The Golden House: Salman Rushdie’s bark is still strong, but the bite less sharp

Its bloodied pages make The Golden House a work of mourning, of Greek tragedy and hubris

Updated - September 16, 2017 10:44 pm IST

Published - September 16, 2017 04:00 pm IST

One long ago summer, I remember Salman Rushdie appearing all of a sudden at a literature seminar in Cambridge, stepping unannounced out of a sleek black limo much like one of his own flamboyant characters. We gawped, of course, but we also seized the chance to question the maestro. I recall I asked why he stuck so tenaciously to a singular style in every novel — over the top, in your face and rambunctious but never down to earth, under your skin or realist. It was undeniable, I added, that he’d made this manner of writing uniquely his own.

Did it not, however, invite the criticism that his wondrous creations were all brilliant surface, that his coruscating descriptions seldom allowed readers access to the quiet interiors of a character’s mind? Rushdie responded by saying that he couldn’t fathom whether I was paying him a compliment or not. (I was, but that was not the point.)

The good life

He went on to confess with engaging honesty that he was like the dog in Saul Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December . He knew only one way to bark and his bark always delivered the same message: “For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!”

In The Golden House , Rushdie’s new novel, I think it would be fair to say that Rushdie’s bark is as loud and strong and recognisable as ever. His fiction still demands that magnificent epiphany, that histrionic aperture in a godless cosmos. But his bite? Is it still energised by the fanged desire to draw blood that caused Midnight’s Children to attract a libel suit in India, Shame to be banned in Pakistan , The Satanic Verses to call a fatwa down on its heretical author’s head? Not in my opinion.

What a thirteenth novel lacks in stylistic surprise, it can gain in the unsettling of psychological expectations. For all its literary bravado, the brilliance of its practised riffs, this latest Rushdie novel is not about attack or even showing off. It is a work of mourning: Greek tragedy, Greek threnody.

Speaking of which, Greek myth and Roman history laminate this novel all over with their dark gold: Jason and his Argonauts chasing the Golden Fleece, Apuleius’ story of metamorphosis in The Golden Ass , Roman Emperors, Furies, Muses, Hubris, Nemesis, the gods Dionysius and Pan, you will recognise each of them in these bloodied pages.

Troy and Rome, noble and noxious both at once, superimpose their images on present-day New York and Mumbai. And the meditations in the Ethics cast their spell as early as Chapter 2 where Rushdie, like Aristotle, asks that key philosophical question: “What is a good life?” and then appends this comment:

“In these our cowardly times, we deny the grandeur of the Universal, and assert and glorify our local Bigotries… In these our degenerate times, men bent on nothing but vainglory and personal gain — hollow, bombastic men for whom nothing is off-limits if it advances their petty cause — will claim to be great leaders and benefactors, acting in the common good…”

Definitely political

A novel that begins with Obama’s rise to power in 2008 (“walk[ing] hand in hand with his exceptional wife among the cheering crowds”) and ends with the current reign of Trump the ‘Joker’ (“his hair green and luminous with triumph, his skin white as a Klansman’s hood, his lips dripping anonymous blood”) is hardly a-political. We read in this passage, too, a sharp critique of authoritarian leadership in India and elsewhere.

The Golden House is replete with references to India as it stands today and as it reeled from the battles of its colonial past. Kipling? Find him on page 234. Aadhaar? Page 21. 2G Spectrum scam? Page 115.

Yet, it is the categories that Aristotle introduces in his work on tragedy, the Poetics , which we should heed. These are: plot, character, diction, style, song and spectacle . It cannot be doubted that Rushdie is in full command of the last four, especially if we change ‘diction’ to ‘addiction’ — a haunting sub-theme in this novel.

The fire sermon

Plot and character, the most crucial of Aristotle’s dramatic ingredients, though, are what render the book substantial. In brief: a rich businessman flees Mumbai in the wake of the 26/11/2008 attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai that kills his wife. It is assumed that his grief causes his flight — but does it?

This businessman then renames himself Nero J. Golden in his new location and his three sons become Petronius aka Petya, Apuleius aka Apu and Dionysius or D. Golden. All these men except for Petya subsequently acquire partners and all suffer violent deaths. Ultimately, the ‘Golden House’ is itself consumed by flames. Sic transit gloria mundi .

There is a beautiful evil woman (Vasilisa the white Russian) and a beautiful good woman (Ubah the Somali, out of Africa). Nero lives long enough to witness the death of his three sons and to learn that the son Vasilisa has borne him is not really his own.

All this sounds formulaic, if awful — and is — except that René the narrator’s voice is, on the whole, believable and likeable. A young neighbour who wants to make a film on the Goldens, their fates and his life entangle inevitably.

If cinematic lore from Buñuel to Bollywood animates every other page, this is somehow made plausible by the choice of René as narrator whose voice is not unlike Rushdie’s, yet is sufficiently different to be intriguing. And in the end it is René who gets the girl, the child and his film. Two cheers for that open universe.

Read this novel simultaneously as a porous palimpsest of the past or the complex circuitry of the contemporary and you are sure to enjoy its self-assurance — provided that you have something approaching the patience of the ancients who, as Rushdie reminds us, valued the Universal rather than the fleeting gleam of gold.

This is reason enough for Indians, desi and pravasi , and somewhat obsessed with gold themselves, to read this sapient novel in these cashless — but thankfully not yet bookless — times.

The author, a poet and academic, is a professor at IIT Delhi, with a PhD. from Cambridge. Her first novel Mad Girl’s Love Song was long-listed for the DSC Prize.

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