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Salman Rushdie’s great American novel

In his new novel 'The Golden House', master fabulist Salman Rushdie makes sense of the post-truth world we live in. In this interview, he speaks of writing the panoramic social novel about America after 20 years of living there

Salman Rushdie. Photo: AFP.
Salman Rushdie. Photo: AFP.

Salman Rushdie has now lived longer in the US than in India. New York is his home, and he is familiar with it with an intimacy that comes from walking its avenues and knowing places and nooks and corners that even those who have lived all their lives may not.

New York allows the newcomer that opportunity, to blend in, to become part of it, and claim it as his own. Rushdie likes such cities—the one in which he was born, Bombay, as it was known, was one such for India; New York plays that role for the world. For it is a global city in a casual way; there are hidden universes in its enclaves, and if the visitor confuses New York with its skyline, Fifth Avenue and Central Park, he ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

With The Golden House, his 14th work of fiction, Rushdie reintroduces his readers to the landscape of ideas, tricks, stories, puns and humour that are characteristic of his writing. A Rushdie novel is not outwardly simple, with a clear, straight narrative: There are stories within stories, digressions that merge at the end, erudite allusions to classical literature, playful recreations of myths and legends, delightful references to comic book heroes, and many other winks and nods to popular culture. They possess the kind of contemporaneity and verve that capture the zeitgeist. In The Golden House, Rushdie reveals another of his passions, for cinema—not only the classics of Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, but also the trendier, modern film-makers, and it helps that the novel’s narrator, Rene Unterlinden, is an aspiring film-maker.

Rene tells us the story of a family from a city that cannot be named (it is named later, Bombay, and then it becomes Mumbai) which occupies a large house in Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan. The family, and the quirky neighbours who share a garden, form the microcosm around which the novel revolves. Everyone in that neighbourhood has come from some place else, it is quintessential New York.

The patriarch, Nero Golden, is a man with a past—several pasts, in fact—and his sons have exotic names—the agoraphobic Petronius (Petya), the artistic Lucius Apuleius (Apu), and the uncertain-about-his-gender Dionysus (D). Allusions get richer and multiply: Petronius reminds us not only of the author of Satyricon, which was also a Federico Fellini film, but also the novel’s character Trimalchio, which was the original title of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was itself a fine novel about money and class, about a businessman with a dark past which he seeks to hide with lavish parties that he hosts but observes and does not attend.

And this is Donald Trump’s America, so there are Russians, including an attractive fortune-seeking temptress who wins the heart of the patriarch.

The Golden House has two outsiders—Rene, who looks into the Golden family’s inner lives, and becomes part of the narrative, and the patriarch Nero Golden himself. The outsider looks at the world with fresh eyes; his social awkwardness, his missteps—intended or not—can shatter the calm.

The Golden House: By Salman Rushdie, Hamish Hamilton, 384 pages, Rs699.
The Golden House: By Salman Rushdie, Hamish Hamilton, 384 pages, Rs699.

But there is much else besides—there is a terrorist attack in India, the election of a black president in the US, the rise of a candidate named Joker, the grinning villain who faces Batwoman in a divisive election, and a rich portrait of an America that has changed since that day—9/11—when two aeroplanes crashed into the World Trade Center. Entirely coincidentally (although Midnight’s Children’s protagonist Saleem Sinai might wonder if that, too, was his fault), Rushdie’s novel Fury, which offered a vivid montage of America during its brash, pre-9/11 innocence, was launched the same day the planes flew into the towers.

Rushdie’s fiction excels where reality merges with fantasy, and where the fantastic appears real because what’s real is too difficult to comprehend. In The Satanic Verses, perhaps the most significant novel about transitions and migration, a character is losing his mind and hallucinating, believing that he is creating a new faith (that the real world confused it with a commentary on religion was the real world’s problem). In The Enchantress Of Florence, Renaissance-era Italy coexisted with Mughal India. In Two Years, Eight Months And Twenty-eight Nights, the past, present and future stretched over a millennium became one unending narrative.

In this universe we inhabit, of post-truth/alt-truth/alternative facts, it becomes difficult even to agree over what has happened, or what its meaning might be. To make sense of the present, what could be better than to turn to Rushdie, the master fabulist, to take the reader back to the source, that ocean of stories and myths of the past, with sharp and witty reminders of where we are, as we contemplate what might become?

Edited excerpts from an email interview with Salman Rushdie:

There are many stories within ‘The Golden House’, including Greek and Roman myths, comic book stories, nods to great moments in world cinema, and to literature. And yet, it is a story about two powerful narratives—what’s happening to America and India. Is this the way you see your worlds coming together?

I have had the story of Nero Golden in my mind for over 15 years: The tragedy of a man who falls towards the criminal world, then finds himself trapped there because of threats against his family, who goes on compromising himself morally to protect that family, and then loses everything he tried to defend…that was a Bombay story in my mind, even though I knew Nero would go far from home to escape his past. It was quite a while before I understood that he would come to America, and yes, at that point two narratives joined: his private tragedy set within the public tragedy of America, its journey from a moment of hope to its antithesis.

Is America still the land where you can leave your past and reinvent yourself?

Reinvention has been a great New York story. Most people who live here weren’t born here; they come in the hope of becoming what they dream of being. However, it’s getting to be a tougher and tougher town to do that in. You need too much money just to survive here. Perhaps those people dreaming of reinvention will soon be heading elsewhere.

Does our past always catch up?

It certainly does in novels. In a novel, if you have a secret history somewhere behind you, it will inevitably come out of the shadows at some point. In real life, I meet people every day—Korean storekeepers, Punjabi taxi drivers, Ukrainian police officers—who seem to have left the past behind quite successfully.

Back in 1987, when we met in Mumbai when you were filming a documentary on the 40th anniversary of India’s independence, you had said that angels and devils are becoming confused ideas. It is becoming difficult even to agree about what is happening, you had said. Would you say that the post-truth world of today is the reality you were foreseeing then—which was the time of the Cold War and clear binaries?

For some time now, in many parts of the world—Kashmir, for example—reality has been a highly contested issue. What was hard to foresee was that first the internet would erode the very idea of the truth (“you mustn’t believe everything you read on the web," as Abraham Lincoln once said) and that then unscrupulous politicians would assist that erosion by deliberately assaulting facts, reportage, evidence, all the foundations of the real: rewriting both history and the present and creating a false reality that threatens to establish itself as more credible than the real thing.

Do good and evil reside within each individual? And if so, how do we arrive at moral judgements? Is Nero Golden an evil being or a tragic figure, or both?

Yes, of course they do, but sometimes the imbalance is so great that one or the other doesn’t weigh in the scales. I don’t care, for example, if (Adolf) Hitler was kind to dogs. Nero Golden is a deeply flawed and corrupt rogue, but as a father, he’s a different man. I leave it to readers to judge whether his story is that of a bad man who gets what he deserves, or something better than that. If we adopt the Shakespearean idea of the “fatal flaw" which undoes the tragic hero, that may perhaps be the best way of thinking about Nero.

Where does the power of the myth lie?

I’ve always thought of the great myths as highly concentrated little packets of meaning. You can tell the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (for example) in under 100 words, but when you start unpacking what it has to say about the dark triangle of love, art and death that lies at its heart, it’s astonishing how much there is in there to think about.

‘Fury’ was regarded as the classic 10 September novel—it was published days before 9/11, and captured the American zeitgeist of pre-9/11 America. Is ‘The Golden House’ the novel about what happened to America in its aftermath?

That is a part of it, I suppose, yes, although it wasn’t quite so conscious a decision. I just wanted, after 20 years of living here, to write a big panoramic social novel about America, trying to respond to what was in the air, to what people were thinking about. I re-read Stendhal, Scarlet And Black, and parts of (Fyodor) Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov as preparation. By the way, Fury’s publication day actually was 11 September.

Is America prepared to listen? Is anyone listening to the other view in America? How polarized has it become?

I’m not sure what you mean by the other view. If you mean the noise from Trumplandia, that noise is deafening and impossible to avoid. What is in danger of being drowned out is decency and goodness.

There are vivid descriptions of Bombay in the novel. How do you stay in touch with Bombay—is it through conversations, research, memories?

All of those things, yes. It just goes on living inside me in spite of long absences.

Is it possible to reconcile differences that are so fundamental, as we see in the America you write about, India, to which you refer, and Britain, to which you allude in this novel, and in many places elsewhere?

All three countries are in the midst of a crisis of identity, and while reconciliation is always possible, of course, I don’t see it happening any time soon. The nearly open war between white America and diverse America; between Hindu and secular India; and between a nostalgic fantasy-idea of England and the reality…it will be a series of long struggles.


A story of two worlds

Who are The Goldens?

“Tell them we materialised by magic or arrived from the neighbourhood of Alpha Centauri in a spaceship hidden in a comet’s tail. Say we are from nowhere or anywhere or somewhere, we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shape shifters, which is to say, Americans."

Where did they really come from?

“Everyone knew the story of the birth of the city, how the British had wanted it precisely because of this beautiful harbor ... (a city) built by foreigners and so it was right that foreigners should be welcomed in that grand palace of a hotel looking out in the harbor.... (where) if you were a young man wanting to impress your love you would somehow find the money to take her to the lounge facing the sea and as the sea breeze caressed your faces you would drink tea or lime juice and eat cucumber sandwiches and cake and she would love you because you had brought her into the city’s magic heart."

Why did they leave the city that cannot be named?

“They would escape from the historical into the personal, and in the New World the personal would be all they sought and all they expected, to be detached and individual and alone... it did not occur to any of them that their decision was born of a colossal sense of entitlement, this notion that they could just step away from yesterday and start tomorrow as if it wasn’t a part of the same week, to move beyond memory and roots and language and race into the land of the self-made self, which is another way of saying, America."

Why did the sons agree to leave with the father?

“You agreed (to leave) because there, where you came from, you weren’t free to be who you need to be, to become who you need to become."

And what kind of America did they find?

“I walked the streets in a blind rage and all at once it was as if all the anger gathering in the air poured into me too, I could feel it, the anger of the unjustly dead, the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black, the young child shot for playing with a plastic gun in a playground while black, all the daily black death of America, screaming out that they deserved to live, and I could feel too, the fury of white America, at having to put up with a black man in a white house, and the frothing hatred of the homophobes, and the injured wrath of their targets, the blue collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d or Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity, all the discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing they were right, their cause was just, their pain was unique, attention must be paid... and I began to wonder if we were moral beings at all or simply savages who defined their private bigotries as necessary ethics, as the only ways to be...."

Excerpted from The Golden House, with permission from Penguin Random House.

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