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Madelena Gonzalez. Fiction after the Fatwa - Salman Rushdie and the Charm of Catastrophe

Claire PÉGON
Référence(s) :

Madelena GONZALEZ, Fiction after the Fatwa - Salman Rushdie and the Charm of Catastrophe. Costerus New Series 153: Rodopi, 2005, 266 pp., €124.76, ISBN 90-420-1962-X.

Texte intégral

1On February 14 1989, a day when a ludicrously high number of Western hearts are occupied by cuddly bunnies, saucy undies and a bottle of bubbly, the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was as outrageous, as unthinkable in Western eyes as condemning an old granny to burn at the stake for selling potions to cure warts. Yet paradoxically, Muslim Iran was pronouncing the importance of literature, making it something you could die for, while literalising in an unforeseen way Barthes' notion of the death of the author. This was only the first of the paradoxes surrounding “the Rushdie affair” which made a lefty, maverick public schoolboy, and a colonial to boot, a household name; it shifted pub talk from Eastenders to whether or not the Ayatollah should be nuked. A dense, highbrow novel made the Sun headlines.

2Such paradoxes as these form the backcloth of the scene Madelena Gonzalez sets out to explore. How can you continue writing fiction in hiding; how can you keep silent? More importantly, how can we continue reading his novels without seeing allegory and protest on every page? Or without rushing in to defend the man, condescendingly declaring every work a masterpiece since to engage critically might seem like siding with the enemy? Nobody had quite expected literary postmodernism's intellectual flirts with entropy, annihilation and the thrills of destruction to come true. Wasn't it a game? A fiction? Madelena Gonzalez, while not closing her eyes to the death sentence and Rushdie's precarious survival, lets the books answer for themselves. Reading post-fatwa fiction as fiction, she explores the heady heights of postmodern inventiveness, its transgressive aesthetics and its gimcrack sidekicks; she also sounds postmodernism's precarious links with politics, the late capitalist spin-offs of post colonialism and the truly mordant edge of parody where stakes are high, in the personal and commercial senses of the term.

3Her book is challenging, provocative and uncompromisingly argued; it is also hugely enjoyable. Although extremely pedagogical, her study steers perfectly clear of both facile obscurity and hands-on vulgarising. It will have immense appeal not just for Rushdie fans, but for Rushdie doubtfuls, helping them through a demanding corpus. And beyond Rushdie readers, all 20th century literary enthusiasts or specialists will find matter for thought, as the book engages with the vast conceptual, linguistic minefield of postmodernism and all the dominant critical discourses that have fed it, or fed upon it: post-colonialism, feminism, psychoanalysis, reader-response theory, the carnivalesque, the baroque, the gothic. Indeed, the impressive chapter one, “Fiction after the fatwa”, should be compulsory reading for any student of contemporary British fiction. Its pedagogical value lies equally in its very readable, closely argued and circumstantiated prose; meanwhile, the footnotes for the specialist are more than titles and references but a wealth of ideas, inviting further elaboration. There is an admirable bibliography, a properly drawn-up, useful index, and an appendix with plot summaries. While pedants might shrug this off with a self-satisfied smirk, few will regret the opportunity to check who, out of Mira, Camas, Ormus, Persis and Tara, are the Vina stand-ins and look-alikes.

4The study adopts a clear, novel-by-chapter approach bringing welcome clarity into the Rushdiean jungle of cross references, word play, deferral, hyperreality and fairy tales while making frequent links with earlier Rushdie novels and between the later works. It takes us from buoyant magic realism to rampant exhibitionism, from faery to fetishism, from exuberant music-hall tricksters to the restrained fury of modern Eumenides. It is deliberately conceived as “so many Stations of the Cross” (32), offering a form of blasphemous literary criticism, meditating on the promises, false salvation, easy apotheoses, multiple assumptions and petulant confessions of Rushdiean postmodernism, and displaying too a nostalgia for the seamless garments of story-telling in our age of mechanical commodification. And the reader is brought to question the very Credo of fiction: if everything is a fiction, is the novel its high priestess, its apotheosis or a quaint throwback from former times, as dispensable as the paper it is written on?

5The stimulating, speculative and contextualising chapter one studies Rushdie's language, now his homeland, and the creative recycling and parodic bric-à-brac which make up the “permeable post-frontier” (52) geographies of his absorbing, sometimes self-absorbing fictions. Behind the exuberant images of fiction, bouncing, like Solanka at the end of Fury, on a vast bouncy castle of fun-culture, there nevertheless hovers the grimmer notion of Rushdie as his own ideal reader. The reader is thus inevitably brought to recall another arch-defender of otherness, dialogics, and the carnival romp, Mikhail Bakhtin, whose plangent defence of plurality may too have stemmed in part from the looming fear that there might be no other reader than the self, whose very contours were both vague and vulnerable.

6Chapter two turns to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, to reveal a world of tricks, verbal delight and language games, where the world is a book, and vice versa. This is a postmodern conceit in both senses of the term, for the idea is almost as old as the hills, just as language's much trumpeted resistance to referentiality isn't quite as novel as postmodernists might have us believe, as the exegesis of revealed texts and centuries of conflict over their ultimate or absolute meaning too clearly reminds us. But in Haroun, as in Alice, or Juster's The Phantom Toll-booth for example, it works. Ms Gonzalez examines the sheer delight contained in these tales of stories swallowing stories, and of stories rebuilding the world, making life liveable. Rushdie's “uses of enchantment” thus assure the book its place alongside the best adult fiction for children. The Oedipal rivalries do not just chart the individual on the path to knowledge, but function as hazy parables, where the over-arching supreme authority of the fatwa can never be quite forgotten.

7The third chapter, devoted to the short story collection East, West starts from a more conventional post-colonial stance to look at the ways alienation, otherness, geography and migrancy constitute the imaginary homelands of the various characters. These divisions and separations quickly dissolve, however, giving way to hotchpotch and Hobson-Jobson, where essence is merely an enhancer of flavour rather than “the real thing”. Various facets of alienation are drawn together to create what Rushdie terms a “verminous sludge” where place is superseded by space in a constantly expanding universe. Estrangement thus boils down to a convention of typography, the comma between east and west which is marked out as “Rushdie land”, neither East nor West, but not free from them either. As the old adage has it, “Home is where the heart is”, but in these days of bypass surgery, transplants and cloning, it is no longer so easy to find the heart.

8Chapter four, focusing on The Moor's Last Sigh , takes us to the endless deconstructions, deferrals, endings and beginnings of Rushdiean “pure contradiction”: the protagonist “Moor” becomes the epitome of Rushdie's fiction : a crossbreed who owes his name and identity to word play, Shakespeare, and a very literal embodiment of India now, so strange it becomes literal, true. This follow-up to The Satanic Verses is a book about books, where the high moral overtones of artistic integrity meet the political agenda of écriture féminine and the frenzied vaudeville of “play-giarism”. Again, ultimate textual truths are left in the hands of the reader, while the text asserts an almost naïve belief in the redemptive arts of story-telling. Such manoeuvres, the staple of postmodern creativity, become more than a little perplexing in the post-fatwa world however, considering the very real dangers that result from empowered, power-mad readers believing that they should have the final say. And the purer frolics of earlier fictions have shifted ground as Ms Gonzalez reminds us, for we are also but a short way from postmodern overkill, in those “bittersweet games of kill-joy narrators who aim to co-opt [the reader] into their non-system where uncertainty reigns supreme” (134).

9Uncertainty and irresponsibility get defiantly swept away in the fifth chapter, dedicated to The Ground Beneath her Feet. Here, Ms Gonzalez's prose reflects the dazzling, vertiginous arts of postmodern baroque, inviting us to an immoderate banquet where the novel apes the world of pop to sing “immoderate and inflated songs of praise to itself” (144). Making hyperbole and hypotyposis into the tools of its trade, verbal exhibitionism encounters its sexual perverse Other, exploring the hyper-sexed world of pop culture, offering a self-mythologizing, kitsch procession of stars whose high kicks have nothing to do with cancan dancing. Again, we see the depths to which former exuberance and creativity can plummet, in what is perhaps a final bid in Rushdie's quest for fake art, exploiting the self-promoting, self-legitimating, self-opinionated, self-decentring frolics of a drug-induced, hysterical jouissance. This chapter reads as a frenzied shrieking of the gospel according to postmodernism, until it collapses, vapid and redundant, in a sort of narrative of no return, offering a sombrely new angle on Barth's literature of exhaustion. After such knowledge, Ms Gonzalez seems to suggest, there is little hope for forgiveness or replenishment.

10The sorry aftermath of a postmodern orgy is taken up in chapter six in a reading of Fury, a feast of triumphant consumerism set against the vampiric logic of late capitalism. Here we are invited to explore and better understand Rushdie's modern gulag, Cyberia, where power fantasies come true; in a universe fed by Sci fi, Web games and the cyber-real, we encounter puppets in mutiny from their puppet masters and characters shaking off the shackles of their stories, where the work of the furies meting out revenge and reward falls to hardened succubi who are as devoid of affect as the bodies they drain. Gone are the splendid excesses of the previous chapter, however, just as Rushdie too has turned to cold sobriety after the heady wonders of the previous works. It is this frenzied fake excitement of creativity, subsiding into dulled, hollow, self-consuming fictions, that for Madelena Gonzalez, like Charles Jencks, marks the parting of the ways, as a postmodern agenda spins off into a postmodern condition, hopeless, pointless, lustreless.

11After the sobering lessons of the often chilling chapter six, the seventh stage in our meditation is presented as an afterword, with Rushdie surrounded by the ruins of a fictional empire he pulled to pieces by playing the game so well. Is the Rushdie novel perhaps tired of its own narcissism? Rushdie is berated for colluding perhaps a little too smoothly with academia, producing crash courses in postmodernism all the fitter for the academic to dismantle. Meanwhile, we are led to wonder whether the increasingly torturous unreadability of the texts isn't also an extremely dangerous ploy. The novel will have been digging its own grave if the reader, fatigued and exasperated, decides she can perhaps manage perfectly well without it. This is no longer redemptive but redundant aesthetics, the consequences of which we are left to ponder. The seventh chapter, however, slams its message home with its brilliant yet sobering last suggestion, that in his later fiction, Rushdie has written himself into screeching silence, which is paradoxically just where the ayatollahs wanted him, without their even having to shell out on assassins' fees. He would thus seem to have gone where so much postmodern thought has boldly gone before, into an arena so utterly depleted of energy, where ideologies have been so mercilessly emptied, that it awakens a desire for the stable, reassuring codes of fundamentalism We thus emerge from this often dazzling study of postmodernism, in which we find a very fine demonstration of postmodernism's analytical tools, realising that not only does postmodernism still have a word or two to say, and an ethical twist to its tricks, but also a lot to answer for.

12So where does Rushdie go from here? Only his next novel will tell. But the reader now knows there is more than one way to pronounce, and survive, a fatwa, more than one way to write a death sentence. Thanks to Madelena Gonzalez's work, when the next volume in the already considerable Rushdie œuvre does appear, our expectations will be great indeed, and our feet on firmer.

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Claire PÉGON, « Madelena Gonzalez. Fiction after the Fatwa - Salman Rushdie and the Charm of Catastrophe », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/571

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