Books: Best of both worlds

EAST, WEST by Salman Rushdie

Cape pounds 9.99

THE TITLE of this collection of stories has a haiku-like density enclosing layers of allusion and irony. The most obvious reference is to the well-known verse ending 'home is best'. This already has a double edge. On one hand, it reminds us forcibly of Rushdie's condition of internal exile since the fatwa, where 'home' means an endless sequence of anonymous safe houses. But beyond this lies a more general questioning of the entire concept, an assertion that any sense of identity, of inherent rootedness in a nation or a people, is - and ought to be - problematic.

Rushdie addresses the latter issue directly in the final story, using an image borrowed from the film The Misfits:

I, too, have ropes around my neck, I have them to this day, pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose. I buck, I snort, I whinny, I rear, I kick. Ropes, I do not choose between you. Lassos, lariats, I choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose.

The lines are the more poignant for our knowledge that the author is condemned to live out that refusal at the risk of his life. For if another echo in East, West is the famous line of Kipling ending 'never the twain shall meet', then Rushdie's position is that of the comma in the title, trapped in the hinge of opposing value systems like a nut in a door-jamb. On the evidence of this book, he shows no signs of cracking, for the new stories here are among his finest work to date.

There are nine in all, arranged like a set of Bach variations into three sets of three: 'East', 'West' and 'East, West'. The sequence is roughly chronological, and the variety of style and tone instructively diverse. The earliest section features two vignettes of Indian life, 'Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies' and 'The Free Radio'. In the first, a woman's eleventh-hour escape from an arranged marriage is observed through the eyes of an elderly conman; in the second, an anecdote about a young rickshaw driver opens out into a portrait of village society at the time of the government sterilisation campaign. The effect in both is rather reminiscent of William Trevor: poignant, wry, accomplished, restrained.

The third story, 'The Prophet's Hair', extends Rushdie's range into the magical realism he exploited so effectively in Midnight's Children. The form is that of a folk tale, the tone crisp, swift and pointed. But for those who read the story years ago in the London Review of Books, extra-textual considerations may loom largest. Which of us, as we revelled in what seemed like story-telling at its purest and most sovereign, could have guessed that the fundamentalist madness which destroys the lives of all the protagonists would one day be visited on the author himself?

The second section, 'West', might almost be by another writer. This is Rushdie in right-brain mode, juggling historical facts, cultural icons and literary references with considerable energy and panache, but to limited effect. 'Yorick' is a fantasia on themes from Hamlet in the style of Lawrence, and serves only as a reminder of Joyce's definitive performances in both respects. 'At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers' is more rewarding: a futuristic refraction of very contemporary themes of power and desire, image and reality, marred only by a slight vein of portentousness. The remaining piece is the one dud of the collection, reading almost like a parody of Donald Barthelme at his most laboriously whimsical and baroque.

It would perhaps be too neat to suggest that the tripartite form of the book corresponds to the Hegelian thesis, antithesis and synthesis, but 'East, West' does in a sense offer us the best of both Rushdie's worlds. Here the realism and vigour of the early Indian stories is enhanced by a political and intellectual sub-text, which informs every line without ever breaking surface. These three new tales have a depth, resonance and humanity which both encompasses and transcends his previous achievements in this form.

'The Harmony of the Spheres' is a study of madness, and the alarming - and ultimately surprising - forms of co-dependency it creates. Simple, spare and telling, it effortlessly succeeds, and ends with a sensational curtain line which snaps the puzzle-box shut on the mysteries of life itself. 'Chekov and Zulu' combines a touching account of a friendship compromised by history and politics with a delicious pastiche of John le Carre spy business (a reference almost as sublime as Mozart's quotation of a successful rival in Don Giovanni, given le Carre's unsympathetic statements on Rushdie's predicament).

But the undoubted pearl of the book is 'The Courter', a fresh, unpretentious narrative which interweaves a romance between two elderly Indian expatriate servants with the adolescence of a privileged Anglo-Indian boy, while at the same time pulling together the themes of the whole collection. Given the massive claims and counter-claims which have been made in Rushdie's name in recent years, it is easy to forget the sheer charm of his writing at its best, its humour and humanity. All these are exemplified in this volume, which represents a more effective response to his enemies than any number of statements or speeches.

(Photograph omitted)