The Bend in Their Rivers
Covered with ash and dust, the survivors of the attacks on the twin towers would barely have made it to their homes that evening of September 11 when the first reports started coming in of assaults, in various parts of the United States, on Arab-Americans, Pakistanis and Indians. It was not only the South Asians with Muslim names who were the victims of attacks but, in a bizarre twist, even the Sikhs, who, because of their beards and turbans, were assumed to be followers of the Saudi Osama bin Laden. When asked about the harassment of Sikh cabbies, a spokesman for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance told a reporter, "Americans saw Lawrence of Arabia and think all Muslims wear turbans."
Mistaken identity, of course, has been the province of much postcolonial fiction. An important feature of this writing is the manner in which misrecognition has haunted all cognition. History is often a detour into fiction in this literature, an attempt to create a narrative of the self in a fantasy zone of displacement, mirroring in some ways the history of the immigrant (which is, of course, what many of the prominent postcolonial writers are). Witness a recent letter in the New York Times by a Sikh man in Kansas who feared being attacked. The letter proposed a plan that perhaps one could be forgiven for reading as part mimicry, part mockery: "Tomorrow morning when I go out, I will be wearing a nice red turban, white shirt and blue pants, our national colors, walking proud as a peacock, smiling at people I love and live with in our great country." (The peacock, incidentally, is the national bird of India. The principal colors of its plumage are, improbably enough, different from the colors of the US flag.)
Where else can we find such crazy hybridity? A postcolonial writer who has often been credited with mixing the mundane with the magical, and history with fiction, is Salman Rushdie. He applies the same formula, with the uneven effect that has also by now become another Rushdie hallmark, in Fury, his latest novel. The story is set in New York, and with what might appear to be something akin to prescience, at least to those who religiously read astrology columns each week, Rushdie has chosen as his theme the idea of violence in the big, mad city.
While remaining glued to the television set like the rest of America recently, I have often thought of Rushdie's new book. In particular, I have thought of an Urdu-speaking Muslim taxi driver in Manhattan, Ali Majnu, whom Rushdie makes use of on two occasions for a couple of pages. Majnu is introduced to the readers as a bigoted prophet on wheels, screaming deliverance as he skids on Tenth Avenue: "Islam will cleanse this street of godless motherfucker bad drivers.... Islam will purify this whole city of Jew pimp assholes like you and your whore roadhog of a Jew wife too." The cabbie appears again, 110 pages later. This time he says, "Islam will cleanse your soul of dirty anger and reveal to you the holy wrath that moves mountains." Then, switching to English, Majnu addresses another driver, "Hey! American man! You are a godless homosexual rapist of your grandmother's pet goat."
Lucky Ali Majnu. Unlike the other sullen, equally rude working-class immigrants in Fury, each from a benighted corner of the globe, Majnu at least gets a few colorful lines. Majnu stands alone in the novel for the whole of Islam and also for the "wealth-free" from South Asia. This is the brown man's burden, the burden of having to symbolize or answer for more than one is. Shall we regard it as a consolation that Rushdie doesn't force this character to carry the additional load of interiority or even a minimum of complexity? One is reminded of literary critic Michael Gorra's comment about Rushdie's first, great success, Midnight's Children: "Yet I remain troubled that a book about the nightmare of history, a book meant to disturb, cannot make me care about the individual characters to whom that history happens."
We know next to nothing about Ali Majnu. And yet, because Rushdie doesn't shirk big themes, he feels obliged to peremptorily link Majnu's road rage to the failure of the talks between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat at Camp David. Thus, we are simply told that our cabbie, whose first name means "beloved," was "Indian or Pakistani, but, no doubt out of some misguided collectivist spirit of paranoiac pan-Islamic solidarity, he blamed all New York road users for the tribulations of the Muslim world." No doubt.
Rushdie's presumptuous protagonist, his voice indistinguishable from the author's, is Malik Solanka. Solanka was born in Bombay and educated in England. Now this 55-year-old former professor and doll-maker has arrived in America. In an $8,000 a month rented apartment in New York City, his sleep is interrupted by calls from the wife and child he has left behind. Solanka seems to have an unfailing ability to attract beautiful women half his age. When he is not having sex or walking around the city suspecting himself of having killed rich young heiresses with kinky tastes, Solanka continues to drop observations on nationalism, religion, Elián González and Monica, as if he were enrolled in cultural studies classes at Columbia.
The spheres of academia, sex and worldly passion have recently been explored with some subtlety by Philip Roth in The Human Stain and The Dying Animal. Saul Bellow's last novel, Ravelstein, also comes to mind. Like Roth and Bellow, even if with greater volubility than either, Rushdie can deliver lucid lines on the state of our complex world; again like them, he explores in this novel, although with an embarrassing sentimentality, sexual ecstasy and human finitude. However, there the similarities end. Unlike for the American writers, Rushdie's real theme is success. Sex is only a substitute for, or perhaps only proof of, what Rushdie really cares about, which is stardom.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie's previous outing, was a nearly 600-page anthem to the love of Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, two world-famous rock stars. Fury, at half the size, remains fully as starry-eyed about global popularity. Solanka metamorphoses from a dull academic to a television personality: He hosts history-of-philosophy programs using dolls that he has created himself. Solanka's protagonist is called Little Brain. Soon, to the surprise of other dull academics, Solanka's show becomes a cult classic and then blossoms into "a full-blooded prime-time hit." It is this, rather than the mythical story of the furies--the three women in Solanka's life--that provides the novel with its underlying theme. And what is likely to drive the reader to fury is the narrator's relentless discourse on success and wealth and chic consumer products even while appearing to denounce them.