BOOK REVIEW / Fireworks, rubies and an ayah: 'East, West' - Salman Rushdie: Cape, 9.99

D. J. Taylor
Saturday 08 October 1994 00:02 BST

IN AN age where we are regularly asked to judge not only the book but the accompanying performance of the writer, the vexed issue of the relationship between art and the artist infects literary life like a kind of distemper. Some novels seem inextricably bound up with the antics of their creators. But Salman Rushdie has fallen into this category by sheer mischance. Of all the misfortunes to affect a writer, one of the most dismal must be an awareness that the simple act of picking up your pen has become a highly charged political act, open to misrepresentation by friend and enemy alike. Depressingly, the fact of Rushdie's continued existence as a writer is as much a challenge for his admirers as his detractors. After all, to criticise work by a victim of intolerance can look dangerously like abetting zealotry.

Happily, East, West (Cape, pounds 9.99) avoids imposing these dilemmas on the reviewer anxious to champion freedom of expression while remaining uneasily conscious of his duty to literature. There was talk of a new novel, provisionally titled The Moor's Last Sigh. These nine short stories offered in its place, though ranged up along the Anglo-Indian pontoon bridge that has always been Rushdie's principal preoccupation, are less generic than they look. In fact you imagine that they are simply an assembly of Rushdie's short fiction to date.

'East', the opening section, contains three Indian pieces, light in tone but decked out with memorable pathos. In 'Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies' a woman seeking to go to England for an arranged marriage welcomes her failure to secure a visa, to the surprise but ultimately the pleasure of the professional savant whose advice she has sought. 'The Free Radio' takes in a simple-minded rickshaw puller with dreams of a movie career: choosing to marry a widow with five children, Ramani is soon a victim of the government sterilisation programme.

Terse and simply written in the gnomic repartee of the inarticulate, these pieces have something of the unfeigned, stark quality of the late Shiva Naipaul's early stories, although 'unfeigned' is never a safe adjective to use in connection with Rushdie. The sinister political backdrop to 'The Free Radio', for instance, is cunningly woven into the account of Ramani's day-dreams, and the 'armbanded cronies' who surround the official caravan with its stink of ether are an ominous incidental presence.

The stories in 'West', the second section, are perhaps less successful. 'Yorick' is a wordy, cod-Shakespearean fantasia about Hamlet's jester; 'At The Auction Of The Ruby Slippers'is a dystopian parable in which Hollywood memorabilia assume an almost magical significance. But the three stories of the final section - 'East, West' - in which the promised oppositions of the title are finally vouchsafed, are excellent. The collection's highpoint, perhaps, is 'The Courtier', an account of the relationship between an elderly ayah and the stroke-damaged porter of a Kensington mansion block. Set in the early Sixties, and observed by an Indian boy in search of English citizenship, the story makes several nods in the direction of a kind of fiction Rushdie could do brilliantly if he cared: more naturalistic than his recent work, less firework-stricken, but still capable of blazing up into imaginative flame.

Most of East, West takes place on the surface; the tone is generally innocuous. Here and there, though, something stirs. The sharpest jolt comes halfway through 'At The Auction Of The Ruby Slippers' on the arrival in the building of a group of religious fundamentalists. The narrator innocently explains: 'The fundamentalists have openly stated that they are interested in buying the magic footwear only in order to burn it, and this is not, in the view of the liberal Auctioneers, a reprehensible programme: What price tolerance, if the intolerant are not tolerated also?' As short stories, the pieces here fall into the category of entertainments: what Kingsley Amis once called 'chips from the novelist's workbench'. But this is not to disparage their value. Given the circumstances of Rushdie's recent career - this, it cannot be repeated too many times, is a man who was condemned to death for writing a book - it is extraordinary that he manages to write anything at all.

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