About eight months ago, I wrote about Midnight’s Children that on first reading I had experienced a sense of “exhilaration”, in spite of what Tariq Ali had described as its “streak of pessimism and nihilism”. It seemed to me that that the exuberance and invention of Rushdie’s writing were driven by “anger, fury and a sense of outrage”. Twenty years after Midnight’s Children, Rushdie was to write a novel with the title Fury in which, again, anger was very much a driving force, but this time the mood was quite different. Something had changed.
It seems to me that the difference lies in the fact that the target of the rage in Midnight Children is quite clear: it is the repeated and continuing failure to make the best use of the possibilities that had been opened up by Indian independence a little more than 30 years earlier. In Fury, the rage is more diffuse and generalized, less keenly directed at an sharply defined target. The novel’s protagonist, Professor Malik Solanka, is in the grip of a
… melancholy, his usual secret sadness, which he sublimated into the public sphere. Something was amiss with the world. (p. 7)
Professor Solanka is an angry man. He came to New York from London, abruptly and without explanation, after he’d found himself standing over the bed in which his wife and three-year-old son were sleeping, holding a carving knife. He concludes that the only way he can protect his son is by going and staying away. Of course, he can’t give anyone a good reason why he has suddenly migrated, so has no defence to offer against accusations of heartlessness and caprice.
In New York, he drinks heavily and loses consciousness, and is disturbed to learn that his blackouts coincide with the murders of three wealthy young women, whose skulls are bashed in with lumps of concrete. He learns later that the victims are then scalped. It is reported that a man in a Panama hat has been seen near the crime scenes. Could he be responsible?
He is asked to leave a Viennese-style coffeehouse for swearing loudly and using obscene terms, something of which he was quite unaware. He meets an Urdu-speaking cabbie who seems to suffer from the same condition, who assurs him that “I am not aware” (p. 66) of the stream of imprecations he utters as he drives through the city. Anger is everywhere.
Solanka had been a professor of the history of ideas in Cambridge in the early 1980s but had become disillusioned with academic life and instead begun to make popularizing television programmes about philosophy and philosophers, featuring dolls made by himself. The interviewer doll, Little Brain, became particularly popular and got her own show, which forgot about her questioning of philosophers and focused instead on her “lifestyle”. As a result, Solanka accidentally became very rich, but at the cost of his equanimity, such as it was.
It has already been undermined by his time at Cambridge in the late 1970s:
This was the period in which the two great industries of the future were being born. The industry of culture would in the coming decades replace that of ideology, becoming “primary” in the way that economics used to be, and spawn a whole new nomenklatura of cultural commissars, a new breed of apparatchiks engaged in great ministries of definition, exclusion, revision and persecution, and a dialectic based on the new dualism of defence and offence. And if culture was the world’s new secularism, then its new religion was fame, and the industry — or, better, the church — of celebrity would give meaningful work to a new ecclesia, a proselytizing mission designed to conquer this new frontier, building its glitzy celluloid vehicles and its cathode-ray rockets, developing new fuels out of gossip, flying the Chosen One to the stars. And to fulfil the darker requirements of the new faith, there were occasional human sacrifices and steep, wing-burning falls. (p. 24)
As a former historian of ideas and then the creator of a popular media figure, Solanka has unintentionally moved from the old secular belief system (ideology) to the new religion (celebrity). He has displaced himself. Some of the terminology in this paragraph — nomenklatura, commissars, apparatchiks — inescapably recalls the old Soviet Union and Kremlinology, suggesting that as a result of the shift from ideology/economics to culture, the “enemy” is no longer over there but has come in from the cold war. The only marxists that need concern us these days are “cultural” marxists. But, though this is certainly what Solanka believes, it seems to me that the ending of the novel suggests something different.
Before we get to that, I think it’s worth pointing out that we eventually learn that there is indeed a tangible, identifiable and clear cause of the professor’s anger. Not everything that is eating at him can or should be “sublimated into the public sphere”. He hints at this in railing at the idea that our stories are what constitute us:
It was precisely his back-story that he wanted to destroy. Never mind where he came from or who, when little Malik could barely walk, had deserted his mother and so given him permission, years later, to do the same. To the devil with stepfathers and pushes on the top of a young boy’s head and dressing up and weak mothers and guilty Desdemonas and the whole useless baggage of blood and tribe. He had come to America as so many before him to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over. (p. 51)
Of course, as we eventually discover, this wasn’t his only reason for coming to America. Like his anger, his migration could be said to be overdetermined: it has more than one identifiable cause. Its origins lie partly in “the public sphere” and partly in his family circumstances and the city of his birth, which he doesn’t want to talk about.
His anger doesn’t prevent Professor Solanka from falling in love, with the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, or can imagine. She is Neela Mahendra, from Lilliput-Blefuscu, a “double-speck in the remote South Pacific” (p. 156). She is the descendant of indentured labourers who had gone to work there in the nineteenth century, from India. Now, four generations later, there’s conflict between the country’s two communities.
Even though the Indo-Lilliputians on Blefuscu now did all the farming, were responsible for most of the country’s exports, and therefore earned most of the foreign exchange, even though they had prospered and cared for their own, building their own schools and hospitals, still the land on which all this stood was owned by the “indigenous” Ellbees. (pp. 157–8)
Both communities were afraid, with reason, of what the other might do.
The Ellbees feared a coup — a revolutionary land grab by the Indo-Lillys, to whom the Ellbee constitution still denied the right to own real estate on either island; the Big Endians, for their part feared the same thing in reverse. They were afraid that when their hundred-year leases expired in the course of the coming decade, the Ellbees would simply take back the now valuable farmland for themselves, leaving the Indians, who had developed it, with nothing. (p. 158)
Though Neela is naturally on the side of her own people, she concedes that the indigenous population have a case. They are collectivists, whose land is held by chiefs in trust for the whole people. The Indo-Lilliputians are more in tune with modern capitalism:
And the world speaks our language now, not theirs. … We are mathematics and they are poetry. We are winning and they are losing; and so of course they are afraid of us, it’s like the struggle inside human nature itself, between what’s mechanical and utilitarian in us and the part that loves and dreams. … So the battle between the Indo-Lillys and the Ellbees is also the battle for the human spirit and, damn it, with my heart I’m probably on the other side. But my people are my people and justice is justice and after you’ve worked your butts off for four generations and you’re still treated like second-class citizens, you’ve got a right to be angry. If it comes to it, I’ll go back. I’ll fight alongside them if I have to, shoulder to shoulder. (p. 158; ellipses added)
It does indeed come to it and she indeed goes back to fight. I’m not going to tell you how the story ends, not because I’m keen to avoid spoilers but rather because the ending — which is powerful — isn’t directly relevant to my point, which is this: if the conflict in Lilliput-Blefuscu was a cultural one, between collectivist, community-minded poets and industrious, numerate producers, it was also (and perhaps “primarily”) both economic and ideological. So, maybe the changes that Professor Solanka had perceived were more superficial than he realized.
Fury was unfavourably reviewed by the prominent critic James Wood, who wrote that Rushdie:
… is incapable of writing realistically — and thus oddly confirms the prestige of realism, confirms its difficulty, its hard challenge, its true rigour.
It needs to be said again and again, since Rushdie’s style of exuberance has been so influential, that such vividness is not vivacious, that in fact it encodes a fear of true vivacity, a kind of awkwardness or embarrassment in the face of the lifelike. (James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: On laughter and the novel, p. 216)
It seems clear that Wood is here writing about realism as a style. Since I first heard the term “magic realism” applied to Midnight’s Children many years ago, I have assumed that it refers to a realism not of style but of substance. Rushdie has never been a realistic stylist. But most of his earlier novels — ironically, the one under discussion may be an exception — are “realist” in the sense that they describe actual historical events: things that really happened.
So, Midnight’s Children covers the Amritsar massacre, the partition of India, a coup in Pakistan, the war between India and Pakistan, the breaking away of Bangladesh from Pakistan, Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency and her son’s sterilisation programme. Shame features the conflict between Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and General Zia-ul-Haq, The Satanic Verses deals, at least in part, with London during the Thatcher government, and The Moor’s Last Sigh with the rise of Hindu nationalism in Bombay.
But these books don’t describe the real events realistically in stylistic terms. They use a variety of heightened techniques, in particular literalized metaphor. Pepperpots plotting coups. In doing so, they bring it home to us that a realist style is no guarantee of the truth of the story being told, but may be used to make a fabrication seem more plausible. (That’s not an attack on stylistic realism, of course: in a work of fiction, making a fabrication seem plausible is likely to be exactly what one wants.)
I had intended in this issue of the newsletter to write about two novels from what I think of as Rushdie’s middle period — though it’s hard to know whether it’s really his middle period while he’s still writing. The other one was The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). But both books proved to be slower rereads than I expected, and The Ground turned out to be more complex and substantial than I remembered. If I’m to do it something approaching justice, it will have to wait for another occasion. I now think I’m going to write something longer about Rushdie’s fiction: a long essay or monograph, perhaps even a short book. We’ll see.
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