"The Golden House" by Salman Rushdie
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
Mysterious pasts, transformed identities, new beginnings, organized crime, shocking elections, improbable heads of state, conspiracy, communal strife, intrigue, terror, tragedy, love. All these come together in Salman Rushdie's new book "The Golden House".
It begins in 2008, with the inauguration of Barack Obama. On that day, "when so many of us were close to economic ruin in the aftermath of the bursting of the mortgage bubble, and when Isis was still an Egyptian mother-goddess, an uncrowned 70-something king from a faraway country arrived in New York City with his three motherless sons to take possession of the palace of his exile, behaving as if nothing was wrong with the country or the world or his own story."
Nero Golden and his sons Petronius (Petya), Apuleius (Apu) and Dionysus (D) with their self-assigned new names journey to a new identity and a new life. Their story is told by Rene Unterlinden, son of college professors, film aficionado and aspiring filmmaker. Rene grew up in a house at the other end of the Gardens from the grand mansion where the Goldens have taken up. Rene contemplates a film about their life which he will call "The Golden House."
The Goldens, we later learn, left Mumbai in a big rush, ostensibly to overcome the grief of the mother’s death in the November 26, 2008 terror attacks that came to be known as "26/11." Rene gradually learns their story, and uncovers, layer by layer, the past that they would not speak of for years.
We get to know the sons through their interactions with Rene: and each is portrayed with compassion and understanding. We learn their states of mind and body, their predilections, their insecurities.
Petya is "on the spectrum", we learn, i.e. autism spectrum disorder. He is highly functional and gifted, becoming the creator of video games for children and unbeknownst to his family, creating his own fortune. When we meet him first, he's expounding on the perfect dry martini, which endeared him to me instantly. (Our recipes differ, but the uh, spirit is the same.). Petya, given to stating things as he sees them, starts calling Rene "the most handsome man in the world!" much to his bemusement.
Apu, with whom Rene sometimes watched films, chose his nickname over his father's protestations ("We are not Bengalis!") A stylish and flamboyant dresser, he became an artist whose work came to impress even his skeptical father who did not know that his son had art within him.
Apu later starts seeing ghosts of the past, and recalls "a friend of mine, a writer, a good writer, said something that scared the pants off me. He said, think of life as a novel, let's say a novel of four hundred pages, and then imagine how many pages in the book your story has already covered. And remember that after a certain point, it's not a good idea to introduce a new major character. After a certain point you are stuck with the characters you have. So maybe you need to think of a way of introducing the new character before it's too late, because everyone gets older, even you.”
His friend had said this to him just before Nero had decide that the family must move. Apu was enthusiastic—he could throw away the old book and start a new story. But things didn’t turn out as he had planned. To confront these ghosts, he returns for a fateful trip to Bombay, after which Nero's long-ago dealings in the old city come to light.
Rushdie's greatest compassion is reserved for D, 18 years younger than Apu, born of a different mother, struggling with gender identity, with whom René went sometimes to listen to music. D meets Riya, a beautiful young woman who works at the Museum of Identity. Through their conversations and life together, we learn a great deal about another spectrum: that of gender identities, its language, its subdivisions, and the disagreements among them, and the mysterious question, “What is a woman?”
Years ago, D had persuaded his father (during a marital conflict) to make his stepmother surrender the keys of the household. He then proceeded to run it for a period of time, assuming the place of the lady of the house. What made him do this, Riya wants to know, one of many questions she keeps throwing at him, all of which make him uncomfortable.
D is not like Arundhati Roy's Anjum-who-was-Aftab (in "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness") who embraces womanhood. Anjum who Knew that She was a She. D is fearful, tongue-tied, confused. His journey is more conflicted, lonely, fraught, painful than Anjum's. Here are some beautiful lines from D in response to the possibilities that Riya presents to him.
“But what if I can't see that these choices are choices. What if I learned from the male gay community that homosexuality was inborn, that it was a human way to be, it couldn't be chosen or on chosen, and what if I hated the reactionary idea that you could re-educate a gay person to make a different choice and give up his gayness. What if I can't see how these choices you are proposing, these multiple-possibility gender nuances, are not a part of that same reactionary ideology, because what is chosen can be on chosen, and it is a lady’s right to change her mind. What if I propose that my identity is just difficult, and painful, and confusing and I don't know how to choose or what to choose or even of choosing is what has to happen, what if I just need to stagger blindly toward finding out what I am and not who I choose to be. What if I believe there is an I am and I need to find that. What if this is about discovery not choice, about finding out who I have always been, not about picking a flavor from the gender ice-cream display. …. What if we’re a federation of different states of being and we need to respect those states’ rights as well as the union. I'm losing my mind trying to work all this out and I don't even know the words, I'm using the words I know but they feel like the wrong words all the time, what if I'm trying to live in a dangerous country whose language I haven't learned. What then.”
I was touched by D’s tortured attempts to find himself / herself. This gentle, thoughtful and compassionate portrait of D is one of Rushdie’s great gifts to us in this book. It brings to life that deepest of wonderings: gender identity, and the struggles that inevitable accompany such wonderings.
But we need a vamp! Enter Vasilisa, the Russian girl, dark-haired gymnast turned blonde gold-digger who sets her sights on Nero Golden. The night of Nero's great seduction, Rene describes with Prufrockian tentativeness, "for after all, how should I presume?"
Rushdie rather delightfully appropriates lines from T.S. Eliot's exquisite poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". He infuses Prufrock’s indecisiveness, anguish and impotence into Rene's hesitation in describing Vasilisa's potent sexuality and the acts he imagines she performs. He has heard the mermaid singing: he does not think that she sings to him.
Nero’s character was unsatisfying to me – it isn't as fully developed as those of his sons. He seems more of a caricature. For example, Nero plays a 1745 Guadagnini violin. We never learn how he learned to play it, how he came upon it. The story Nero tells at the end is gripping, but does not illuminate on his various interests and pursuits. How did this businessman from Mumbai, given to dressing with sophistication but described as uncivil, uncouth, become so steeped in Greek and Roman culture? Stylish clothes are more eastly acquired than musical skills and cultural knowledge; the latter take time, interest, dedication. Here they seem to be used as props of Nero’s supposed sophistication rather than an avenue to reveal who he really is. As for the violin, perhaps it exists merely to make an obvious connection with his namesake, the one alleged to have played the fiddle as Rome burned.
There are a few fantastical elements in the book: An imagining of the three sons of a wicked king who kept them under tight reins. The children turned into birds resembling feathered snakes, and flew away to be free, but in the open air, could no longer fly. And another: Baba Yaga, the witch who ate children, has merged with Vasilisa and fulfils her hideous strategy through Vasilisa's beautiful body.
These reminded me of the first Salman Rushdie book I ever read: Grimus. It transported me back to the school girl I had been, living in the suburbs of Calcutta. On Sundays we got two newspapers, The Statesman and The Telegraph, as well as The Illustrated Weekly of India. In October of 1983, the Weekly serialized Grimus (first published in 1975) in a few instalments. I don't remember much of the story, but I will never ever forget how reading it made me feel. It was extraordinary, beautiful, impossible, and perfect. The illustrations were fantastic and matched the magic of the story. I wish I could see them again now.
Reading Grimus as a teenager opened my eyes to a magic in storytelling that I had never imagined. A curious melding of eastern and western concepts words that seemed not foreign or strange but perfectly fluid and natural. It was like nothing I had read before. I remember feeling stunned, astonished, and sensing that somehow, This Was Different. And of course, it was. “Midnight’s Children” which came after Grimus changed everything.
But I digress….there is only a little fantasy in “The Golden House”, it is mostly stark reality.
Mr. Rushdie weaves in political events of the day into his narrative. Partway through the book a character in New York named Gary "Green" Gwynplaine, makes his appearance. He "liked to call himself the Joker on account of having been born with inexplicably lime green hair. Purple-coated, white-skinned, red-lipped, Gwynplaine made himself the mirror image of the notorious cartoon villain and seemed to revel in the likeness.”
He decides to run for president! Ring a bell? "It was the year of the great battle between the deranged fantasy and gray reality," Rushdie tells us after a sentence that goes on for an entire page (see below), chronicling the lamentations of “sane” America.
The campaigns heat up, with "…. the Joker himself screaming into a mirror, the molester screaming about molestation, the propagandist accusing the whole world of propaganda, the bully whining about being ganged up on, the crook pointing a crooked finger at his rival and calling her crooked, a child's game become the national ugliness, I-know-I-am-but-what-are-you, and the days ticking away, America's sanity at war with its dementedness and people like me, who didn't believe in superstitions, walking around with their hands in their pockets and their fingers crossed. And then finally there was, after all, a scary clown."
Rushdie masterfully sketches the simmering and sometimes exploding tensions on racial injustices, addressing which are paramount to America’s well-being, progress, even survival as a nation.
"… I could feel it, the anger of the unjustly dead, the young man shot for walking in the stairwell while black, the young child shot for playing with the plastic gun in the playground while black, all the daily black death of America, screaming out that they deserve to live, and I could feel too, the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in the White House, and the frothing hatred of the homophobes, and the injured wrath of their targets, the blue-collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae'd and Freddie Mac'ed by the housing calamity, all the discontent for furiously divided country, everyone believing they were right, their cause was just, their pain was unique… "
Later, it turns out that the Joker has indeed become a king. And Rene asks, echoing an anguish that so many have felt, "How does one live amongst one's fellow countrymen and countrywomen when you don't know which of them is numbered among the sixty-million-plus who brought the horror to power, when you can't tell who should be counted among the ninety-million-plus who shrugged and stayed home, or when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you've ever had in your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge, not that knowledge-is-power nonsense but knowledge is beauty, and then all of that, education art, music, film, become the reason for being loved, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches toward Washington DC to be born."
The reflection on where America finds itself today and how that makes us feel is another gift of this book.
Rushdie also has his finger on the pulse of modern India. India's communal strife plays an important role in the narrative of the Golden family's journey to America. The story unfolds around some key dates.
December 1992, the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. We hear of "concerned persons from a neighboring country. The neighbors felt strongly that action must be taken." Not long after, on March 12, 1993, bomb blasts shake Bombay to its core. And 15 years later, November 26, 2008, in Mumbai (no longer Bombay), carefully orchestrated terrorist attacks cause death and destruction.
The Z company of the novel's criminal syndicate is the fictional version of the D company of Dawood Ibrahim, notorious Bombay crime lord, suspected of ties to terrorist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al Qaeda.
The story is sprinkled liberally with references to films. Rushdie refers to several Indian films that were made about the D company: "Company", "Shootout at Lokhandwalla", "Once upon a Time in Mumbaai", etc. And numerous other films, many French, and many of which I have not seen, although I was very pleased to see a reference to that masterful Iranian film-maker, "the sadly departed Abbas Kiasrostami" as well as to one of the final scenes in Satyajit Ray's masterpiece "Pather Panchali" as "the greatest single scene in the history of the cinema." How could one disagree?
There is a particularly memorable and hilarious remark about movie industry investors. After Rene completes his film "The Golden House", he comments on what he has learned about the movie business. "...for one thing, that when a person with money says to you, 'I love this project. I love it. So creative, so original, there's nothing like it out there. I am going to back you one thousand percent, to the fullest of my ability, total support, one thousand and one percent, this is genius,' what he is saying, translated into English, is 'hello.' " Priceless.
Humor, too, is sprinkled throughout. Rene recalls something he told Apu once about the word spiritual. "I had once told him that I thought the word spiritual, which was not applied to everything from religion to exercise with jeans and fruit juice, needed to be given a rest, for perhaps 100 years or so." This reminded me of the time I saw Rushdie some years ago, when he had come to the Herbst theater in San Francisco to read from his then-new book "The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” During the Q&A, a woman from the audience asked in a breathy, new-agey voice, “What do think of female spirituality?” Many of us in the audience groaned. Rushdie started by talking of all the strong women in his books, paused and then added “As for the word spirituality, I think it is a word that is somewhat overused and should be given a rest, for say the next hundred years or so.” Ha!
A tiny bit of science finds its way in here too. At the end of Baba-Yaga-inside-Vasilisa's creepy monologue, we read, "... there it is, the deep voice speaking, commanding her at the deepest level, the level of the molecules of instruction, twined into the four helical amino acids of her being, which is also mine. It is who I is. It is who she am."
Hair-raising stuff. Never mind that Rushdie probably means to say nucleic acids: this isn't Molecular Biology 101. And if there is anyone on this planet to whom I will grant some poetic license in the description of DNA and proteins, it is Salman Rushdie.
The book ends, amidst much destruction, at the threshold of another beginning. It seems in keeping with the uncertainties of these times, and the new beginnings that we all must work towards.
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