Rushdie as Orpheus, on Guitar | The Nation


Rushdie as Orpheus, on Guitar

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From the Satanic Versifier, more love and more death, with a song in his heart. Abundant, exuberant, cunning, hilarious and what-the-hell, go-for-broke, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is Salman Rushdie's Goodbye to Bombay Novel, in which India ("fount of my imagination, source of my savagery, breaker of my heart") is abandoned forever. And his Hello, New York Novel, in which American literature is reversible, like an error or a raincoat. And his Rock-and-Roll Novel, "a great wild bird calling out to the bird of the same species that lies hidden in his own throat, in the egg of his Adam's apple, hatching, nearing its time." And his Earthquake Novel, disclosing cracks in the composure of the landmass, fissures in the body politic, fault lines in the human character and "holes in the real." And his Martian Chronicles or Dune, intuiting an Otherworld of dead twins, horny ghosts, snakebird gods, "spells and usurpations." Plus a splendidly inverted variation on the mythic theme of Orpheus/Eurydice, like Joseph Campbell's refried beans. And a bulging portmanteau of arson, rape, suicide and assassination; a viaticum of transit zones and tempests; a glossolalia of such polyglots as Bombay's "Hug-me" (Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi English); and a private zoo of bees, lizards, serpents and goats. Especially goats--scape- or sacrificial, Pan-piped and Capricorned; an excess, in fact, of goatish behaviors and Angora mohair. Goat-songs, of course, are tragedies.

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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This is a lot. And for more than forty years it happens all over the place, from the mutton shops, burning ghats, umbrella hospitals and doongerwadis of Bombay to a rust-bucket pirate-radio ship off the North Sea coast of England; from a cactus plantation for tequila in the Mexican desert to a music producer's mini-Versailles in Maine; from African drums to Polish polkas to Italian weddings to Greek zithers to salsa and a saxophone, with time out for sitar ragas and maybe a ghazal, even unto those joyless precincts of the world "where you can be murdered for carrying a tune." And all of it is deployed with dazzle on two separate psychic fronts, neither of them popular. Consider, first, what three different characters call "outsideness."

Kicking off is Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, a Bombay barrister, Parsi Freemason and dabbler in Indo-European mythology. (Note that, after the trouble he got himself into with Muslims and Hindus, Rushdie settled in The Moor's Last Sigh for making fun of Vasco da Gama's Catholics, and is reduced here to satirizing those Zoroastrian Parsis who, while feeding their dead to vultures, bet on the British and lost. There are also several Sikh jokes, with names like Will Singh, Kant Singh, Gota Singh and Kitchen Singh.) From the scholarly likes of Max Müller and Georges Dumézil, Sir Darius is persuaded of a relationship between Indian and Homeric traditions--Sita of Ayodhya and Helen of Troy, wily Hanuman and devious Odysseus, Varuna and Ouranos--and is willing to concede that "all Aryan cultures rested on the triple concept of religious sovereignty, physical force and fertility." Still, as you'd expect of a guy who forged his credentials to gain a knighthood, who struck one of his own sons dumb with an errant cricket ball, Sir Darius is troubled by omissions: "What about outsideness? What about all that which is beyond the pale, above the fray, beneath notice? What about outcastes, lepers, pariahs, exiles, enemies, spooks, paradoxes? What about those who are remote?" It will occur to him at his window on the Arabian Sea: "The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame."

None of which saves the humbug from being smothered with a pillowcase by another of his weird sons, a serial killer with a fan club.

Then there's Ormus Cama, yet a third of Sir Darius's sons: the one who isn't dumb, isn't dead and didn't kill him. The rock composer who fell in love with his rock diva, Vina Apsara, the minute he saw her in a Bombay record shop, "even as the twenty-year-old German poet Novalis...took a single look at twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn and was doomed, in that instant, to an absurd love, followed by tuberculosis and Romanticism." Who can hear the music of the future in his head exactly One Thousand and One Nights before it shows up on the Western charts. Who with his blind eye and blue guitar sees "variations, moving like shadows behind the stories we know.... It could be I found the outsideness of what we're inside," a "secret turnstile" out of the carnival grounds and into the looking glass, the "technique for jumping the points." There's even a Russian word for this "outsideness": vnenakhodimost.

None of which helps Ormus bring back Vina from the underworld that "opens and eats her, like a mouth" in an earthquake on St. Valentine's Day 1989. You may recall that Rushdie, too, went underground on Valentine's Day in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini slapped a fatwa on him. Nor was 1989 a good year for the structural stability of the Berlin wall.

Finally, there's our unreliable narrator, Umeed Merchant--called "Rai," which means prince, desire or will, as Umeed means hope. Who grew up in Bombay with Ormus and Vina. Whose archeologist father dug holes in the memory of the city even as his architect mother and a "cartel of futurist vandals" threw up obliterating skyscrapers. Who will begin his career as a voyeur with photographs of "Exits" and ends it as a violence-junkie in Third World combat zones ("I come trudging home with a lifetime supply of nightmares to the sweet-dream needlework merchants and powdered-happiness pashas on the stoops of the brownstones of St. Mark's"). Whose only religion is Vina worship, but who nonetheless believes in his own version of "a fourth function of outsideness--that in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging, who come into the world semi-detached, if you like, without strong affiliation to family or location or nation or race." Because those who fear transience and uncertainty "have erected a powerful system of stigmas and taboos against rootlessness," these nonbelongers pretend to "loyalties and solidarities we do not really feel," but their secret identities leak out at night in dreams in which "we soar, we fly, we flee." In waking dreams too--between the secret covers of a book, at the theater or movies, in songs and myths--we celebrate "the tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the traveller, the gangster, the runner, the mask."

But Rai can't bring back Vina, either. Nor the mother who died of a brain tumor. Nor the father who hanged himself. Not even smelly Bombay. "Disorientation," he explains: "loss of the East." And, of himself, Ormus and Vina: "We three kings of Disorient were. And I'm the only one who lived to tell the tale."

Which, outside looking in, leads us to the second front--and a series of Orphic questions: "Death is more than love or is it. Art is more than love or is it. Love is more than death and art, or not. This is the subject. This is the subject. This is it."

Who better to answer these questions than the man who poses them, our Flying Dutchman and our Sinbad, our rogue astronaut and communications satellite, orbiting the earthquake with a price on his head, beaming down an occasional message to a literary magazine or an Op-Ed page, appearing like some ghostly avatar of Vishnu at book parties and awards banquets despite bounty hunters from nutcracker Alamut, and Pat Buchanans who wouldn't mind a bit if the author of The Jaguar Smile were gunned down like a doggy Sandinista, and Esquire Pecksniffs who'd rather he were Thomas More, or Jan Hus or Socrates. Rushdie, imperialism's pup, "history's bastard," "a mongrel self." The actor, with Germaine Greer and David Hare at Cambridge. The advertising copywriter with Fay Weldon at Ogilvy & Mather. The book reviewer who paid dearly for his pans of Naipaul and John le Carré. The Salmanizer of Midnight's Children, in which communal pickle factory the Baby Saleem was born partitioned, already cracking up. (Never mind the Communist magicians.) Or Shame, in which bestiary Omar Khayyam Shakil's three mothers and his fear of flying would cost him his head. (Never mind Pakistan.) Or The Satanic Verses, as if Bulgakov had written the Ramayana, in which vertigo "two brown men," having "climbed too high, got above themselves"--having dared "halfway between Allahgod and homo-sap...to ask forbidden things: antiquestions"--would fall hard, into false consciousness, bad faith and self-parody instead of metamorphosis. (Never mind "the untime of the Imam," or the brothel resembling Kaaba, or the Prophet's favorite wife, Ayesha, who wore nothing but a cloud of butterflies while leading her village to death by drowning.) Or, after the fatwa, besides the stories collected in East, West and the essays collected in Imaginary Homelands, his lovely children's book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in which Arabian Night a young boy whose mother has abandoned him will come to learn, among water genies, shadow warriors and manticores, that by Naming we create Being; that the world is full of things we haven't seen but still believe in, like Africa, submarines, a North Pole and kangaroos, not to mention the past ("did it happen?") and the future ("will it come?"), and return to his equally bereft storyteller-father the gift of gab. (Never mind Marianne Wiggins.) Or The Moor's Last Sigh, in which Spanish operetta we'll meet the Hindu hydrogen bomb before they actually had it; and go all the way back 500 years to the fall of Granada and a spicy sexual tryst between Arab and Jew. (Never mind that a real-life Lord Ram politician named Thackeray is cleverly disguised as a fundamentalist demagogue named Fielding.)

Who else but this postcolonial Mad Hatter has gone down so many "holes in reality," and found so many hybrids and mutants? Who's more qualified to caution us that real metamorphosis is "a form beyond," a "new fixed thing"--not a "whimsy" but a "revelation"? "It's like when coal becomes diamond. It doesn't afterwards retain the possibility of change. Squeeze it as hard as you like, it won't turn into a rubber ball, or a Quattro Stagione pizza, or a self-portrait by Rembrandt."

Who else has tried harder to compensate for, or somehow redeem us from, this chilly news, this "world of grief made real by song, by art," than Rushdie, whistling past the modern with a bull's-eye on his back?

It is getting harder by the moment to say boo to a goose, lest the goose in question belong to the paranoid majority (goosism under threat), the thin-skinned minority (victims of goosophobia), the militant fringe (Goose Sena), the separatists (Goosistan Liberation Front), the increasingly well organized cohorts of society's historical outcasts (the ungoosables, or Scheduled Geese), or the devout followers of that ultimate guruduck, the sainted Mother Goose.

You'll recall that Orpheus, the son of a Muse (Calliope) and a River God (Oeagrus, though Apollo may have fiddled there before him), and quite a celebrity for having luted down the Sirens at an Argonaut concert, was so besotted by the wood nymph Eurydice that when she perished of a snakebite, he followed her to Hades, where his music so charmed the Underworld Lords that they let him cart her back--so long as he didn't look over his shoulder. Which, of course, he did. He spent so much of the thereafter feeling sorry for himself that the women of Thrace, or maybe Bacchic maenads, tore him to shreds and bowled his prophetic head all the way to Lesbos.

Plato had no use for Orpheus, causing Phaedrus to say in one of his bullying "dialogues": "The gods honor zeal and heroic excellence towards love. But Orpheus...they sent back unfilled from Hades, showing him a phantom of the woman...because he seemed to them a coward...[who] didn't venture to die for the sake of love, as did Alcestis, but rather devised a means of entering Hades while still alive." Whereas Rushdie has not much use for Plato, "who preferred martyrdom to mourning, Plato the ayatollah of love."

Aeschylus, in his Bassarae, was more kindly disposed. So was Euripides in his Alcestis, Virgil in his Georgics and Ovid in his Metamorphoses, not to mention generally favorable notices in the poetry press from Shakespeare and Milton to Walter Savage Landor and, at length, Rainer Maria Rilke--with whom Rushdie shoots some breeze, since Rilke seems to feel that death turned Eurydice into a different person. ("Who?" she asks, when Hermes brings up Orpheus.) Calderón was sympathetic to the Big O in a seventeenth-century play, and so was Cocteau in his 1949 film, starring Maria Casarès as Death with a motorcycle escort of Nazi leatherboy bikers. Composers, of course, haven't been able to leave him alone, from Monteverdi to Gluck.

I will not dwell on all things Orphic in the late Hellenistic period--ritual hymns, mystery cults, the Derveni papyrus and all those theogonies and anthropogonies--because Rushdie ignores them. But I love this stuff. Did you know that there were itinerant "Orpheotelests" wandering all over the Neoplatonist world, exorcising demons, harming by magic, lecturing the luckless on the secret qualities of stones, as if they were rock musicians like the Doors?

Anyway, since variants of this high-concept story about music, love and death show up in Norse and Celtic myths of Odin and Lug-Find, as well as in Native American lore, it's no surprise that Rushdie's found an Indian equivalent. What happened to Kama, the love god, when he tried to shoot Shiva with a dart was that Shiva fried him with a thunderbolt. After which Kama's widow, the goddess Rati, pleaded so piteously that Shiva softened--and so love came back from the dead. Knowing this, you also now know why Ormus, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is a Cama. While Vina Apsara, born in America to an Indian father and a Greek mother, actually names herself; "vina," conveniently, is an Indian lyre, and "apsaras," a swanlike water nymph. On the other hand, in profile, Vina looks like the female pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, "the first woman in recorded history," whom Vina, upon becoming her own god-queen, will call "Hat Cheap Suit." To complicate the picture, Rai, whose problem from the beginning is that he's as tone-deaf as a Nabokov or Freud, who can't even whistle, calls her "a sort of Cinderella of Troy."

So the stage is set. Never mind how Vina got to Bombay, from a past of murderous mothers and slaughtered goats. Nor why, after waiting so long to grow up to embrace her erotic fate, she'd fly away immediately after a one-night stand with Ormus, to spend another decade inventing several more selves, singing in American coffee bars, "beatnik folk dives," Slaughterhouse 22 and the Wrong End Café, wearing, among the Middle Earth and UFO psychedelics, an Afro on her head, an om symbol on her cheek, a single Black American radical glove and maybe a wisp of "Indianized occult-chic couture." Or how come it took Ormus--the very incarnation of "the singer and songwriter as shaman and spokesman"--so long before he followed her, with his visions, "shadow selves" and "lamentation-cosmos," his Doubles, Others and Secret Sharers, through the "membrane" to the West, where he almost died until she kissed him out of his coma, after which the Peace Ballads, the Quakershaker album and...but read the novel.

Meanwhile, "an honorary member of the ranks of the earth's dispossessed," in Indochina or Iran, in "sickening Timor," in "blasted Beirut" or in some "revolution-speckled bananarama of Central America," Rai seethes:

In the beginning was the tribe, clustering around the fire, a single multi-bodied collective entity standing back-to-back against the enemy, which was the rest of everything-that-was. Then for a little while we broke away, we got names and individuality and privacy and big ideas, and that started a wider fracturing, because if we could do it--us, the planet kings, the gobblers with the lock on the food chain, the guys in the catbird seat--if we could cut ourselves loose, then so could everything else, so could event and space and time and description and fact, so could reality itself. Well, we weren't expecting to be followed, we didn't realize we were starting anything, and it looks like it's scared us so profoundly, this fracturing, this tumbling of walls, this forgodsake freedom, that at top speed we're rushing back into our skins and war paint, postmodern into premodern, back to the future. That's what I see when I'm a camera: the battle lines, the corrals, the stockades, the pales, the secret handshakes, the insignia, the uniforms, the lingo, the closing in...the fifty-year-old ten-year-olds, the blood-dimmed tide, the slouching towards Bethlehem, the suspicion, the loathing, the closed shutters, the pre-judgements, the scorn, the hunger, the thirst, the cheap lives, the cheap shots, the anathemas, the minefields, the demons, the demonized, the führers, the warriors, the veils, the mutilations, the no-man's-land, the paranoias, the dead, the dead.

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