Nov/Dec 1999 Book Reviews

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Salman Rushdie
Random House (May 1999) 575pp
ISBN: 0 224 04419 2

reviewed by Ann Skea

HUG-ME. Umeed Merchant is a photographer who is also a wizard with words.

HUG-ME is the acronym for the language he shares with Vina Apsara: Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi English. "Bombayites like me," he claims, "were people who spoke five languages badly and no language well". But it is this "garbage argot" which he (and Rushdie) use to great effect.

This is not a book for those who are just looking for a story, although of course there is a story. It is a book for those who have time to sit and play the imaginative, inventive, witty, humorous and, occasionally, long-winded word games of which Rushdie is master. It is a book rich with language and ideas, and full of unexpected connections, disconnections and mutations, playfulness and deception. It is a book about a world which is as solid as the ground beneath your feet.

So, the book begins with an earthquake. Vina, a famous singer, flees the tremors and is never seen again. Her musician lover, Ormus Cama, meets, loses, finds and loses her again and again, as Umeed, who is also Rai (the Prince, Vima's pet name for him since childhood), tells their story.

Umeed, caught up in the rock n' roll lives of these gods of the music world, has all the storytelling skill of an Indian Ovid, and myth and metamorphosis is everywhere. Places, names, people, like the words and language he uses, are unstable. Nothing is certain, except that the world he describes is somehow familiar. There are pop stars, big gigs, raves, glitter, politics and an underworld of deception, self-delusion and quakiness. Vina, Ormus, Rai, everyone - all inhabit a frantic world which is always on the edge of the abyss. Moving and shaking, quaking, rockin' n' rollin', joking - everyone and everything keeps moving to avoid disaster.

Rushdie's imagination is rich and fecund. He is still surprisingly willing to play with religious imagery occasionally, but everything is grist to his story-telling mill. Religion, race, myth, culture, wisdom - life, in fact - all are here. All are woven into a modern myth akin to that of Orpheus and Eurydice.

You do, perhaps, need to be in the right mood for this epic of playfulness but if you have enjoyed Rushdie's books before then you should enjoy this. And dipping into the book at random is rewarding too:

"_The Garden of Forking Paths_, he says, naming her favourite nineteenth-century novel, the interminable masterwork of the Chinese genius, the former governor of Yunnan province, Ts'ui Pn".

This relies for its humour on Rai's slippery way with words and pronunciation. But Rai, who is also Umeed(Hope) Merchant, would never deceive you. "Cross my heart and hope to die", as he says.

And since the title of this book is, _The Ground Beneath Her Feet_, I will leave you with this randomly selected quotation, which is rather longer but gives you some idea of Umeed's allusive, shifting (shifty?) style:

Earthquakes, I point out, have always made men eager to placate the gods....The celebrated philosopher Pangloss was hanged (the more conventionally approved bonfire wouldn't light). His associate, Herr Candide of Thunder-ten-tronckh, a name like an occult incantation, likely to provoke earthquakes where none had previously occurred, was flogged rhythmically and for a long while upon his bloodied buttocks. Immediately after this auto-da-f there was an even bigger earthquake, and that part of the city which remained standing instantly fell down. That's the trouble with human sacrifice, the heroin of the gods. It's highly addictive. And who will save us from deities with major habits to feed?

Rai Umeed Orpheus Merchant perhaps?


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