Magic realism is usually thought of as a Third World genre, appropriate to a place where the supernatural is still taken seriously, where fable and folk tale still flourish and where fantasy can provide some pleasurable relief from a harsh social reality. But the genre is equally at home in a West for which fantasy is a major industry, where reality – or what tattered remnants of it we have left – seems endlessly pliable, where fact is shot through with fiction and where, for technology or consumerist ideology, all things seem equally possible. The comma between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Salman Rushdie’s title thus forms a bridge as well as marking a gap, as we move within the book – itself divided into three sections (‘East’, ‘West’ and ‘East, West’) – from an Eastern to a Western way of dividing up the real.
The former kind of freakishness crops up, among other places, in the story ‘The Prophet’s Hair’. In the thick of a botched attempt to steal back a hair of the prophet Muhammad which he has purloined, the obsessive collector Hashim runs his own daughter through with a sword, turns the weapon remorsefully on himself and consequently drives his wife into the lunatic asylum. All of this takes place in the space of a brief paragraph, couched in a cunningly clichéd prose which struggles hard to muster some appropriate emotion but can’t quite rise to it. The narrational machine then perfunctorily churns out a happy ending – Hashim’s four sons, whose legs were smashed at birth by their father, recover their strength on his death – but just as perfunctorily withdraws it: the sons can now no longer scrape a living by beggary and are understandably furious. The tale is crammed with scrupulously contrived, eminently consumable beauties which give off something of the eternal mystery of the East: ‘At dawn the next morning a flower-vendor was rowing his boat through water to which the cold of the night had given the cloudy consistency of wild honey when he saw the prone form of young Atta, who was just beginning to stir and moan, and on whose now deathly pale skin the sheen of wealth could still be made out dimly beneath an actual frost.’ It is wonderfully poetic stuff, just the kind of thing we expect from fables of the Orient, and testimony to the bottomless mischicvousness of its author. The narrator adds the odd, slightly maladroit touch – ‘the newborn goblins of nostalgia’ – to reassure us that he isn’t quite English, and waxes a little purplish at times as colonials do; but the starkness of the human drama shows through, if only the narrator could summon the least bit of interest in it.
The magic realism of the West can be found in the marketplace, where, as with the barefaced transgressions of plausibility that mark ‘The Prophet’s Hair’, anything at all can happen. The most breathtaking performance in the collection is entitled ‘At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers’, in which Rushdie shifts registers for a pick ‘n’ mix prose powered by a frenetic Pynchon-like energy. The compulsive cataloguing of the story, for all the world like a marketplace, allows anything to be exchanged for anything else and one piece of grotesquerie to spawn another in a process as endless as consumption itself. The style, as befits a hard-headed, hallucinatory society, is both extravagant and buttoned-down, frenzied and technologised: ‘teams of psychiatrists of varying disciplines have been installed in strategically located neo-Gothic confessional booths, to counsel the sick at heart.’ This permeation of the real world by the fictional is a symptom of the moral decay of our post-millennial times. Not my words, in fact, but the story’s, which with the streetwise self-reflexiveness of Post-Modernism anticipates, and so disarms, its own critique. At one point the narrator protests that ‘a large majority of us opposes the free, unrestricted migration of imaginary beings into an already impoverished reality,’ which neatly double-binds the reader: reality is impoverished, but the grim allusion to immigration controls is enough to disqualify the comment and leave us without a position.
‘At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers’ contains the ghost of a love story, but there can be no real narrative in this world, since the time of the commodity is the time of eternal recurrence. There can be narratives of a sort in the East, but these are crafty parodies of story-telling, as in ‘The Prophet’s Hair’, fables as exotically packaged as products in the auction room, or tales so lean and dwindled that they have space only for a single totemic object. ‘Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies’, a title whose traditionalist tag sets it at the opposite pole from the Post-Modern ruby slippers, revolves round a Pakistani official’s dealings with a young woman in search of a British passport, while ‘The Free Radio’ concerns a youth’s hopes for a government ‘gift’ in return for being sterilised. Both stories are spare, attenuated, in contrast to the dreams of their protagonists. If the West is obscenely replete with objects, what matters in the East is their absence, as both passport and free radio fail to materialise. The young woman achieves happiness by abandoning her fantasy and returning to Lahore, while the young man simply perpetuates his illusions in a different style. Like a writer of fiction, he conjures presence out of absence, reality out of lack, clasping an imaginary radio to his ear in what is at once an ‘act of magnificent faith’ and the pathetic self-deception of the dispossessed. Fiction is double-edged, at once cheap con trick and courageous self-creation, an evasion of reality and a transcendence of it. The fetish, according to Freud, is what stands in for some intolerable lack, and these stories are awash with fetishes. But you can fashion an identity of sorts around a reified bit of the real, invest it, like a hair or a passport or a radio, with fantasies in which a real desire can find obscure expression. Indeed as pieces of writing these stories are themselves fetishes, signs which operate only in the absence of their referents.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the other great success of the collection, ‘Yorick’, is a piece of scintillating textual trickery, a parody of a parodist (Laurence Sterne), who in Tristram Shandy solemnly denounces plagiarism in a passage we know to be plagiarised. If the language of the ‘East’ is pared and pragmatic, the West is positively glutted with discourse, which is another obstacle to narrativity. Like Tristram Shandy, ‘Yorick’ is so fussily digressive, so pedantically self-interrupting, that it can hardly get off the ground. Like the world of the auction room it works more by inventory than by plot, so narcissistically enraptured by its own signifiers (‘to explicate, annotate, hyphenate, palatinate & permanganate’) that it threatens to swamp its own storyline. When a plot finally struggles to light, it is a scabrous send-up of Hamlet, a play in which, as in this collection, there is either too little action or an excess of it.
‘Yorick’ is an iconoclastic misreading of a Western classic by a post-colonial – Sterne, too, reared in colonial Ireland, played havoc with English narrative forms. But textual violence can issue in the real thing: in ‘The Courter’, whose very title is a mistake for ‘porter’, an Indian character who innocently inquires of a broad-bosomed pharmacist whether she has any nipples, meaning teats, gets a poke in the face. And a more sinister racial violence is to follow. The story belongs to the ‘East, West’ section of the volume, in which Rushdie’s range of ventriloquised narrative voices now modulates into a tone very like his own. The voice of a couple of the ‘East’ stories hovers between written and spoken, between anonymous Standard English narration and the inflections of an Indian or Pakistani man in the street. The latter would not be likely to say, ‘The bus was brightly painted in multicoloured arabesques,’ whereas the former would not say of a rickshaw-puller’s takings that ‘two mouthfuls are better to eat than wind.’ It is a tension between the oral and the writerly relevant to Sterne, whose rampantly logocentric texts struggle to convert the impersonality of print into the medium of a living voice. The ‘East, West’ section for the most part irons out these indeterminacies, though the jaunty register of ‘The Courter’ is that of an adolescent adrift between two phases of life as well as two hemispheres.
It is only in ‘The Harmony of the Spheres’, an account of his earlier years in England, that the narrator’s voice entirely stabilises, in what one might then take to be the linguistic equivalent of the cultural fusion suggested by the title. Unless, that is, one has actually read the story, which concerns the narrator’s friendship with the writer Eliot Crane, occultist, demonologist and Orientalist. It is Crane the Englishman who initiates the Indian narrator into Eastern spirituality, and will finally, as a paranoid schizophrenic, blow his own brains out with a rifle. The passport of ‘Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies’ was a fetish which secured you admission to the West, but Oriental wisdom – one of the West’s modes of access to the East – is among the deadliest fetishes of all. If the two hemispheres can meet, it is not in fusion or harmony but in that creative impasse or undecidability which is known to the rhetoricians as ‘aporia’, and with which Rushdie himself signs off this book: ‘I choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose.’