A review of Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Love is the main hero of this novel which is about, among other things, love, loss, life, death, the lines between truth and fiction, beauty, and art.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

“In the front lobby, carved into a stone wall, was a Latin motto. Venus significat humanitatem. It is love that is a sign of our humanity. This was a sentiment with which we were all prepared to live.” So says the narrator and one of three main characters in Rushdie’s latest novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Love is the main hero of this novel which is about, among other things, love, loss, life, death, the lines between truth and fiction, beauty, and art. Of course the themes are big. They always are in Rushdie’s novels. The story is compelling. They always are. The words play and trip and dive and move and stretch and pun and create new meaning while referencing everything we know from our children’s storybooks (Jungle Book, Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Wizard of Oz), music (from Buddy Holly to Aida), history (from the Mayflower to WWII to the partition of India) and great literature (from Aeschylus to Joyce) while reminding us constantly that we are in the world of fiction, and that this world is, in a way, no less real than the world around us. The story is told by Rai Merchant, one of the 3 main protagonists in this epic rock and roll love tale which follows Rai’s lifelong love Vina Apsara and lifelong friend Ormus Camas in their own troubled love story, which is set primarily between the 1960s and the 1980s. The story is both a comedy and a tragedy, both deconstructionalist and traditional in its form. It manages, like many of the masters of the early 20th Century (Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Mann, all of whom are referenced), to simultaneously draw us into the narrative while broadening the language, using words to create new and original meaning. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is no tome, however. From the first sentence: “St. Valentine’s Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim”, it is difficult to stop reading the book. The reader is drawn into the lives of Vina, Ormus and Rai, their strange love triangle and their ascendancy in the world of rock and roll and photography, and their struggles with meaning. It is funky, fun, full of the life, colour, and sounds of India, London, New York, and filled with a plethora of sensual writing, of music, photography, art, dance, food – “the empire of the senses” as Ormus explores the rift in the real and Vina works towards self-discovery, while Rai chases both of them and eventually finds his own self in the demise of his obsessions.

Amidst the fun and word fest are some fascinating themes which work beautifully with the narrative, while almost shocking the reader into seeing things in a different way. There is Rushdie’s interesting and often funny technique of taking real characters from the history of these periods and changing them slightly. John Kennedy is saved at Dallas and assassinated later with his brother Bobby. Elvis becomes Jesse Garon Parker. There is that famous duo, Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkle, John Lennon sings Satisfaction, the Kinks sing Pretty Woman, and My Generation is sung by supergroup High Numbers who changed their name from The Who and made the big time. A Clockwork Orange is written by F Alexander and Don Quixote by Pierre Menard. There is Catch-18, Elrond Hubbard, and Slaughterhouse-22, a Warhol like Factory run by alternative reality Warhol, Amos Voight. Initially this seems like a bit of novelist fun, but later, the meaning of this is revealed as Ormus tells Vina about the otherworld, where Kennedy was shot at Dallas and Lou Reed is a man. These “variations, moving like shadows behind the stories we know”, are not only reminders of the “real world” of the reader, a fairly common trick amongst good writers, but, woven expertly into the story as this is, it becomes the basis for an underlying theme of “otherness”, the (55): “conflict between the fantasy of Home and the fantasy of Away, the dream of roots and the mirage of the journey.” The characters sit at “the frontier of the skin”, the frontier of fiction and reality, as they grapple for a truth beyond their story. This is Darius Xerxes Camas’ (72) “forth function of outsideness”, the rip in the surface of the real, where meaning is obscured. It is not just a trick of the author to remind us that this is a fiction, but rather a reminder that in every life there is a grappling with meaning as we work out, like the characters in this story, who we are and what we want: (268) “This is a mirage, a ghost world, which becomes real only beneath our magic touch, our loving footfall, our kiss. We have to imagine it into being from the ground up.” Like any artist, we have to make our lives real. To create our own meaning: (466) “Our creations can go the distance with Creation; more than that, our imagining – our imagemaking is an indispensable part of the great work of making real. ”

Rushdie’s background in copywriting and love of words is evident everywhere, in the humorous sound-bites which often are funny enough to make the reader laugh out-loud, but are also pithy enough to commit to memory, such as this ode to American television commercials: (366) “There are many advertisements for anti-personnel devices ingeniously and variously disguised as edible foodstuffs and designed to turn the stomachs and digestive tracts of the American people into savage, heaving battlegrounds. These alternate with promo films for a wide range of chemical remedies, each claiming to be the only reliable way of restoring intestinal peace.” There are the many puns, “we three kings of disorient were”, the Sikh jokes: Singh Singh, Kant Sing, Will Sing, etc, Rai’s word-plays on Orpheus: “Morpheus the god of sleep”, “Metamorpheus god of change”, “Endomorpheus and Extomorpheus the twinned gods of body type”, etc, Ormus’s meditative state: Cama Obscura, and phrases like “his tongue untied by his tongue-tied brother”, a butler called Gieves, Major Ed (White), the first centaur in space (play on Mr Ed), and the most gorgeous descriptions of food, the breads of India, the tandoor nan, Peshwari nan, reshiri roti, shimal, paratha, chapati, phulka, mingled with the slogan East is east but yeast is west, as Ormus waxes lyrical on the English white bread: (290) “Ah, the soft pillowy mattressiness of it. The well-sprung bounciness of it between his teeth. Hrad crust and soft centre: the sensuality of that perfect textural contrast. O White Crust loaves of 1965, both sliced and unsliced! O small and large Tins, Danish Bloomers, flour-dusted Baps! O bread of heaven, bread of leaven”.

There is great meaning here too, and no more so than when Rai talks of religion as he tries to reclaim the sense of the miraculous without the hatred of the gods: (447) “Religion came and imprisoned the angels in aspic, tied our winged beauty to a tree, nailed our freedom to the ground. The god of the imagination is the imagination. The law of the imagination is, whatever works. The law of the imagination is not universal truth, but the work’s truth, fought for and won.” The Lennon like (in Imagine) criticism of the narrowing force of organised religion in the face of the truly miraculous brings together his reader’s role in the story with his own, providing a bridge between truths: (458) “When we stop believing in the gods we can start believing in their stories”. There are of course no such things as miracles, but if there were and so tomorrow we woke up to find no more believers on earth, no more devout Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, why then, sure, the beauty of the stories would be a thing we could focus on because they wouldn’t be dangerous any more, they would become capable of compelling other only believe that leads to truth, that is, the willing, disbelieving belief of the reader in the well-told tale. Although the ground beneath the characters feet is soft and moveable, the story shifting, the world unreliable and painful, with even the narrative uncertain, still there is something permanent, something miraculous. There is the beauty of everyday life where the mayhem continues but ordinary human love still transcends all: “Live on, survive, for the earth gives forth wonders. It may swallow your heart, but the wonders keep on coming. You stand before them bareheaded, shriven. What is expected of you is attention”.