I had ever kissed a girl. In fact it
would almost be true, true enough for a fiction writer, anyhow,
to say that once I started kissing girls, my activities with regard
to bread and books lost some of their special excitement. But
one never forgets one's first loves.
Bread and books: food for the body and food for the soul -- what
could be more worthy of our respect, and even love?
It has always been a shock to me to meet people for whom books
simply do not matter.
-- From "Imaginary Homelands."
[Credit: The New York Times (Literary Supplement), January 2,
There's No Place Like Oz
By ROBERT COOVER
This sometimes poignant and intimate, sometimes boisterously inventive,
sometimes gently provocative collection of short stories, formally
wide-ranging though it is, is structured as a tight little syllogism.
There are exactly nine stories, three each in three sections,
with thesis ("East"), antithesis ("West")
and a final synthesis ("East, West") wherein the twain
In Western literature, the "East" is often an exotic
and imaginary realm, conjured up by its more fabulous folk tales,
its classic literature, its historical legends, while our own
part of the world is more prosaic, workaday, often oppressive,
devoid of marvels: Dorothy's gray Kansas is West and Munchkinland,
over the rainbow, is East.
From the perspective of the Indian subcontinent, whence so many
of our own tales originate and where Salman Rushdie was born and
spent his childhood, this dichotomy is seen, not surprisingly,
in mirror image. "I remember that when the possibility of
going to school in England was mentioned," Mr. Rushdie has
written, "it felt as exciting as any voyage beyond rainbows.
It may be hard to believe, but England felt as wonderful a prospect
as Oz." So it is that in this book, in the first two sections,
it is the East that provokes realistic stories concerned with
the intimate details of character and ordinary daily life, while
those of the West are set in the fanciful country of its classic
literature, its historical legends and its folk art: the movies.
When East and West meet in the great epics by which Mr. Rushdie
is best known -- "Midnight's Children," "Shame"
and "The Satanic Verses" -- reality, especially that
of the subcontinent, is reconfigured by the revelatory power of
his ebullient imagination, shaped in the West, and so is seen
anew in forms often compared with those of the Latin American
Curiously, that is not the case in the third section of "East,
West." When the two meet here, the stories return to a realistic
account of character and the relationships (especially love and
friendship) between ordinary people, though filtered each now
through a subtle prismatic metaphor: the occult, "Star Trek,"
chess and pop music. It is as though, formally at least, Mr. Rushdie's
homeland, from which he is effectively and remorselessly exiled,
is reasserting its dominion. Or else, the West has lost its magic.
The first two stories in "East" are O. Henryish village
tales told by unreliable narrators, the first about a woman who
is condemned to an arranged marriage with an immigrant to England
and who outwits the authorities by playing dumb and so is happily
denied the passport she seems to be seeking, the second about
a highly imaginative rickshaw driver who does it his way. The
third, "The Prophet's Hair," is more like a moralistic
fairy tale using religious elements: a silver vial containing
a famous relic brings catastrophe upon the greedy.
Formal play is the central feature of the three stories in "West"
-- from the revisionist tale of Hamlet's Fool (the narrator calls
it a "cock-and-bull story," and intends the generative
double entendre, laying claim as he does to being one of the multicolored
descendants of the Fool), through the mock-futuristic nightmare
of "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers," to Columbus's
imagined wooing of Queen Isabella, a tale that reads like a witty
historical displacement of a contemporary love story: he desires
that she grant him the chance to make his life meaningful ("consummation"
is what he asks for), while she, flirtatious and all-powerful,
toys with this foreigner, this "invisible (though raucous,
multicolored, wine-bibbing) man."
Mr. Rushdie, one suspects, would rather have his work discussed
purely as literature, without reference to the unhappy history
that has plagued him, but sometimes the stories themselves make
it difficult to ignore the story of their author. "At the
Auction of the Ruby Slippers," the middle piece of this middle
section, and thus the middle of the book as well, is an example.
The ruby slippers are of course those worn by Dorothy in "The
Wizard of Oz," and, on the surface, the story is a broad
sociopolitical satire, a bit over the top at times, told by a
communal "we" and depicting the current market-based
free-for-all as a brutal futuristic hell wherein everything in
the world is for sale, with the hoarding of possessions leading
to universal paranoia: "These are uncompromising times,"
the narrator says.
Uncompromising times: Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious
fatwa against Salman Rushdie on St. Valentine's Day 1989, and
throughout the nearly six years since then Mr. Rushdie, a target
not only of religious zealots but of professional killers hired
by ecclesiastical thugs and heads of state, has remained in virtual
exile from his national and literary communities -- indeed in
virtual imprisonment, managing only occasional dramatic appearances
on the world stage to plead his unique and desperate case.
"At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers" thus speaks directly
to the author's own consequent dread of the bunker mentality,
and to his fear of a world market economy that tolerates the intolerant,
since it's all good for business (and it does so by way of a central
metaphor close to his own heart as a writer).
THIS story was originally published along with an essay, "A
Short Tale About Magic," in a small British Film Institute
book as a kind of accompaniment to the film "The Wizard of
Oz," which Mr. Rushdie describes as his "first literary
influence" at the age of 10: "When I first saw the 'The
Wizard of Oz' it made a writer of me." It was also his model
during the writing of his remarkably cheerful post-fatwa novel
"Haroun and the Sea of Stories" (1990): "Of all
movies, the one that helped me most to find the right voice for
'Haroun' was 'The Wizard of Oz.' The film's traces are there in
the text, plain to see; in Haroun's companions there are clear
echoes of the friends who danced with Dorothy down the Yellow
Late in "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers," there
is a moment when the harsh impersonal satire shifts abruptly and
somewhat discordantly into a first-person-singular account of
a frustrated love affair between the narrator and his cousin Gale,
who is lost to an imaginary and clearly uncivil lover who has
escaped from a caveman movie. Gale, of course, is Dorothy's surname
in "The Wizard of Oz," and as his loving cousin she
liked to cry out during sex: "Home, boy! Home, baby, yes
-- you've come home!" The narrator keeps a portrait of her
"in the guise of a tornado."
HE sees her in a bar watching a television report about a spaceman
stranded forever on Mars, showing "his slow descent into
despair, his low-gravity, weight-reduced death" while he
sings a medley of old songs, including several from "The
Wizard of Oz." The narrator wants to buy Gale the auctioned
ruby slippers (the universal reverence for them, he suggests,
is due to "their affirmation of a lost state of normalcy")
so she can go to Mars and bring back the spaceman, with whom he
clearly identifies: "Perhaps I might even click the heels
together three times, and win back her heart by murmuring, in
soft reminder of our wasted love, There's no place like home."
He has not only been left to waste away in enforced solitude on
an inhospitable planet, he has also been threatened, in these
uncivil times, with the loss of his most precious love, his hope,
his "Over the Rainbow" muse.
The three final stories in "East, West," if less innovative,
are the most complex and convincing of the collection. They focus,
as though to throw water on the hateful witch, on the themes of
love, family and friendship, especially that between schoolmates.
"The Harmony of the Spheres" is a sensitive meditation,
diminished only by its closing punch line, on the suicide of a
brilliant but deeply disturbed English writer and devotee of the
occult, as told by his Indian school friend. In it, the narrator,
trying to explain his fascination with this "most unlikely
of friends," says: "But in Eliot's enormous, generously
shared mental storehouse of the varieties of 'forbidden knowledge'
I thought I'd found another way of making a bridge between here-and-there,
between my two othernesses, my double unbelonging. In that world
of magic and power there seemed to exist the kind of fusion of
worldviews, European Amerindian Oriental Levantine, in which I
desperately wanted to believe. With his help, I hoped, I might
make a 'forbidden self.' "
When he goes through his friend's papers after his death, however,
he finds no serious work, only ravings, and all of it malicious,
lubricious, utterly unloving. "Since then there has been
no intercourse between the spiritual world and mine."
"Chekov and Zulu" is a spy story of sorts, set at the
time of the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and later of her son
Rajiv. The deep friendship between two old school chums, both
employed in the Indian secret service, who call themselves by
"Star Trek" nicknames ("not the leaders, as you'll
appreciate, but the ultimate professional servants"), is
dissolved when one of them, for reasons of ambition, refuses to
take a moral stand against terrorism. He is ultimately destroyed
by the terrorism he will not resist. This is the story in this
collection that will be most familiar and most appealing to readers
of Mr. Rushdie's imaginative and politically engaged larger works.
The closing story reads like an autobiographical tribute to a
childhood nanny and her autumnal romance with an old East European
stroke-impaired building porter (she cannot pronounce her p's
and so calls him a "courter"), though its principal
feature perhaps is its nostalgic recall of the British-American
pop culture of the early 1960's. It is a melancholic story, riven
by racial violence, but sustained by shrewd observation and a
fine ear for dialogue.
It closes (except for an informational coda) with the narrator's
declaration that "I, too, have ropes around my neck, I have
them to this day, pulling me this way and that, East and West,
the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose. . . . Ropes,
I do not choose between you. Lassoes, lariats, I choose neither
of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose."
Robert Coover is the author of "The Public Burning"
and "A Night at the Movies," among other works. He teaches
electronic writing at Brown University.
THE AUCTION OF THE RUBY SLIPPERS
Let me be frank: my cousin Gale was and is the love of my life.
. . . One day, sad to relate, I came home to find her in the arms
of a hairy escapee from a caveman movie. I moved out the same
day. . . . I caught a glimpse of her recently. She was at the
far end of a long, dark, subterranean bar-room. . . . At that
time many television channels were devoted to the sad case of
the astronaut stranded on Mars without hope of rescue. . . . The
condemned man on another planet -- the condemned man on TV --
began to sing a squawky medley of . . . his spaced-out renditions
of "Swanee," "Show Me the Way to Go Home"
and several numbers from "The Wizard of Oz"; and Gale's
shoulders began to shake. She was crying. . . . I first heard
about the upcoming auction of the ruby slippers the very next
morning, and resolved at once to buy them, whatever the cost.
My plan was simple: I would offer the miracle-shoes to Gale in
all humility. If she wished, I would say, she could use them to
travel to Mars and bring the spaceman back to Earth.
-- From "East, West."
The New York Times (Literary Supplement), January 15, 1995.] TOP
Doomed in Bombay
By NORMAN RUSH
Salman Rushdie's new novel, his first since the infamous fatwa
issued by the Iranian Government in 1989 as punishment for putatively
blasphemous passages in his satire "The Satanic Verses,"
comes heavily attended by certain inevitable questions. How is
Mr. Rushdie holding up after six years in hiding? What kind of
story is the world's most famous living author, in this extraordinary
situation, going to tell us and, of course, himself? Is this another
book that will give offense, and to whom? Will this book comment,
directly or otherwise, on the dogma-driven expansion of censorship
and persecution affecting writers in so many parts of the world?
It's only when we've worked through this vanguard of questions
that we're free to ask what we can take from this novel, as opposed
to all the novels it competes with -- serious novels whose ambitions
are to show us what we urgently need to know or feel in this threatening
moment, when alarms and grim forewarnings crowd in on us, making
so many of our innocent pastimes feel difficult to justify, fiction
reading itself not excepted.
It turns out that the topical questions are easily answered; and
it turns out, also, that this novel, looked at as a work of literary
art, is a triumph, an intricate and deceptive one. The evidence
is that Mr. Rushdie is in good creative health, his imaginative
powers undamaged. The story he tells deals analogically and subtly
with the shaping of his predicament, and writing it must have
been tonic, though not necessarily consoling. It's a work that
honorably serves the republic of letters and in the process exposes
its author to a new range of potential antagonists.
"The Moor's Last Sigh" is a picaresque recounting of
the rise, decline and plunge to extinction of a Portuguese merchant
family anciently established in southern India, focusing on the
period from 1900 to the present. The hapless narrator, Moraes
Zogoiby, born, like Mr. Rushdie, in Bombay (but in 1957, 10 years
later), has composed these pages during exile and imprisonment
in a replica of the Alhambra built and run by a madman (a former
protege of the family) in rural Andalusia. Moraes, nicknamed the
Moor, is the last living member of the da Gama-Zogoiby line. Throughout,
echoes of Mr. Rushdie's own predicament are hard not to detect.
"Here I stand; couldn't've done it differently" is one
of the Moor's last thoughts as he roams the Andalusian countryside,
following his doomed escape from captivity, annoyed that there
are no church doors handy for nailing his screed to.
At the center of the chronicle is the demonically talented painter
Aurora Zogoiby, whose career flourishes from the 1940's through
the 1980's. Moraes is her son, one of four children who all achieve
doom at young ages; he himself is a physical giant who was born
with a deformed right hand and with a form of progeria that makes
him appear to be twice his actual age. In the course of the novel,
the action moves from the family estate on Cabral Island, in Cochin,
the site of the family's spice business, to Malabar Hill, the
wealthiest suburb of Bombay, where Aurora attains celebrity, and
where the family business, under the direction of her common-law
Jewish husband, Abraham, grows to fantastic success and exfoliates
into the basest criminality. I will resist the temptation to summarize
the kinks and jags in the family trajectory since they're too
much fun to encounter the first time through, but the reader may
be assured that all the weird fruit that family trees produce
is here -- betrayals, lunacies, failed crusades, venery, the lot.
The watershed events of modern Indian history regularly protrude
into the tale -- the independence struggle, partition, the emergency,
the B.C.C.I. scandal, the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. There
is a pyrotechnical denouement. And the story plays out through
an elegant double metaphor twinning the expulsion of the Moors
from Spain with the symbolic expulsion from India of our set of
The grand deception in this book is to conceal a bitter cautionary
tale within bright, carnivalesque wrappings. Mr. Rushdie, defiant,
plays a dire light on the evil consequences, for the religiously
indifferent but nominally Christian da Gama-Zogoiby clan, of militant
religion in various guises. The recent de facto banning of "The
Moor's Last Sigh" by the Indian Government may not be so
surprising. (The Government cut off imports of the book after
just 4,000 copies had come into the country.) In addition to a
few offhand scurrilisms about Pandit Nehru's private life (and
the naming of a dog after him), the book contains a devastating
portrait of a Hindu political boss, Raman Fielding, who brings
unfavorably to mind the powerful Hindu nationalist leader Bal
Thackeray. There's much to offend here, and all along the spectrum
of belief. At the heart of the plot, for example, is a satanic
Jew (more about this later), and all the outright believers in
the cast of characters -- the pious self-immolator who inadvertently
burns the Moor's grandmother to death, the interfering Anglican
priest Oliver D'Aeth, the Moor's multiple-personality-disorder-afflicted
Hindu lover -- are odious in some strong way. Which is not to
say that this tale should be taken merely as a broadly anti-creedal
parable. Mr. Rushdie's subject is subtler than that. What results
in cataclysm is the interaction of the reflexive, undefined, pooped-out
unreligion of the da Gama-Zogoibys with the absolutist forms of
religious identification taking hold in India.
What else does this antic tragedy provide, along the way? At a
minimum, the following: (1) a parody of the family saga novel
so acute that the genre can never look quite the same; (2) acerbic
snapshots of the colonialist mentalite in various stages of defeat;
(3) a celebration of the city of Bombay and a lament for its decosmopolitanization;
(4) an affectionate and masterly representation of Indian English,
with all the jokes, puns and quiddities the dialect encourages;
(5) a mordant reflection on the final outlook for religious nationalism
in India, whose most cheering conclusion is that any hope for
the downfall of that institution lies in the infinite mercenary
corruptibility of the human species; (6) an equally mordant rumination
on the future of serious art, featuring set-piece descriptions
of the paintings of Aurora Zogoiby so vivid that the reader is
convinced her works are indeed brilliant creations.
As always, Mr. Rushdie writes with brio, vigor and wit. Here,
for example, is an offhand, parenthetical characterization --
of a Bombay restaurant, an Iranian restaurant, the Sorryno: "(so
called because of the huge blackboard at the entrance reading
Sorry, No Liquor, No Answer Given Regarding Addresses in Locality,
No Combing of Hair, No Beef, No Haggle, No Water Unless Food Taken,
No News or Movie Magazine, No Sharing of Liquid Sustenances, No
Taking Smoke, No Match, No Feletone Calls, No Incoming With Own
Comestible, No Speaking of Horses, No Sigret, No Taking of Long
Time on Premises, No Raising of Voice, No Change, and a crucial
last pair, No Turning Down of Volume -- It Is How We Like, and
No Musical Request -- All Melodies Selected Are to Taste of Prop)."
The resonances in this adroit aside will not escape most readers.
A novel, as Randall Jarrell put it, is a prose narrative of a
certain length that has something wrong with it. And there are
some imperfections in "The Moor's Last Sigh." Even granting
that a point being made in the unscrolling of the family history
is that religious identity seems to make not much difference when
it encounters the underlying human propensity to do wrong, there's
still something off-putting about the casting of Abraham Zogoiby,
the patriarch, as a kind of Jewish Professor Moriarty of subcontinental
crime, a controller of Muslim gangs, a drug kingpin, a plotter
involved in creating the Islamic Bomb, a procurer of little girls.
His Jewishness is repeatedly referred to, even though he's not
observant and has in the past been blocked in an attempt to convert
to Christianity. Maybe this piece of portraiture could have been
painted less hyperbolically, in cognizance of the paranoid mythologies
of secret Jewish power so widely current.
THIS could be an overreaction on my part, stemming from awareness
that "The Turner Diaries" and "The Protocols of
the Elders of Zion" are underground best sellers in this
country and that there is a peculiar general relish in our Christian
culture for imagos of the flamboyantly transgressive Jew, from
Howard Stern to Philip Roth's Mickey Sabbath. I do understand
the requirements of symmetry Mr. Rushdie faced in the peopling
of this novel -- moral unattractiveness is everywhere (all the
native Indian characters are morally challenged, except for the
family cook) -- so I suppose my question should be taken more
as venting than as literary criticism. That said, there's not
much else to note in a critical way, other than that the ending
of the book has a certain dashed-together feel to it, and that
there are occasional curlicues here and there, minor instances
of ornament overextended.
So, another brave and dazzling fable from Salman Rushdie, one
that meets the test of civic usefulness -- broadly conceived --
as certainly as it fulfills the requirements of true art. No retort
to tyranny could be more eloquent.
Norman Rush is the author of the novel "Mating," which
won the National Book Award in 1991, and the story collection
[Credit: The New York Times Literary Supplement; reviews, January
'The Ground Beneath Her Feet': Turning Rock 'N' Roll Into Quakes
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
The Ground Beneath Her Feet," Salman Rushdie's loose, baggy
monster of a new novel, is a retelling of the Orpheus myth that
recasts both the doomed musician and his lost lady love as rock
Picture Orpheus (one Ormus Cama, in Rushdie's telling) as a brooding,
kitschy combo of Elvis, Dylan and Lennon; and Eurydice (that is,
Vina Apsara) as a sort of fairy-tale composite of Madonna and
Diana, princess of Wales.
Picture Eurydice not only being condemned to Hades but also being
literally swallowed by the ground during an earthquake. Picture
Orpheus trying to recapture his beloved (or at least her memory)
by going on a worldwide stadium tour titled "Into the Underworld."
Despite Rushdie's myriad talents as a writer, the resulting novel
is a decidedly disappointing performance: a handful of dazzling
set pieces, bundled together with long-winded digressions, tiresome
soliloquizing about love and death and art, and cliched descriptions
of the rock 'n' roll business worthy of Jackie Collins.
Like so many of Rushdie's earlier novels "The Ground Beneath
Her Feet" addresses the themes of exile, metamorphosis and
flux, and like those earlier books it examines such issues through
the prism of multiple dichotomies: between home and rootlessness,
love and death, East and West, reason and the irrational.
We are once again treated to the story of several characters who
leave India to wander the world and invent new identities for
themselves abroad. And we are once again urged to read in their
story a lesson about our fragmented, chaotic world, a world that
this time is on the verge of cracking apart from tectonic cultural
shifts and political and social tremors.
The earthquake that takes Vina's life, along with Ormus' famous
cycle of "quake songs," becomes a presiding metaphor
for Rushdie's vision of our tumultuous age: a time in which both
nations and families are being flung apart by the centrifugal
forces of history, a time in which everything seems to be "shifting,
changing, getting partitioned, separated by frontiers, splitting,
re-splitting, coming apart."
Sadly for the reader, Rushdie seems to have misplaced his magician's
ability to fuse the mythic and the mundane, the surreal and the
authentic, into a seamless whole.
His earlier novels tended to be allegories about a particular
set of historical circumstances: "Midnight's Children"
used the story of its hero's spiritual decline as a parable of
Indian history since independence; "Shame" grounded
its phantasmagorical imaginings in the history of a country that
was "not quite Pakistan," and "The Moor's Last
Sigh" effortlessly turned the fate of its hero's family into
a metaphor for India's recent ups and downs.
"The Ground Beneath Her Feet," in contrast, exchanges
concrete context for a fuzzy internationalism, making a host of
vague allusions to events meant to evoke "the uncertainty
of the modern," from the Vietnam War to the Chinese crackdown
at Tiananmen Square to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the same time the marvelous Garcia Marquez-like flights of
fancy that enlivened Rushdie's earlier work are largely absent:
With the exception of the earthquake that devours Vina, there
are few miraculous events in this novel, no women metamorphosing
into panthers, no people falling out of airplanes, no children
who can travel through time.
The few touches of fantasy that do surface in the novel -- Ormus'
supposed ability to anticipate the very songs that Elvis, the
Beatles and Bob Dylan would make famous 1,001 days later -- feel
like gratuitous whimsies dutifully grafted onto generic descriptions
of rock concerts and music-business shenanigans.
Although the opening portions of the novel are animated by scenes
that conjure up the burbling, Dickensian life of Bombay with Rushdie's
patented elan, the novel rapidly winds down to become a plodding
chronicle of the intertwined lives of Ormus, Vina and their friend
and confidant, Rai, the narrator of this novel.
Ormus, we're told, is "the greatest popular singer of all,"
"a musical sorcerer whose melodies could make city streets
begin to dance and high buildings sway to their rhythm, a golden
troubadour the jouncy poetry of whose lyrics could unlock the
very gates of hell." Like Elvis, he is known for his pelvic
gyrations and curling lip; like Elvis, he is haunted by memories
of a dead twin brother, and like John Lennon, he is eventually
gunned down by a crazed fan.
Vina, on her part, is described as "a woman in extremis,"
an outlaw singer who is continually reinventing herself, a troubled
woman who is mourned as a goddess by millions around the world
after her tragic death.
As for Rai, he's a familiar Rushdie figure, a spiritual relative
of Saladin, the displaced hero of "The Satanic Verses,"
and Moor, the conflicted narrator of "The Moor's Last Sigh."
A photographer by vocation, Rai is a professional observer who
finds his skepticism sorely tested by his encounters with Ormus
and who finds his own detachment dissolving in his love for Vina.
At times Rai demonstrates Rushdie's magpie love of language (his
fondness for "whatever sounded bright and shiny"). But
all too often his meditations on the story of Ormus and Vina devolve
into ponderous pontifications, the babbling of someone in love
with the sound of his own voice.
He blathers on about Ormus having double vision, suggesting that
the world he and the other characters inhabit is a kind of mirror
world of our own. He wonders "if each of us has alternative
existences in the other continuum." And he speaks of "a
transitional phase" that "only the imperative force
of the Immense can force towards completion."
In the end this portentous mumbo jumbo sucks all the air out of
this novel and deprives Ormus and Vina of their vitality as characters.
By the end of the book they have become nothing but brightly painted
puppets, mechanically re-enacting the Orpheus and Eurydice myth
while laboring under the weight of their creator's myriad philosophical
As Rai himself suggests, they "had ceased to be real,"
they had "become little more than signs of the times, lacking
true autonomy, to be decoded according to one's own inclination
Instead of turning the Orpheus legend into a compelling postmodern
myth, Rushdie has simply freighted an old story with his favorite
themes and the random detritus of our current celebrity culture.
In trying to write what he has called "an everything novel,"
he has produced a strangely hollow book, a book that lacks both
the specificity and the magic that have enlivened his best work
in the past.
[Credit: The New York Times, April 13, 1999.]