Born of Flight : Freedom of movement on the printed page : EAST, WEST: Stories, <i> By Salman Rushdie (Pantheon: $21; 224 pp.)</i>
For every dervish whose whirling begins as an effort to command a spirit and ends commanded by it, there are 10 who keep painfully turning until they fall about in a heap. It is true for writers and artists as well, casting up images that take flight or collapse back on themselves.
The slow terrorism that Iran has practiced on Salman Rushdie over the past six years grounded one of our foremost literary dervishes. Whirling is all but impossible in a jail; particularly one that lacks even the defined security of a cell, and confines, instead, by the indefiniteness of having to skip from one hiding-place to another.
Rushdie’s only published book, since “The Satanic Verses” won him a death sentence from the late Ayatollah Khomeini, was a wistful fable told as if to a child. “Haroun and the Sea of Story” was touching but bandaged heavily in whimsy. If you bleed, you bandage; and accordingly you don’t whirl.
Of the eight stories now collected in “East, West,” one or two remain sweetly confined. In the others the bandages are off, and the author’s rage and bitter irony assert themselves. That is one way to sort them; another is to say that in the first two, sweetness contends with art and art wins once; and that in the others, rage contends with art and art wins often. Or to put it a third way: that in these stories Rushdie has set himself to whirl, and if at times he is effortful and earthbound, at others he lifts off.
Over and over, though, we get good news: Rushdie is back, he is healing. (The fatwa calling for his death is still in force but the conditions of his concealment have grown less rigorous.) Sometimes it is in flashes seen through flaws, or adding a special light to a story that is simply very good. Two or three of these stories, though, gleam as exuberantly as anything he has done.
Rushdie’s ground has always been a gap. The East that lives in him and the West that he lives in tear violently at each other. He expresses the violence through humor, irony, parody, sadness, horror--he avoids tragedy as if it were a breach of good taste--and, when breakdown seems inevitable, through a magical lift-off that partakes of all of them.
As if testing himself, he begins this collection with three stories on the eastern side of the gap. Two are vignettes; one slight and the other a tiny perfection. In “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies” Miss Rehana arrives by bus from Lahore to take her place with the “Tuesday women” who crowd in front of the British embassy on the day appointed for applicants who want to join relatives in Britain.
Rehana is a miracle of charm; she charms the “advice wallah,” a grizzled scoundrel who installs himself in front of the embassy to explain, for a price, the horrendous difficulties the applicants will find inside. So besotted is he with Rehana that he offers her not only free advice--"I am a poor potato,” she had demurred--but a free faked visa. The story takes two brief twists and ends with the old villain not only baffled but illuminated as well. Or say--because Rushdie’s inflection offers not sentiment but its shade--that illumination has passed through the vicinity.
“The Prophet’s Hair,” the last of the East stories, is a fable not a vignette. A Kashmir money-lender, benevolent with his family and polite to his borrowers, turns into a monster when comes into possession of a hair from the Prophet Mohammed. He burns his library and beats his wife and children until, in despair, they hire a thief to steal the hair.
The story begins wittily, turns bloody and ends in irony. There is nothing subtle about it; it is Rushdie’s raging parable against the disasters of fundamentalism. The money-lender, afflicted with his religious vision, afflicts everyone else with it. He is Rushdie’s persecuting Ayatollah. Here, as in one or two other stories, the author’s fury--a thing admirable in itself--is too much for his art. “The Prophet’s Hair” is his own fatwa.
“At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” is directed oppositely: at the moral confusion of a British intelligentsia in whom Rushdie has found a measure of support and a measure of weary distaste. When you are cursed, even by a tyrant, it leaves an odor offensive to polite society; particularly if you keep complaining. The danger with martyrs is that they may act martyred.
“Auction” is a swirling parody of a media event for the glitterati. The slippers promise a return to healthy decencies; all the decadently indecent clamor for them. Harsh precautions are taken to keep out or remove the unaccredited and ungainly. Fundamentalists, who intend to buy the slippers in order to burn them, are admitted, nonetheless: it would be intolerant to exclude the intolerant. The satire is evident, but Rushdie, who starts in a Kafka-like deadpan, loses control and ends up in a mess. Under its surreal twists and post-modern turns, “Slippers” is another fatwa .
The author covers some of the same ground in a much more suggestive story, “The Harmony of the Spheres.” Boldly reversing his own situation, he sets up Crane, a thoroughly English writer, as the object of persecution by “demons” who are able to trace him through his hide-outs and unlisted phone number.
Khan, an Indian friend, plays the Western observer who thinks of himself as objective and unscathed. (He is neither, and that is Rushdie’s reversed point.) “Harmony” is sometimes awkward; Rushdie’s passion can bend it out of shape. But it also gives it its power; and here the author’s wit, his wicked reverses, and moments of lyricism and grief shape anger into something that enhances and transforms it.
Two stories deal with the Indian community in London. “Courter” is a limpid, mordant tale of an improbable romance between an Indian family’s aged nurse and their building’s Hungarian caretaker, a former chess master. The other, “Chekov and Zulu,” is about two former Bombay schoolmates who find themselves working in the Indian embassy. Chekov is short but high-ranking and lordly; Zulu is big, lower-ranking and modest. Rather like George and Lennie in “Mice and Men,” Chekov is sophisticated and unquiet and Zulu is simple and whole.
Sad, funny and, of course, ironic, the story tells of the choice of Zulu, a Sikh, for the dangerous mission of spying on his community in London after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by a Sikh extremist. The relationship between Zulu and Chekov, who objects to the mission but not so as to jeopardize his own career, is beautifully worked out. Their names are the nicknames they used (slightly misspelled) as passionate childhood “Star Trek” fans. Rushdie uses them to highlight the affection that joins them, the gulf in status that separates them and, gracefully, the spread, awkwardness and allure of Western pop culture around the world.
It is a masterpiece. So is my own favorite, a dialogue between Columbus and Queen Isabella, his patron. Uncanny, erotic and outrageous, their exchange presents Columbus as the exotic foreigner whose vision is coveted by the woman who has conquered everything she knows--both Moors and Jews are gone--and is shriveling for lack of the unknown. That Isabella is the West and Columbus the Third World is not difficult to see; but Rushdie has fashioned art out of ease.