(This article was first published on 14.09.17. It is being republished today to mark his 72nd birth anniversary.)
“There is no muse of cinema, nor of fiction, neither,” laments René, the narrator in Salman Rushdie’s latest, The Golden House. Rushdie chooses to become that muse. Leaving the safe harbours of his trusted magic realism, he rides the wave of realism atop the magical board of the celluloid. The story of the Golden family and their house in New York’s Greenwich Village is a film in the making, with all its joys, epiphanies and frustrations slipping in and out of the consciousness of the film-maker narrator. Since he is Rushdie’s narrator, brace yourself for a bombardment of references that emerge out of, and go far beyond, the world of cinema. The first twenty pages carefully prepare the reader for this.
An immensely wealthy and ageing man moves from Mumbai just after the 26/11 terror attacks to New York, where he hopes to soon shift his enterprise to “the new tower built in the place of tragedy”. Two world cities pock-marked by global terror, with a seething underbelly of domestic crimes. As the novel progresses, the reader realises that the Golden house has at its foundation all the grime and crime of the Mumbai underworld.
Rushdie and his René give us a novelistic sequel to Slavoj Žižek and Sophie Fiennes’s 2006 documentary ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.’ Inverting the culture critic’s approach of reading life in films, Rushdie’s narrator sees films and characters in life.
The enigmatic Golden family – the patriarch Nero Golden and his three sons – in their palatial “benami house” is a perfect set for René, the filmmaker. He sees The Godfather, Monsoon Wedding, The Deer Hunter, Kill Bill and Chen Kwaige’s Yellow Earth at the only wedding in the Golden house and “Maurice Ronet in Louis Malle’s Le feu follet” at one of the several deaths.
He sees everyone from Ornella Muti, Faye Dunaway, Monica Vitti, Emanuelle Beart to Godard’s Seberg, Karina and Bardot in Nero’s new wife, Mrs Vasilisa Golden. But this Russian gymnast is also an incarnation of the popular folklore witch Baba Yaga and, therefore, Lady Kaede – the Lady Macbeth figure of Kurosawa from Ran. Vasilisa, who defies any attempts to categorise her, impels René to shed his veneer of objectivity and turn on Hunter Thompson's ‘gonzo journalism’ mode with the Goldens. This new positioning, though creatively rewarding, is not comfortable for him.
“Maybe I needed someone to take the weight of my knowledge from me and put it in a safe and neutral space; a psychological sapper to diffuse the bomb of the truth”.Salman Rushdie, The Golden House
As he reads situations, writes his scenes, visualises frames, and imagines dialogues, he gets sucked into the intrigue and drama of the lives of the people he initially decided to treat merely as characters.
“The world outside the haunted house had begun to feel like a lie. Outside the house it was the Joker’s world, the world of what reality had begun to mean in America, which was to say, a kind of radical untruth: phoniness, garishness, bigotry, vulgarity, violence, paranoia, and looking down upon it all from his dark tower, a creature with white skin and green hair and bright, bright lips. Inside the Golden house, the subject was the fragility of life, the easy suddenness of death, and the slow fatal resurrection of the past.”
The Joker, as can be easily guessed, is the new American president whose ascension in the country’s politics has unleashed a “DC at war with DC” situation: the two DCs here are the capital city and the comic book/film creators of superheroes and supervillains. Joker, the supervillain, created by one DC – signifying the world of images – has become the bane of the other. The Batwoman claimed to challenge the Joker but she’s no match to his madness. Nero Golden’s past, that once meandered in the alleys of crime and cocktails in Bombay or Mumbai, resurrects itself amidst this socio-political scenario in “United States of Joker”.
There’s no whodunnit chase but the plot keeps gathering and shedding layers, as do the characters. Rushdie keeps changing the filters and lenses on the narrative camera. But before you assume that his 13th novel is a proxy for the visual medium, Rushdie reminds you that his preoccupation with language is firmly in place. René ruminates in the middle of the book, “How difficult language had become, how full of landmines. Good intentions were no longer a defence.” To language is attached identity and Rushdie goes on to show that both can be equally tentative, despite the etymologies and genealogies. The Joker, interestingly, has resuscitated the discourse on both.
And because it is Rushdie, a retired inspector from India gives us references from Ovid’s Metamorphosis; a homeless tramp is aware of Ted Talks and reminds the narrator of Klaus Kinski and Aguirri, the Wrath of God; the narrator himself is an encyclopaedia of cultural and literary references from the Greek antiquity to The Godfather and La La Land producing Hollywood.
René claims, “I am not an expert in the industry now known as Bollywood” and Rushdie dutifully misspells Ram Gopal Varma as Raj Gopal Varma.
Also, because it is Rushdie, instead of merely using the internet lingo or embedding social media formats, there’s an insightful exposition on sexist trolling:
“The problem is human, nature in general, male nature in particular, and the permission that anonymity gives people to unleash the worst sides of that nature. Me, I just make entertainment for the kids. I’m neutral space. I’m Switzerland. Nobody bothers me. They just come visit and ski down my slopes.”Salman Rushdie, The Golden House
Trust Rushdie to not stop at merely the Joker in his novel of the here-and-now. His lampoons extend to the liberals and the commies that spout profoundly vague aphorisms like “There is a particular kind of sadness that reveals a man’s alienation from his own identity.” Or, who are “more interested in the posture than the results. This language thing is a part of that. Excuse me: if you clean up the language too much you kill it.”
When one of his characters says, “Your tongue is in danger every time you open your mouth”, it is an indictment of both the clampdown on free speech and the growing insistence on political correctness.
Towards the end of the book René observes,
“America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain.”
Cut to the sack of dirty laundry from Mumbai left at the entrance of the Golden house before the ultimate catastrophe, and we have a testimony of the universality of evil. As Rene in his darkest moment of despair says, there can be “no plan except love” to deal with this. And love triumphs, like in a fine Shakespearean comedy.
When Rushdie moves to realism, he does not abandon magic altogether. In this book, the magic is in the intellectual detailing.