Sunday, September 13, 2015

Salman Rushdie's mellow bad new novel and his uneducated admirers

Salman Rushdie has managed to be a clever writer, an irritating quality of an overweening sophomore. Someone had to call his bluff, and he should have been asked to go back and write a proper novel. Perhaps a chastened Rushdie would have come back with a Jonathah Franzen, a Julian Barnes and an Ian McEwan or a Coetzee novel. But Rushdie was lucky and unfortunate to have been surrounded by a swarm of midgets in terms of literary taste and judgement. Apart from his short-story collection of East-West, which came out some time in the 1990s, Rushdie did not have the discipline to sit down and write a realistic story, with proper characters, plot and dialogue. So he went the way of extreme imagination where everything is distorted and exaggerated.

The reader gets a warning of the "mad, mad world" that is to unfold right at the beginning of the novel: "This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn, known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt, who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century, as we would say, and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then go to war." (Page 4) Of course this is indeed a sane rendering by Rushdie. In his earlier books, the tone of the narrator would have been feverish and so would have been the words. Here is Rushdie sitting back and constructing a legible sentence in spite of its meanderings. Rushdie's admirers think that this is part of his magical realism pellucid prose. Not Marquez, not Kundera, not even Grass would fly off into a grossly imagined world as Rushdie does, unable as he is to describe the many-splendoured real world that is spread out before him. He retreats into the cocoon of a tree-house. Rushdie's literary tropes should be a delight to a resourceful psychoanalyst.

He then makes an attempt to descend into the recognisible real world. He reaches back to the famous philosophical quarrel between Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd in medieval Islam. There was no direct confrontation between the two because they were separated in time and place. But Rushdie has to find a simplistic image as Satyajit Ray did crudely in his film, Ganashatru, to express his infantile liberalism, humanism, literary imagination and all that. So the plot is laid out and in doing so Rushdie does not feel embarrassed to be as vulgar as possible in adopting a propagandist tone: "In the year 1195, the great philosopher Ibn Rushd, once the Qadi, or judge, of Seville, and most recently the personal physician to the Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub in his home town of Cordoba, was formally discredited and disgraced on account of his liberal ideas, which were unacceptable to the increasingly powerful Berber fanatics who were spreading like a pestilence across Arab Spain, and sent to live in internal exile in the small village of Lucena outside his native city, a village full of Jews who could no longer say they were Jews because the previous ruling dynasty of al-Andalus, the Almoravides, had forced them to convert to Islam. Ibn Rushd, a philosopher, who was no longer permitted to expound philosophy, all of whose writing has been banned and his books burned, felt instantly at home among the Jews who could not say they were Jews." (Page 5).

The admirers would be thrilled by this sentence which makes the points about liberalism and tyranny instead of showing liberalism and tyranny through incident, episode, dialogue. The political message takes over more than anything else.

Rushdie cannot avoid Bombay/Mumbai and his crude liberalism stands out like a sore thumb: "That winter Uncle Charles suddenly announced he wanted to make a trip back to India, and took Geronimo with him. After the long years away their home town was a shock to the eyes, as if an alien city, 'Mumbai', had descended from space and settled on top of the Bombay they remembered." (Page 33). He makes one of the characters say, "I am happy, Raphael, to have lived in my time and not in this one,' he said over Chinese food. 'In my time nobody ever dared say I was not a true Bombayite or a pukka Indian. Now, they say it." (Page 33) This is bad journalism as well.

Rushdie throws in Spinoza, Thorstein Veblen and Arthur Schopenhauer. One of the characters again slips into eloquence: "In my opinion, by the way, Spinoza's theory of mind-body union applies equally to nation states. The body politic and the ones in the control room are not separate from one another. You remember that Woody Allen movie with the operatives in the brain sending the sperm in their white outfits and hoodies to work when the body is about to get laid, Same kind of thing."(Page 32)

Rushdie takes us on to another destination on Page 35: "Uncle Charles went south to Goa but Geronimo Manezes made his way to Kyoto in Japan and sat at the feet of the great horticulturist Ryonosuke Shimura, who taught him that the garden was the outward expression of inner truth, the place where the dreams of our childhoods collided with the archetypes of our cultures, and created beauty."

Page 41 gives another philosophical glimpse though here the sentence construction touches the acme of sophistication: "Here she began her long enquiry into pessimism, inspired by both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and convinced of the absurdity of human life and the incompatibility of happiness and freedom, settled while still in the first bloom of youth into a lifetime of solitude and gloom, cloistered in abstraction and dressed in close-fitting white lace."

For those admirers of Rushdie, who have done their reading of that pseudo-intellectual German novelist, Thomas Mann, especially his The Holy Sinner and Dr. Faustus, Rushdie might sound amazingly profound. But Rushdie is gliding blithely over ideas which do not have a bearing on the inner life of the characters in the novel.

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