What a layered book The Golden House by Salman Rushdie turned out to be. It is a story filled with literary, movie, political, historical and mythic references. It is contemporary but the past constantly echoes throughout. The story wants to be a tragedy but can’t quite make it because of the absurdity of it all and Rushdie is slyly aware of this. Or maybe the absurd is actually part of the tragic and if so, it succeeds brilliantly, and Rushdie knows this too. The story plays with big questions — good and bad, truth and lies, reality and fantasy, identity, choice, destiny/fate and probably a bunch of other things that I am leaving out.
At the beginning it seems like it is going to be a straightforward narrative but then it begins to play tricks. Not crazy tricks just to show off and bedazzle, but structural and narrative tricks that add to and deepen the story.
And what is the story? It is about René Unterlinden, son of academic parents, who is a filmmaker working on the masterpiece of a project he is making about the Goldens. It is also about Nero Golden and his three sons, Petya, Apu and Dionysus. Golden is not their true name nor are their first names originally theirs either. They left Mumbai in a hurry, escaping, we don’t know what, and in order to hide their past and start fresh in America they all arrive with new names. Eventually we learn the story of that past and as the past does, it catches up to them.
The Golden House is a smart book. While sometimes Rushdie intrudes to make political commentary, it never gives the feeling of showing off or lecturing, more like editorializing. And on occasion it is difficult to tell whether Rushdie is making snarky fun of something, tossing in a bit of everything to try to be relevant, or is being genuine. It can be annoying but not so much that it ruined the story for me. There is abundant humor and astute observation. And the writing itself is beautifully smooth with hardly a false note — the man knows how to write a sentence!
When I finished the book I thought that it was pretty good. After a couple days have gone by, I like it even more. I keep thinking about it and various parts of it and it just keeps getting better and better. A book that slowly blossoms while reading and doesn’t reach full bloom until a little while after you turn the final page.
There are so many excellent quotes I could bombard you with but I will leave you with this conversation between René and his girlfriend Suchitra:
‘Now so many people in Australia state their religion as ‘Jedi’ in the census that it’s an official thing.’
‘Now the only person you think is lying to you is the expert who actually knows something. He’s the one not to believe because he’s the elite and the elites are against the people, they will do the people down. To know the truth is to be elite. If you say you saw God’s face in a watermelon, more people will believe you than if you find the Missing Link, because if you’re a scientist then you’re elite. Reality TV is fake but it’s not elite so you buy it. The news: that’s elite.’
‘I don’t want to be elite. Am I elite?’
‘You need to work on it. You need to become post-factual.’
“Is that the same as fictional?”
‘Fiction’s elite. Nobody believes it. Post-factual is mass market, information-age, troll generated. It’s what people want.’
‘I blame truthiness. I blame Stephen Colbert.’