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.
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.