The Bend in Their Rivers

The Bend in Their Rivers

Amitava Kumar reviews Salman Rushdie's Fury and V.S. Naipaul's Half a Life.


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.

Early in the book, we are told that Solanka has decided on "using the material of his own life and immediate surroundings and, by the alchemy of art, making it strange." The Russian Formalists and other proponents like Brecht called this aesthetic principle "the alienation effect," or estrangement. You do not need a degree in psychoanalysis to see that the estrangement that really propels Fury is of another sort. We usually call it divorce.

The failure in love gives fury to Malik Solanka's life and the lives of the others around him. Solanka's best friend, Jack Rhinehart, is a journalist. After we have been told that his refrigerator is stocked with "larks' tongues, emus' testicles, dinosaurs' eggs," we are also told that he has stopped writing meaningful journalism. Instead of visiting the war zones, Jack has begun writing "lucrative profiles of the super-powerful, super-famous, and super-rich." He has turned to writing novels that chronicle the loves, the misdeeds, the sexual practices, the cars, of the rich. These novels are about "the lives of today's Caesars in their Palaces." The reason that Jack has started writing this trash is that his exotically beautiful, estranged wife has been squeezing him for money. The "long, languid, pale" Mrs. Rhinehart has "the sticking power of a leech."

It took me a while to see that the book I was holding in my hand pretty much matched the description of Jack's writing. But even after I had finished reading the novel, I could not decide whether Rushdie was publicly venting his fury about what he thought had led to a degradation in art or, in a way that was equally disturbing, was simply seeking to justify the book he had now written about the subject. Fury aims at providing, it would be polite to assume, social satire. But it suffers from what Solanka in another context calls "tragedy of insulation." The story remains bound up in the persona of the protagonist, who appears utterly complicit in what he wants to lampoon. And, in our hero's view, the rulers are brutal, and the ruled, brutish. That leaves us with the garrulous Solanka and his dream girl, Neela, whose sole specialty seems to be to induce whiplash in passing males. This is not enough even to salt the satire.

By the time the novel comes to an end, we find that Solanka's dolls have begun to strut on the global stage. His Puppet Kings, stories about a mad cyberneticist, a drowning planet, cyborgs and lotus eaters, have been put on the web. Suddenly they are all the rage in the hyperlinked universe, perhaps only because everyone who plays the game can become a little Malik Solanka. A little brain. We learn that the dolls have inspired a rebellion on the Fiji-like island of Lilliput-Blefuscu, a rebellion that goes horribly wrong. But by then the reader is weary of art's (read Rushdie's) ambition to inspire world revolutions or, at least, global commercial success. You begin to wish that Rushdie would be content with U2 singing his songs, enjoying the rush of stepping up at Wembley Stadium to have "80,000 fans cheering you on." Here, in these pages [July 9], Rushdie wrote of a photo from that evening: "There I am looking godlike in Bono's wraparound Fly shades, while he peers benignly over my uncool literary specs. There could be no more graphic expression of the difference between our two worlds."

Yes, the difference… But, who am I to now remind Rushdie of that?

The difference between a tabloid celebrity and a serious writer is not so much worth addressing. It is more useful, I think, to ponder the ironies of a self-professed leftist author writing novels that, despite the invocation of deeply democratic themes, are fundamentally undemocratic. I am being harsh. Yet I cannot find better terms to describe writing that is so possessed of a zeal for self-glorification. Equally bothersome, Rushdie's attention to small, ordinary lives is in a pronounced way abstract, uncaring and even hostile. On June 8 last year, he wrote a sympathetic Op-Ed column in the New York Times in which he pleaded for the acceptance of Fiji's Indians as Fijians. In Fury, an analogous group is inexplicably, far too easily, turned into a murderous military force led by a psychotic, megalomaniacal swine.

There might be a moral here for the academic Marxism of classrooms and fashionable literary salons; the less doubtful lesson is about postcolonial literature itself. That literature cannot be strengthened by gestures–Rushdie has been exemplary in this regard, standing up for progressive causes and writers' rights–but by the evidence of the writing itself. In this regard, it is not the leftist writer Rushdie but the rightist V.S. Naipaul, recently awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, whose work returns us to an engagement with the roots of writing and, through that process, the narrative of individual struggles and the geography of marginalization.

Despite his railings against "half-formed societies," you discover in Naipaul repeated tributes to small beginnings and small triumphs. And, instead of the Las Vegas feel that mars Rushdie's fiction, in Naipaul you get a record of the hurt of human failure. For the reader, there is no escape from being reminded of Naipaul's origins–in a family that had barely climbed out of indentureship in a plantation economy in far-off Trinidad. As in A House for Mr. Biswas, what we are offered is a classic account about heartbreaking achievement and the daily, tragicomic routine of unacknowledged lives.

This difference–between Naipaul and Rushdie, rather than between Rushdie and Bono–is worth fighting over. In contrast to Rushdie, the older, conservative Naipaul can be relied upon to make appalling public statements. Most recently, he has fulminated against delinquent youth in England: "I see that several generations of free milk and orange juice have led to an army of thugs." In some of his writings, particularly on Islam, Naipaul can also be awfully misleading. Indeed, many have conjectured that the Nobel for the Islamophobic Naipaul is a fallout of the events of September 11. If the eminences in Stockholm were searching for anything to condemn Osama bin Laden in Naipaul's fiction, they would have found little to console them. This is because, as Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Statesman, Naipaul, unlike Rushdie, has "alchemized the trauma of early poverty and unbelonging into a bristly but always accessible humanism." With the younger writer, you get a politically correct but often hollow, and fleshless, postmodernism.

The opposition between Rushdie and Naipaul presents us with a lesson in great, unexpected irony. But the irony goes beyond just telling us something about the two writers. The paradox actually becomes a parable about mistaken identity, that wonderful, abiding theme of postcolonial writing. We learn that our lives find narrative form neither in the tired, familiar slogans of our captains nor in the symmetries of ideological camps, but in the differences that thrive behind settled, more clear-cut divisions.

Clear lines of opposition blur, for instance, when there is mimicry. Naipaul's new novel, Half a Life, begins with the words, "Willie Chandran asked his father one day, 'Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me.'" In response, the father, a small man in a small town in southern India, begins to tell the story of how the son was named after a famous writer who had been on a visit to India in the years before independence. We see the outlines of a story about Somerset Maugham and The Razor's Edge. But the story is also about the father's desire to mimic another man. That man is Gandhi. And the narrative, with the distant, pedagogical economy of a fable, draws us into a tale, touched with farce, about how love and writing and politics are born through imitation. The son rebels against the knowledge his father gives him. And, in what is also a mimicry of his father, but laced with his own difference, he begins to write stories that mock his father and their shared, pitiable condition.

In doing all this, the writer Naipaul is also mimicking himself. The story he is telling here echoes what we have read in his earlier books. His account of the agitations of people belonging to the untouchable caste borrows its energy from what Naipaul wrote in the opening chapter of his travel book India: A Million Mutinies Now. The pattern is repeated in what follows in Half a Life. The second part of the book follows young Willie Chandran's arrival in England on a scholarship. Willie's fumbling attempts at sex, the lack of money compounded by the poverty of his experience, are subjects that Naipaul also wrote about with some feeling in The Mimic Men. ("Intimacy: it was violation and self-violation. These scenes in the book-shaped room didn't always end well; they could end in tears, sometimes in anger, a breast grown useless being buttoned up, a door closed on a room that seemed to require instant purification.")

In Half a Life, we also accompany Willie on his path to self-discovery as a writer in London. This is Naipaul's turf. Again, as in his fragmentary memoir Finding the Center, Naipaul prepares us not only for the excitement of writing or its difficulties but for the discovery, touched with belittlement, of the colonial life as a subject of metropolitan consumption. Willie is told by a friend, "India isn't really a subject. The only people who are going to read about India are people who have lived or worked there, and they are not going to be interested in the India you write about." Today, when postcolonial fiction is all the rage, Naipaul's restaging of this account of his past–the men wanting Bhowani Junction and the women, Black Narcissus–allows us to place his own writing, and the shape that immigrant fiction has taken in the West, into a historical context of Western desires and demands.

The third and final part of Half a Life is set in Africa, where Willie goes after he meets Ana in London, a woman who is from a country that resembles Mozambique. This happens after Willie has married Ana, who was attracted to him because she finds in his book a story of her own past. It is Willie, insecure and without money, who asks Ana to return with him to her home in Africa. This travel to Africa, which for Naipaul has always been beset by Conradian tropes, returns us to a landscape of ruins and grim omens. At the same time, the tale is enlivened by a writer's sense of inquiry: "But I felt that the overseer had a larger appreciation of the life of the place; his surrender was more than the simple sexual thing it seemed. And when I next saw the mildewed white staff bungalows I looked at them with a new respect. So bit by bit I learned. Not only about cotton and sisal and cashew, but also about the people."

Rob Nixon, in London Calling, described Naipaul's first book of travel, The Middle Passage, as "a journey of rage into the terra incognita of the self." Naipaul's latest novel, in its final section, journeys into the darkness of the sexual self. It is a journey into a form of awakening and even grace–a new theme within the pattern of repetition I am tracing here–but it is also touched with a tender recoil from cruelty. Adulterous lovers copulate, literally, among snakes. Love is poisoned by the landscape of failure. Africa, then, no less than India in this story, plays a part in a fable, even if the fable is made up expertly from details of a well-recorded life.

This Africa, it would not be a stretch to say, is not very different from Rushdie's New York: Both are imagined by outsiders; both are places animated by fury. The difference lies in how the two novelists imagine the figure of the writer traversing the alien landscape that is so caught up in their fantasy and fear. And that is where, while absorbing all the stories in the news after the events of September 11, I came to an understanding that what Rushdie's Fury relentlessly offered was a species of the writer as exceptional, while what Naipaul's Half a Life returned us to was a sense of the writer as the opposite. In the circumstances of our times, I found resonant Willie Chandran's apperception of life on the streets of London after that social disaster called a race riot:


The newspapers and the radio were full of the riots…. It seemed to him that everyone was reading the newspapers. They were black with photographs and headlines. He heard a small old working man, years of deprivation on his face, say casually, as he might have done at home, "Those blacks are going to be a menace." It was a casual remark, not at all reflecting what was in the papers, and Willie felt at once threatened and ashamed. He felt people were looking at him. He felt the newspapers were about him.


This is a literature about us. Here and There. Willie Chandran, fearful that the papers are about him, teaches us that there is getting attention, and then there is getting attention.

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