Let’s get the hell out of here
- The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Viking, 547 pp, £12.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 670 82537 9
- The Lost Father by Marina Warner
Chatto, 277 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3220 5
- Nice Work by David Lodge
Secker, 277 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 436 25667 3
Here, in these three novels, are three representations of the state of the art. In The Satanic Verses the narrator, who may or may not be the Devil, confides that ‘what follows is tragedy.– Or, at least, the echo of tragedy, the full-blooded original being un-available to modern men and women, so it’s said.– A burlesque for our degraded, imitative times.’ The Lost Fattier recounts a domestic tragedy which, in the end, is knowingly undermined by a narrator who recognises that the story she has reconstructed is only a ‘family romance’, an operetta played out on her own toy stage. And David Lodge’s heroine complains that she is ‘getting dragged into a classic realist text, full of causality and morality. How can I get out of it?’ Trust the contemporary novelist for that, we might think – though, for Lodge’s characters, it’s a close shave.
For all the show of fantasy, pastiche and burlesque, these are also long novels, with an amplitude which cannot dispense with the realistic description of everyday events. Marina Warner is best at it. The art of close shaving, for instance, can never have been more vividly and minutely set down than in her narrator’s depiction of her grandfather (whom the narrator has never seen) handling a cut-throat razor. David Lodge’s evocations of life in the Midlands are far more depressed, and less emphatically visual. Driving around the city of Rummidge his heroine passes ‘launderettes, hairdressers, betting shops, Sketchleys, Motaparts, Currys, a Post Office, a DIY Centre, a Denture Centre, an Exhaust Centre. An exhaustion centre is what she will soon be in need of.’ Or a verbal decoke, perhaps? Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, is far too impetuous and fantastical to have written a sentence like that. He, too, goes in for lists, but they are to Lodge’s as a magic spell is to the local business directory.
Rushdie’s prose, by design and also (I suspect) by accident, tends to impede realistic recognition. His favourite mode is caricature. Here, a new character, Rosa Diamond, is introduced:
I know what a ghost is, the old woman affirmed silently. Her name was Rosa Diamond; she was 88 years old; and she was squinting beakily through her salt-caked bedroom windows, watching the full moon’s sea. And I know what it isn’t, too, she nodded further, it isn’t a scarification or a flapping sheet, so pooh and pish to all that bunkum. What’s a ghost? Unfinished business, is what.
Without pausing over ‘beakily’ or the Masefieldian ‘salt-caked’, we can say that ‘scarification’ is a malapropism, and it is Rushdie’s and not Rosa’s, as we learn from other passages in the novel. Poor Rosa’s idiom is idiosyncratic indeed if she gets ‘pooh’, ‘pish’ and ‘bunkum’ all into one sentence. Her notion that a ghost is unfinished business will be repeated almost verbatim by one of Rushdie’s twin protagonists some hundreds of pages later: he, however, cannot have been privy to Rosa’s thoughts. The other protagonist, the Indian film-star Gibrecl Farishta, finds on a visit to Ivondon that ‘fictions were walking around wherever he went ... fictions masquerading as real human beings.’ In Rushdie’s novels they aren’t difficult to spot.
This hardly matters, I agree, since his novels have a Diekensian expansiveness and a driving narrative energy. Rushdie may produce baggy monsters, but he is one of the very few current writers whose works are attempts at the greater Bible, the ‘bright book of life’. He tends to use a loosely Biblical structure, beginning with a Creation and a Fall and a miraculous birth – in Midnight’s Children (1981) the build-up is so tremendous that the hero’s birth does not happen until page 116 – and leading towards some kind of apocalypse: the last section of Shame (1983) is entitled ‘Judgment Day’. Rushdie’s fictive repertoire has mostly been based on the archetypal male figures of the wanderer and the storyteller, and the women who surround them. The storyteller, obviously enough, is a surrogate for the author himself: in Midnight’s Children, for example, he appears as a bumbling, mock heroic first-person narrator. The wanderer is a more grandiose but equally self-projective figure.
In Rushdie’s first novel, the ungainly Grimus (1975), the themes were there but they had not yet found an adequate vehicle. The hero, Flapping Eagle (get it?), is an Axona Indian exiled from the language and the ways of his ancestors. He falls through a ‘gate’ in space, landing on Thera, a satellite of the Star Nus in the Gorf Nirveesu. Here he is found washed up on the shore and is escorted on his subsequent journey by one Virgil Jones. Much else in this tedious fantasy seems to have been composed by the anagrammatic method or with the help of a mythological dictionary: the title Grimus, for example, alludes to the Sufi legend of the Simurg. Rushdie’s reputation was made with Midnight’s Children and Shame, which combined fantasy and fairy-tale with social satire and political allegory. Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children is, like Flapping Eagle, gifted with miraculous powers; Flapping Eagle is an orphan, Saleem is a changeling, and Omar Khayyam Shakil in Shame has not one but three mothers. These protagonists all become exiles and wanderers, and The Satanic Verses reminds us that the archetypal wanderer is the Devil. But the wanderer is also the storyteller, or so the narrator of Shame insists: ‘I too, like all migrants, am a fantasist. I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the ones that exist.’