The Rings of Growth
19 November 2002
STEP ACROSS THIS LINE
Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002
Random House;402 pp.;US$25.95;September 2002
When you have read a writer for 20 years, every new book is cause for trepidation. Book in hand, you hesitate. The moment before that first line is a scintilla of hell, an anguish comparable only to the final minute of waiting at an airport or railway station, scanning the blur of strangers for the face that mirrors your own. For one panicked nanosecond you almost turn away. But you don’t, you stare blindly at the page. Then it hits you. Call it blindsight or deja vu, it’s the moment of recognition. Or awareness. It is the face you know. But has it grown lines to match your own?
An unreasonable expectation, perhaps. When you’ve shared half your lifetime with a writer, you expect his growth to match –if not exceed– your own. To you he is no longer a storyteller. His plots have ceased to interest you, his characters no longer captivate, language is a mere politeness you can brush aside. The real business of his books is to tell you what he thinks –oh, of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.
Salman Rushdie in his last two books of fiction did just that. The Ground Beneath Her Feet was the epic unstoppered, daemonic in its vision. Orpheus hovered like Banquo, unseating bloodied kings at the feast. Greece crumbles; Rome burns; brightness falls from the air. The book surged not with the technothrob of rock, but the chthonic, pullulating, chaos of human desire. The Thane lent an echo: Here’s ordinary human love beneath my feet. Fall away, if you must, contemptuous earth; melt, rocks, and shiver, stones. I’ll stand my ground, right here. An epic then –telescoped, retroactive– tales mirroring tales in infinite regression, a saltatory book, leaping from thought to thought. A great blowsy romp that earned him much rebuke wherever life is measured in coffee spoons.
September 2001, New York. Apocalypse now, and a time of paranoia, portents and prophesies. What to make of Fury, written before the event? Fiction, requiem or augury?
Manhattan roars in adrenaline ovedrive mainlining on money, and Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, finds in it an echo of his own inexplicable fury. Having dumped his blameless wife and angelic son after he found himself hovering over their sleeping figures brandishing a carving knife, he also may or may not be the serial murderer who scalps New York princesses. It doesn’t matter. The fury, the rage matters. To him, and to us. Its Cassandra wail doomed to be disbelieved, Fury was panned for an unconvincing storyline that strived to make sense of the highly publicized events in Rushdie’s recent life. Swiftian in malevolence and Dickensian in detail, the sadness and dread in its lush prose were all Rushdie’s own. Love did not redeem, it brought sadness into sharp focus. There was no comfort. There was no end. Fury was very like life.
These two books defined Rushdie as a historian of ideas. The Sea of Story with its infinite complecting streams must be mapped only to keep afloat the Idea Boat. Read Midnight’s Children today and you’ll find there’s so much of saying and doing , it offers very little space to think. One does not disappear into a pleasant reverie between paragraphs, chasing a traipsing thought like Disorientation: loss of the East.
Midnight’s Children is to The Ground Beneath Her Feet what a caterpillar is to the Monarch, The Pickwick Papers to Little Dorrit.
Both, Fury and The Ground Beneath Her Feet, are labyrinthine books. Their diversions do not, as reviewers have grumbled, betray a lack of discipline. They are the discipline.
To explain that comes Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction, 1992-2002.
Many essays here are familiar. We read them when they were written, on the occasions for which they were written. But past this or that exigency, do they still have something to say?
Take for instance, A Dream of Glorious Return, his homecoming after twelve-and-a-half years (hyphens his own). Two years after I first read it, it’s still charged with excitement. Read it now, and you don’t see Rushdie’s farcical security men, or his antic ?exposures?. You see instead, all the arrivals you’ve known: the first glimpse of the frayed grey hem of the city, the hurt of finding its great grim machinery has ground along just fine without you, the excruciatingly slow chug of the engine into the platform, the bloodspray of porters spattering the baggage, the surge of strange faces lit up for you, then that plunge into the maelstrom towards the barrier, shouting your lungs out, giving away your lost years and staking your claim to theirs . . . It’s all there in that essay, although the events are completely different. To read Rushdie’s events is to reclaim your own glorious return. Two years ago it was reportage, now it is memory. And a memory out of the reader’s brain. Abracadabra! Magic realism rules. Don’t ask me how it’s done. The shrewd conjuror never explains his trick.
Rushdie’s take on the Baburnama opens a window. History comes in little boxes these corrupt days, with little saffron pricetags that don’t peel off easily. When Babur wrote his autobiography –journal would be more correct– it could not have been for the citizens of his new empire. He saw himself as conqueror, not colonizer. Home was elsewhere. It was not his caveat to stay. But when he made camp, the land opened endlessly for his army. He saw it a vast urt in the shadow of his beloved mountains. The rest was merely supplies. His notes inventorize, they do not describe. The Baburnama is the 15th century Lonely Planet guide to Hindustan.
Salman Rushdie looks past Babur’s irritations into his loneliness. This soldier writing in his tent is no Marcus Aurelius. He is writing not to debate the human condition, but to categorize his own: nomad, exile, tourist, souvenir hunter. Rushdie shows this by quoting Babur on the battle of Chanderi (1528):
” . . A tower of infidel’s skulls was erected on the hill on the northwest side of Chanderi . . .” Then, three sentences later, we get this; “Chanderi is a superb place. All around the area are many flowing streams. . .”
History is bloody business. Then, as now, no morality attaches to it. Apologists for history, to quote Sunsan Sontag out of context, merely replace politics, the politics of democracy, with psychotherapy. Babur botoxed would look as silly as Babur demonized.
Rushdie, never one for feel-good copy, compares Babur to Machiavelli: . . . both these unwilling exiles were, as writers, blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a clear-sightedness that looks amoral; as truth so often does.
There are many reasons why one reads Salman Rushdie. Perhaps the most cogent of these is hope.
Anyone who loves the written word lives in the hope of reading a line that advances thought or evokes emotion. Fiction grows more precious, more narcissistic, more self-absorbed; its expression more numbed, its symbols more arcane. No longer may we seek within its pages for the human justice that life denies us. We’re living the inevitable backlash. You cannot crack the human genome and quantify matter and still hope to escape the rage of Caliban. An entente cordiale has been hastily arranged with that medieval ally, God. At the beginning of the 21st century, religion is the new science.
In God in Gujarat, Rushdie writes: How well, with what fatal results, religion erects totems, and how willing we are to kill for them! And when we’ve done it often enough, the deadening of affect that results makes it easier to do it again . . . What happened in India, happened in God’s name. The problem’s name is God.
One is reminded that this particular problem dogged Rushdie for ten horrendous years. Ten Years of the Fatwa is a mildly irate essay which touches but lightly on his outrage. For how can I explain to strangers my sense of violation? For us, the strangers, there are gifts instead: The best defence of literary freedoms lies in their exercise, in continuing to make untrammelled, uncowed books.
Those of us refuseniks, the odd million or so, who won’t buy into a Paradise balkanized by warring Gods, can take heart from A Commencement Address for Bard College, NY, a neat analysis of hubris, and Imagine There is No Heaven, a letter to the world’s six billionth citizen. They are the most passionate essays in the book. To borrow a phrase from Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie is not a writer who wears a condom on his heart.
There are joyous essays in this book, yeasty, exuberant, table-thumping essays. And the scholarly. There’s one on, Influence, newly relevant as we wonder if Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi wasn’t once Max and The Cats written by Brazilian Moacyr Scliar. There’s even –for those who missed it the first time round –‘Damme this is The Oriental Scene for You!’– his essay on Indian writing that provoked more bile than ink.
But this book is anchored by its title essay, an elegant exploration of the idea of transgression. Beginning with parables, The Conference of Birds and Doris Lessing’s sci-fi novel The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, Rushdie defines the journey towards the frontier, drawing on songs –Cavafy’s Ithaka and Kerouac’s On the Road. And the frontier itself, is shifting, disputatious. For all their permeability, the borders snaking cross the world have never been of greater importance. This is the dance of history in our age; slow, slow, quick, quick, slow, back and forth and from side to side, we step across these fixed and shifting lines.
Of his childhood memory of Faiz Ahmad Faiz he writes –draw a line in the sand and Faiz would feel intellectually obliged to step across it. This last part of Step Across This Line examines transgression in its literal sense, the lines we cross in translations, dreams, prophecies, and art. This essay ends with a disturbing question: Will we become the suits of armour our fear makes us put on, or will we be ourselves?
This book is Rushdie’s answer to his own question.
Like the annular age of a tree, a writer’s work dates his growth. These essays are the growth rings of a decade in a life of writing.