Let’s get the hell out of here

Patrick Parrinder

  • 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 unavailable to modern men and women, so it’s said.– A burlesque for our degraded, imitative times.’ The Lost Father 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.’

The wanderer-storyteller has invariably suffered a Fall. Like the Fall into the Quotidian which caused Saul Bellow’s Herzog so much merriment, we may, if we wish, think of this as an event in the spiritual and political history of our century. Thus in Midnight’s Children and Shame the Fall is the shock of independence, the birth of the new nations of India and Pakistan. In The Satanic Verses it is a more general disruption. ‘Information got abolished sometime in the 20th-century ... Since then we’ve been living in a fairy-story’ – or so one of Rushdie’s characters tells us. This hits off the carnivalesque note of these novels, but it does not mean that their author has failed to honour the poet’s obligation, as stated in The Satanic Verses by the satirist Baal, to ‘name the unnamable, to point out frauds, to take sides, to start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep’. The method of Midnight’s Children and Shame may be fabulous rather than informative, but where it matters these novels are unflinchingly political. In The Satanic Verses Rushdie turns from the political development of India and Pakistan to the immigrant Asian communities in Britain, and, above all, to the global resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism.

The title refers to a much-disputed incident in the life of the Prophet. Mohammed used to meet and converse with the angel Gabriel on a mountain near Mecca, and the verses of the Koran were dictated to him on these occasions. But one day, as a ninth-century historian tells us, while Mohammed was negotiating with the rulers of Mecca, the Devil ‘threw upon his tongue’ verses conceding semi-divine status to three local pagan deities. Later Gabriel showed the Prophet his mistake, and the verses were changed to those that now appear in the scriptures. To Western scholars this account shows Mohammed making, and hurriedly correcting, a political blunder. But it also raises puzzling questions about the status of creative and prophetic inspiration, and of those near – neighbours to inspiration-improvisation and what we call forgery. From the standpoint of the faithful the Satanic verses are apocryphal and hence forged, but of course the majority of Western translations of the Islamic scriptures argue that the Koran as a whole is a forgery.

Gibreel Farishta in The Satanic Verses is a film-actor specialising in the popular Indian genre movies known as ‘theologicals’. In the beginning he and another actor; Saladin Chamcha, fall together from a hijacked airliner which has been blown up over the English Channel at 29,000 feet. The Air India plane was named the Boston, after one of the two gardens of paradise. Gibreel, by flapping his arms (compare Flapping Eagle), is able to slow down their descent so that they fall safely to earth, where they are miraculously ‘born again’, an angel and a devil respectively. The angel Gibreel spends much of his time dreaming, though in his waking life he begins to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. His dreams are the source of several of Rushdie’s multiply-embedded narratives, and in one of these, set in the Arabian city of Jahilia, the prophet Mahound comes to Gibreel for advice and then, in his next public appearance, speaks the Satanic verses. It is Gibreel this time who admits to a mistake, and who later corrects the prophet.

If Farishta now sports an undeserved halo, Saladin Chamcha sprouts cloven hoofs and a pair of horns. Once they have landed on the Sussex coast Gibreel treacherously disowns his companion, leaving him in the hands of the police, who promptly beat him up. Formerly a well-known London character-actor – he was the source of the outlandish voices on the TV Aliens Show, and in advertisements featuring talking crisp-packets and baked-bean cans-Saladin is now a suspected illegal immigrant and a virtual outlaw. Thrown out by his wife, he goes to ground in Brickhall, an Asian district of Inner London. Here racial tension mounts, as Saladin becomes a cull-hero while awaiting his opportunity for revenge on Gibreel. The two meet at last at a wild party in Shepperton Studios, on the set of Our Mutual Friend; soon after this Gibreel, further maddened by a spate of anonymous phone calls reflecting Saladin’s gifts of tongues and voices, brings rioting and melodrama to the streets of Brickhall. Gibreel is now transformed into Azraeel, the fire-breathing Islamic angel of death. The multiple film-within-a-film effect is typical of Rushdie, whose whole novel could be regarded as a species of ‘theological’. And there is more, much more, as (once again) he digs deep into the mythographical bran-tub. The story of Othello, Aladdin and his lamp, the Battle of Hastings, Beauty and the Beast, and the legends of Everest (29,000 feet and all that), all play a part. Fortunately, the limpidity of Rushdie’s interpolated tales provides a crucial relief from the pandemonium of his main narrative.

In Shame, his most tightly-controlled and perhaps his best novel to date, the burgeoning multiple folk-tale plot was harnessed to a transparently allegorical account of Pakistan’s political history. It was as if the Decameron or Arabian Nights had been yoked with the Sub-Continental equivalent of Animal Farm. Shame tells of the overthrow and execution of the former playboy and democratically-elected prime minister, Iskander Harappa, leaving his tough and beautiful daughter, the ‘Virgin Ironpants’, to become his political heir. Harappa is succeeded by his former army commander General ‘Razor Guts’ Hyder, a tyrant who undergoes a richly Dickensian process of moral disintegration through guilt before succumbing in his turn to a bloodthirsty, fairy-tale vengeance. How ironic that the real-life General Zia, like Gibreel and Saladin but not like his counterpart in Shame, was to come to grief in a midair explosion.

In Shame Rushdie uses the novelist’s privilege to exaggerate the dynastic nature of Pakistani politics. Almost everyone is related by birth or marriage to everyone else, and the novel begins with a genealogical table. Equally, the author is able to disclose the ‘real’ manner of Isky Harappa’s death (the judicial hanging was solely for public consumption), and to predict his rival’s downfall. The Satanic Verses looks, rather, at ‘Mrs Torture’s’ England, endowing London with police violence, race-riots and (stretching credulity) with a tropical summer. The narrator’s disclosures include the inside story of some brutal murders and the last fatal moments of a hijacking, but his most daring revelations are the theological ones.

Gibreel’s dreams, in particular, ‘name the unnamable’ by portraying a bloodthirsty Imam’s seizure of power, the tale of a pilgrimage of Indian villagers who end up drowning in the Arabian Sea, and some ungodly goings-on in Jahilia, the fictive equivalent of Mecca. As Mahound and his followers return from their flight to Yathrib to take over the city, we see two writers – the satirist Baal and his own Persian scribe Salman – becoming the prophet’s mortal enemies. (Meanwhile, the inmates of the local brothel cheekily impersonate the prophet’s 12 wives.) Salman finally admits to having changed the wording of some of Mahound’s revelations, but saves his own skin by betraying Baal. Is there any way of escaping this fundamentalist universe – the universe as dreamed by Gibreel – or is a little verbal tinkering the best that can be done? Saladin Chamcha finally leaves behind his demonic powers, going off with a woman whose last words are ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ Another woman, Gibreel’s ex-lover Alleluia Cone, has turned herself into an intrepid mountaineer and Everest-explorer in order, as she hopes, to rise above good and evil: but she fails, so far as we can tell, since Gibreel in the end sends her prematurely to paradise. In a reversal of the story of Paradise Lost, it is Gibreel who gradually degenerates into a bringer of death, while Saladin finds some sort of redemption: but this, after all, is the Devil’s version. It is all damnably entertaining, and fiendishly ingenious.

Rushdie wrote in Shame that ‘every story one chooses to tell is a kind of censorship, it prevents the telling of other tales.’ His own profuse and multiply-branching fictions do not give the impression that anything has been prevented from being told. Marina Warner’s narrator in The Lost Father is more painfully aware of the difficulty, and the advisability, of choosing and sticking to one story. When she sets out to break the silences and suppressions surrounding her grandfather’s life she does not realise, it seems, that to break the silence is also to multiply silences. Some of these emerge from the family history, some are her own, and some inhere in the relationship between character and author. The title has its own sort of silence, since Warner makes no explicit allusions to anthropology, Finnegans Wake or psychoanalysis, nor does she expound a thesis on 20th-century patriarchal decline, though doubtless she could do any of these things if she chose. The autobiographical basis of her novel, which is variously hinted at, is another area of silence. And what – coming from Salman Rushdie’s fiction, where some of the names are anagrammatic and all have signifying properties – are we to make of a narrator called Anna Collouthar, museum curator and (presumably collusive?) author?

At the museum of Albion, Anna is charged with collecting ephemera. She has written about her grandfather in an unfinished novel called ‘The Duel’, but then her reconstruction of his life is apparently undermined by a newspaper cutting, preserved by one of her American cousins. The grandfather grew up in Ninfania, an Adriatic province of southern Italy, in the early years of the century. The territory was fought over in the Second World War, and Anna’s own father is a shadowy Eighth Army officer described only as ‘plump and clumsy and mostly bald’. It is her grandfather’s life which appeals to her imagination, a life which she considers ‘lost’ because she is so anxious to recover it.

Is authentic recovery possible, however? This is the doubt which shadows ‘The Duel’, a marvellously vivid and lucid narrative which may, for all that, be no more than an animated diorama, an expression of the present-day ‘heritage-culture’ to which Anna owes her (precarious) livelihood. If the Ephemera Collection is to survive it will need sponsorship from the owners of Fun City, the world-famous Californian theme-park. ‘The Duel’, like-wise, needs the revision and authentication which might come from the memories of Anna’s Californian relatives. But do they share Anna’s concern for the family history, her all-too-British obsession with hoarding ephemera? Wisely, if teasingly, Marina Warner lets us read ‘The Duel’ before her heroine sets out.

In ancient times Ninfania was a province of Greece, and Anna’s family, the Pittagoras, claim descent from Pythagoras. This is at least as plausible, it would seem, as the rest of the family legend. However, there is a diary left behind by Davide Pittagora, describing his voyage to America with wife and child on an emigrant ship, and his miserable years in New York. He returned to Italy in the Twenties, lived through the early years of Fascist rule, and died in 1931, supposedly of the cumulative effects of lead poisoning from a bullet-wound sustained shortly before he decided to go to America. Anna’s mother has always believed that he was wounded in a duel, after overhearing his best friend, Tommaso Talvi, insulting the honour of one (or was it more than one?) of the Pittagora sisters. Tommaso, a military cadet, had won the heart of the elder girl, who may or may not have fallen for his wiles; and he had then been indiscreet enough, or so Anna imagines, to compare the two sisters’ charms with those on sale in the back streets of Naples. Davide, of course, has no choice but to issue a challenge.

Honour and chivalry, the law of the mentita: these are the foundations on which Anna has constructed her (presumably lying) narrative, with its intensely romantic evocations of youth, sexual hunger and family relationships. Marina Warner is particularly good at evoking her characters’ dreams, adolescent fears and erotic imaginings, but of course Anna cannot know about these, she has had to invent them. One of the keys to her approach is Italian opera; the characters are constantly bursting into arias. Davide, a baritone, is made to reflect that ‘in opera a knave in disguise is quickly discovered, and is unambiguously a knave, nor is the matter of a song a lie from start to finish’ – how much better this is than in his own detested profession, the law! But Anna’s characters wear no disguises, and Davide’s antagonist in the duel is definitely a knave. Such is the family legend that Anna inherits, but her Californian cousins have access to different versions. We are left only with a series of unanswered questions.

The Lost Father is a subtle, lyrical novel, with the suggestion of an outrageous leg-pull about it. Though there is nothing Shandean about Warner’s approach, she is telling a cock-and-bull story of sorts (and an excellent one). At the end we realise that this could, perhaps should have been a political novel – the Davide possibly referred to in the long kept newspaper cutting is a socialist law student caught in a fight with a band of armed mercenaries – but Anna quite clearly prefers the glamorous and old-fashioned male world of ‘The Duel’ to a Ninfania torn apart by land struggles and class-conflict. This is the family romance which explains her father’s later decline, together with the eventual self-assertion of the bereaved sisters and daughters, who have created an immeasurably different life for themselves. Nevertheless, the present-day Pittagoras, whether in London or in Parnassus, California, are unflatteringly seen; theirs is anything but a heroic world. The Lost Father shows a compelling imagination at odds with a sceptical and troubled intelligence: but it also contains more humdrum matter, and some potentially useful digressions. If you have new shoes that are too tight, or a table-top bleached by a hot dish or the wet rim of a glass, you might want to try the Pittagora family’s remedies.

Marina Warner acknowledges the help of the Getty Centre in California, which is not known for its patronage of novelists. David Lodge, meanwhile, has been touring the Birmingham factories. Nice Work has epigraphs from Sybil, Hard Times, Felix Holt and North and South, and we are warned (in the words of Charlotte Brönte’s prelude to Shirley) to expect something as ‘unromantic as Monday morning’. It isn’t quite as dour as all that, but nor is it as blithe as Lodge’s earlier Rummidge novels, Changing Places and Small World. Philip Swallow, now a careworn Dean of the Faculty of Arts, has been grounded by the University cuts, and his wife has in any case put a stop to his conference-hopping. The role of young academic hopeful, or Principal Boy, is played not by susceptible Persse McGarrigle but by the down-to-earth Marxist-Feminist Robyn Penrose, who has come to Rummidge as a temporary lecturer, or what is quaintly known as Dean’s Relief. Robyn knows all about the semiotics of Silk Cut advertisements and the Lacanian significance of factory chimneys, and her Monday-morning lectures are devoted to deconstructive readings of the industrial novel. The time is January 1986-not only the period of teachers’ strikes and Westland but the beginning of ‘Industry Year’ – and unsuspecting Robyn is about to be given her first-ever glimpse of the inside of a factory.

This is nothing if not a balanced performance, balanced, for example, between an appropriate moral earnestness and wicked pastiche. Lodge’s outbreaks of clowning and slabs of social history are woven together with argumentative dialogues between Robyn Penrose and her friends and Vic Wilcox, the managing director of an engineering firm. His name isn’t Wilcox for nothing, since somewhere along the line we shall meet a girl wearing a tee-shirt with the motto ‘Only Connect’: but Lodge’s principal model is not Howards End, still less Hard Times, but Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Robyn and Vic, the Naive but Socially-Conscious Heroine and the Rough-Edged Manufacturer, are brought together by the unlikely device of Industry Year, which decrees that Robyn shall spend one day a week at Pringle’s engineering works, acting as Wilcox’s ‘shadow’.

The conventions of this kind of novel require that Pringle’s shall be represented as a Hell on Earth, an end Lodge achieves by the simple expedient of a guided tour of the foundry. Robyn then has to intervene in this Hell, an Angel of Mercy giving succour to its inmates. She does this on two occasions, first saving an Asian worker from unjust dismissal – though at the cost of bringing the whole plant out on strike – and, secondly, preventing Vic from becoming a laughing-stock when his address to the workers about the state of the firm is about to be disrupted by a Kissogram girl. (It would seem that the office wag, not ‘Chartist agitators’, is the real threat to enterprising management in the Eighties.) A process of mutual education, both sentimental and economic, between manufacturer and heroine must then take place. Robyn would like to know what a foundry is, why Pringle’s uses Asians and West Indians for its dirtiest and heaviest tasks, and why Vic Wilcox has such a vulgarly competitive, Thatcherite outlook – and she gets her answers. Vic, in turn, wonders why universities are so pampered and so badly managed, and why the line about the ‘grooves of change’ in ‘Locksley Hall’ is part of Eng Lit, since Tennyson obviously didn’t know the difference between a train and a tram. And so it goes on. Robyn gets one not able change made at Pringle’s works, with the banning of pornographic calendars from the premises. Vic (who up to now has been a family man) learns a variation or two on the missionary position.

This might sound an unpromising fable for the times, but Nice Work is not only highly lisible, as Robyn would say, but tactfully and wittily managed. Believing that she is playing devil’s advocate, Robyn finds herself repeating Vic’s Daily Mail-style arguments to her academic colleagues, and not least to Charles, her unsatisfactory lover. Charles, a fellow de-constructionist, promptly takes the hint and abandons academic life (and Robyn too), to take up merchant banking. If intellectual life, like buying and selling, is only a game, then why not play it for serious money? Academics and bond-brokers are both to be judged, however, in the light of Wilcox’s conviction that ‘There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch’ to give its original form to a literary quotation which neither Robyn nor any other Rummidge English lecturer seems able to place. Since David Lodge doubtless has more readers among academics than among industrial managers, he himself is playing devil’s advocate in all this, and clearly enjoying it. Robyn and Vic, we realise in the end, are well-disguised personifications of old fashioned virtues – the Good Teacher and the Samuel Smiles hero – and better people than they at first seemed. Nice Work too, in an old-fashioned way, is just what it says it is.

There is one further convention of the industrial novel, which Robyn conveniently expounds in her lecture on the topic: the ending is not a solution (political or otherwise) but a transparent cop-out. Just when the reader has given up hope, our old friend Morris Zapp arrives, brandishing a semiotically – coded zeppelin-sized cigar, and dripping book contracts and job offers. Will Robyn leave her temporary lectureship to become the resident Marxist-Feminist at Euphoria State, or will Philip Swallow, half-dead by a thousand cuts as a result of his deanship, put together a counter-offer? And what happens to the now lovelorn Vic Wilcox, who is left stranded when the company he has ruthlessly pulled out of the red is wiped out by a corporate merger? Perhaps, after all, the industrial novel is not quite so unromantic as it is cracked up to be? David Lodge ends the proceedings with a delicious cop-out, but I won’t spoil the reader’s fun except to say that in January 1986 Philip Swallow was fast going deaf, while six months later he has acquired a hearing-aid.