Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House and the Bankrupting of Magical Realism

M. K. Raghavendra

Salman Rushdie burst onto the literary scene in 1981 with his novel Midnight’s Children, immediately recognized as a work in the ‘magical realist’ mode, a kind of fiction writing made popular by Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Magical realism is mistakenly taken to be ‘fantastic’ and equated with fairy tales and myths but it is ‘realistic’ in the sense that its world is a godless one with no reassuring interventions as there would be in fairy tales, in which good inevitably triumphs. The ‘magical’ element in this kind of fiction is more in the nature of metaphor and an instance illustrating its ‘magic’ would be Marquez’s short story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings about a decrepit angel discovered by a farmer on his field after a storm, who effects miracles of a wholly useless sort; a blind man duly blessed by him does not regain his eyesight but grows three new teeth! Rushdie writes in the same vein but where magical realism has faith in its metaphors Rushdie is openly satirical. Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), for instance, describes a ruthless military leader Colonel Aureliano Buendia in the fictional country Macondo, whose deputies carry out his commands even before he has given them, and implied is the devoted following a fearsome leader builds up, persons so deeply sensitive to even body language that they fulfil his unspoken wishes. In Rushdie’s Shame (1983), a Pakistani policeman is so effective at spotting criminals that he arrests them even before they have thought up crimes; implied here is something more derisive.

Magical realism, when the term is not used loosely, is a kind of political fiction that emerged when there was opposition to imperialism; it depends on a clear polarization of the socio-political space, the good and the bad in politics clearly identifiable. Marquez, for instance, takes a political position broadly aligned with the radical movements then sweeping the world, movements and initiatives united by opposition to the Vietnam War that culminated in the Paris riots of May 1968. Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959) is realistic and also uses fantastic elements but is not usually seen alongside Marquez’s novels as magical realist and the reason may be that it is not aligned with radicalism. Where Marquez’s novels are a political affirmation of sorts, Grass’ novel is essentially a denunciation.

Magical realism relies on metaphor which has local roots and it is the strangeness of some of it in translation (like ‘Amaranta’s sadness bubbling and gurgling away on the porch’ in One Hundred Years of Solitude) - that attracted a worldwide readership to their authors’ writing. But Rushdie writes in English, lived in India only briefly in his childhood and his metaphors only mimic the local. Midnight’s Children perhaps attracted attention largely because of the scale of what Rushdie was attempting – dealing with the whole of the subcontinent’s history from the even before 1947 as fiction which had no parallel in decades of English writing.  But where Latin American practitioners of the craft knew their space well enough not to invoke it explicitly but still catch its flavour, Rushdie drew his India from painstaking research at the British Museum. Still, being positioned in the West, he has been described as the sub-continent ‘finding its voice’ and it was perhaps the confidence he drew from such praise that prompted him to dismiss contemporary Indian writing not in the English language as of small literary value.  

In any case, while Rushdie has genuine love for Bombay/Mumbai because of a childhood spent there he does not have comprehensive knowledge of India but still takes his place on international forums as its literary voice. His lack of understanding of India’s ways may be gathered from The Satanic Verses (1988), which fetched him a fatwa, introducing a Bollywood star who plays Hanuman in a film and creating a new fashion in Mumbai – young men wearing tails on their trousers! Despite Rushdie knowing England more intimately he refrains from writing about it but continues to depend on India for his subjects. It is because Rushdie’s fiction is so dependent on library research that what one finds in his novels is not fancy at work as much as dressed up or disguised fact. Needless to add, the characters/events thus dressed up are immediately recognizable as actual news from India, past and present.   
Rushdie writes epic novels but The Golden House is marked by an uncharacteristic lack of ambition. It is set in New York and begins on the day when Barack Obama first took charge as president. The story is related in the first person and the narrator is René, an aspiring film-maker, and the objects of his curiosity are his new neighbours – a man from a faraway country initially not named, and his three sons. The man could be a king – perhaps uncrowned – and his wife is noticeably absent. The man and his sons go by the names of Roman emperors and these are evidently assumed; their real names are not revealed. The family is fabulously wealthy and René’s curiosity is aroused adequately for him to contemplate making a ‘mockumentary’ about them – concluding in the discovery of their story. They are apparently Muslim but it does not show in their practices and they have taken the surname ‘Golden’. The Murray House which they just acquired and occupied has thus become the ‘Golden House’.     

So much mystery is created about the Goldens in the first few pages that when it is revealed that they are from India, a business family from Mumbai to be precise, one finds oneself feeling distinctly cheated. This is not because, being Indian oneself, such a revelation can hardly be exciting. India, to be quite forthright, is not an exciting subject even to the West and the reason is that it is unthreatening. India perhaps last excited Europeans between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries when its wealth – or those of its maharajas/ nabobs – was famed, explorers looking to reach it and traders wanting access. In today’s world the spaces that excite the West are those likely to threaten its safety, and spaces like the Muslim world, North Korea and China provide greater scope than India. When one looks at the Indians in Hollywood films, for instance, they are rarely more than low-ranking geeks and even a Pakistani character is likely to draw more spectators/readers than an Indian.     

The Golden House moves between New York and Mumbai and much of it must owe to Rushdie’s familiarity with New York where he has lived since 2000, especially its intellectual scene and its art galleries. The first sign of trouble for the novel comes when he makes the Goldens – with links to the underworld and the construction business in Mumbai – take to New York’s intellectual/artistic life as ducks take to water. Rushdie has read widely and much of the novel is given to literary allusions and I cannot claim to have recognized many of them. But each allusion does not take us forward to deeper understanding and what emerges is essentially a literary conceit. Since the narrator is a film-maker Rushdie puts in a whole lot of references to films and film-makers as well. These I did recognize and would roughly characterize as ‘unadventurous’ – since they refer mainly to art-house classics. One may therefore presume that Rushdie’s allusions, though wide-ranging, come from fairly conventional reading and are not more than exhibitions of pedantry. This becomes conspicuous when the children of the Mumbai businessman with underworld connections quote Lord Byron’s Don Juan or British social anthropologists.
Rushdie, even his earlier books, conveys the sense of someone who has read rather than lived and this is also true of The Golden House. Apart from the Goldens and the narrator there are an Indian-American activist-filmmaker named Suchitra Roy (the narrator’s love interest), a Russian gymnast named Vasilisa (who marries the father Nero Golden), a Somali sculptress Ubah Tuur who loves the second son, and the part-Indian, part-Scandinavian Riya who is attached to the youngest Golden. All these characters are arbitrarily put together with no sense of their plausibility. If one had any appreciation of the conditions in countries like Somalia or Ethiopia one would not invent a woman artist born and bred there who sets the New York art world on fire and discusses artistic matters with the sophistication of The New York Review of Books. I am not discounting the possibility of people from Somalia being ‘artists’ here, merely asking whether what is art in Somalia will also become art in New York.  

Magical realism is a political genre and it is in its political viewpoint that Rushdie’s novel really runs aground. There is little sense of the political world today to be found in The Golden House and it is only when we realize this that we understand the excessive attention lavished on the undeserving Goldens. Words (his own and those of others) cascade endlessly out of him and the allusions and elaborate character descriptions are simply there to distract us from the smallness of the space left for political insights. Much has happened in India between 2008 and 2016, the interval covered by the novel, but Rushdie sticks determinedly to issues like Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim (duly given other names), the Bombay blasts and 26/11; it is as though he is wary of taking risks. Rushdie’s naming of political figures is amusing but not inventive; as an instance he renamed Bal Thackeray ‘Raman Fielding’ in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and H Fielding and WM Thackeray are both novelists taught in English literature courses. Raman Fielding gets passing mention in The Golden House as well.  
When Rushdie writes about America the only noticeable ‘magical’ element is his depiction of Donald Trump as the Joker from Batman and Hillary Clinton as ‘Batwoman’. Rushdie was quite vicious about Indira and Sanjay Gandhi in Midnight’s Children and one senses the weariness his numerous controversies must have brought him. But, more importantly, one also understands the difficulties in exploring politics through fiction today because of something that banishes magical realism to literature’s past, makes its strategies bankrupt.      

One of the factors contributing to the success of magical realism as a form was the existence of the liberal media which could be trusted to be reasonably truthful/ objective. At one time what the BBC reported was the ‘truth’ and the New York Times really printed stories/analyses, the veracity of which could be relied upon. It was the underlying belief in an unvarnished truth available to the reader somewhere which enabled writers like Marquez and Rushdie to produce fanciful distortions of fact as literature that still corresponded to an ‘artistic truth’. To substantiate the proposition, no one ever disputed the ‘truth’ in Midnight’s Children because it was founded on liberal history writing that its readers would endorse. Such an ‘unbiased’ liberal view of politics and current history is no longer available and the result is that all writing proceeds by being prejudiced, by taking sides and picking ‘facts’ to substantiate beliefs. Why this has happened is uncertain but a reason could be the gradual entering of other interests into the media, its growing use for motivation, advertisement and propaganda. When Rushdie lampoons Donald Trump but praises Hillary Clinton he is being naïve since both of them come to the pubic only as prejudiced media creations and not as anything in ‘themselves’. There is no underlying ‘truth’ told about either of them in/by any media institution/ platform which can be relied upon to tell us what they ‘really are’. This situation corresponds to what is termed ‘post-truth’ and it evidently makes political schools of fiction writing (like magical realism) unsustainable. ‘Artistic truth’ in the production of political fiction has apparently been compromised.

October 2017