Sunday, April 03, 2011

Inside, Outside

Salman Rushdie's East, West is the first chance I've had to read his short stories. I'd previously been thoroughly impressed with Midnight's Children, a phenomenal phantasmagoric expedition into events and thoughts around the time of India's early statehood.

Rushdie is an interesting guy, and arguably one of the most global citizens in a world full of continent-hopping writers. He's a product of the British legacy in India, and seems to have spent much of his life and his career exploring that intersection. East, West is an explicit journey through these two spheres, looking at each one individually and at how they intersect.

The first section, "East," collects a handful of stories set in India. These are the shortest in the book, and also seem like the simplest: the plots are fairly straightforward, the narration is conventional. They're still affecting, though, like something from Saki. One story features an old man who hangs around outside the British Embassy in India, scamming people into giving him money to help grease the wheels for their visa applications. He falls for a visiting woman, honestly tells her what she's up against and offers to give her a rare fake document that will let her go to England and visit her fiance. She thanks him kindly, refuses the offer, and serenely goes off to apply. When she returns, she's so happy that the old man believes she's done the impossible and navigated the bureaucratic hurdles on her own. She explains that, no, she failed to give them satisfactory answers, and her application was denied. Then why, the old man asks, is she so happy? Because since she has tried and failed, now she can live her life: she'll remain focused on her family and her friends here on the subcontinent, instead of thinking about a young man who she barely knows who lives half a world away.

I can't exactly sum up the moral of the story, but it definitely feels like a story with a moral, right?

The second section, "West," features stories that seem to be set in America or England. These are a bit longer and more intricate, and a little more fanciful as well. ("East" stories are either realistic or have straight-up magic, while "West" has a bit more of that dreamlike quality that people like me enjoy so much.) One of the most interesting in this section is "The Auction of the Ruby Slippers," which describes the excitement around an upcoming chance to bid on Dorothy's slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The story is, well, short, but there's an incredible amount going on: the auction itself and the fanatical devotion it attracts would be interesting enough, but Rushdie has set this story in the foreground of some sort of mass social breakdown. The narrator barely alludes to it, in the same way that we usually wouldn't bring up the sky being blue when we're telling a story, but enough offhand references slip in that they kind of jar us a bit, and give a nicely unsettling feeling to the whole tale.

The final section, "East, West" is a kind of synthesis that brings together the hemispheres. Sometimes this is done explicitly, like in "Chekhov and Zulu," which describes the adventures of two Sikhs trying to navigate the political landscape in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination. We eventually learn that "Zulu" should actually be called "Sulu," and that the two of them are childhood friends who were devoted to "Star Trek" (which they had never actually seen, but just absorbed through the detritus of Western culture that washed ashore on India), and use that show's metaphors to describe everything important in their lives. Also in this vein, "The Courter" is a great, fairly traditionally told story of an Indian family that has emigrated to London and their experiences there.

Other times, "East, West" doesn't directly talk about India and the west, but rather seems to be trying for a kind of synthesis of different ways of thinking or seeing the world. One of my favorite stories here was "The Harmony of the Spheres," which describes the friendship between two men, one of whom has slipped into paranoid schizophrenia after a lifetime devoted to studying the occult. It's a fascinating and disturbing story that doesn't directly have anything to do with East or West but a lot to do about exploration, ideas, and synthesis.

I'm pretty impressed by what I've read here. It's hard to sum up Rushdie's short fiction, but if forced to do so, I'd probably compare him to Nabokov. Not in the direct sense of sounding like him, but in the way both of them show great skill at playing around with different voices and narrations, and the way both of them take inspiration from the immigrant experience without ever sounding like immigrant writers. It's been great to see Rushdie back on the literary map for the past decade, and I hope we get to see many more stories from him.

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