The name Rushdie needs no introduction. Best known for The Satanic Verses controversy and the novels like “Midnight’s Children”, in which he artfully combines magical realism with historical fiction, the British Indian author has just released his newest novel, titled “The Golden House”, proving his versatility and undisputable talent. Claimed to be more ‘realistic’ than the books that made Salman Rushdie famous, “The Golden House” examines contemporary US culture and politics through the key historical events that serve as background for the modern family drama, the history of the Goldens, with its form and panache evoking classic Greek tragedy.
Nero Golden, an enigmatic, wealthy real estate tycoon, emigrates to the United States in 2008, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, escaping from “an unnamed country” (later revealed to be India) after losing his wife to the Mumbai terrorist attack. Nero and his three adult sons, Petya, Apu, and D. (for Dionysus), arrive in Manhattan, assume new identities, making up false names inspired by Romans, and move into a grand mansion – an event that causes quite a stir among the cloistered community in New York’s Greenwich Village. The four Goldens prove to be quite extraordinary and quickly establish themselves at the apex of the society. Their neighbour, a young filmmaker named René find in the mysterious family a perfect subject for his project and describes the whole story in a form of a movie, a script of a “mockumentary” he produces in his mind. As René becomes implicated in the family’s quarrels, we get to know about the secrets of every individual character, their infidelities, mental illness and finally, crimes, when the most obscure details of Nero’s past come to life in the final acts of the story…
“The Golden House“ has all the ingredients of a typical Rushdie novel, including a vast array of interesting characters of Indian ancestry and the story set in one of the biggest cities in the world, the Big Apple, which allowed him to create a work that, as a whole, stands out as a bold, ironic commentary about the modern world, historical decline and politics. Following the steps of F.F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rushdie makes a direct reference to “The Great Gatsby” and re-creates a cautionary tale for the pursuers of American Dream, invoking pop culture, literature, and – most of all – the cinema, weaving the story of the Goldens into the story of American zeitgeist over the last eight years. No sugarcoating. The events like Gamergate (which I had never heard of before) or the Tea Party does not go unnoticed and the rise of a superhero movie serves the author as an ideal pretext to make biting remarks about the current US President and his reign, even if never called by name. Rushdie’s New York becomes Gotham City that faces the insurgence of a “narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair”, the Joker and his duel with… Batwoman (doesn’t it sound familiar?). Even in those unfamiliar with the changing political and social situation in the United States over the past few years, myself included, the fall of the (house of) Golden men, especially Nero, parallel to the rotting society will certainly provoke thoughts about what has become of America. Of the world. Of humanity.
“Is it possible for a man to be a good man when he is also a bad man? Is it possible for evil to coexist with goodness and if so do those terms mean anything anymore when they are pushed into such an uncomfortable and perhaps irreconcilable alliance? It may be, I thought, that when good and evil were separated they both became equally destructive; that the saint was as appalling and dangerous a figure as the out-and-out rogue. However, when rightness and wrongness were combined in the right proportions, just so, like whiskey and sweet vermouth, that was what constructed the classic Manhattan cocktail of the human animal (yes, with a splash of bitters and a rub of orange peel, and you can allegorize those elements as you please, and the rocks in the glass as well).”
Interestingly enough, it is not how the story of the Golden family unfolds and ends that kept me engrossed in the novel, but its many overtones about life and death, truth and lies, human morality and the question of identity. I enjoyed how the high life of money, the whole blitz and glitz represented by the Goldens and their neighbours of Greenwich Village was described through the parties that could easily be hosted by Jay Gatsby in Nero’s grand mansion. I loved the fact that Rushdie openly made Rene a counterpart of Nick Carraway, however not so determined to get involved in the action and, even if embroiled in the events, remaining a vigil observant of Nero’s fall from grace. In one of the interviews the author admitted that René, just as himself – a passionate cinema lover – “uses films as a way of explaining the world” and the book opened up when he decided to make him a filmmaker, giving the narration a much broader scope, including elements of fantasy, made-up stories played in the narrator’s head. In view of René’s gradual “growing up” towards the end of the book, his criticism towards the old Nero and his moral lapses, “The Golden House” falls into the bildungsroman genre, with our narrator learning how to face his mistakes and finally becoming a man.
Much could be said about the novel, yet it’s always seemed a daunting task to even try to review Rushdie’s works, no matter how much I appreciate and venerate his overwhelming wisdom and literary craftsmanship, so let’s not dwell on the plot details and let the book speak for itself. For it touches upon universal values and global issues of the world where nothing is never black or white, good or evil. Rushdie poses many question, but never gives clear-cut answers, giving his readers the freedom to use their own judgement instead of imposing his opinion. This, along with a truly unique style and unsurpassed quality, is what makes him one of the greatest writers alive.
I would recommend “The Golden House” not only to Salman’s fans, some of which may find themselves a bit disappointed with the story and some delighted with his usual adroitness and a great sense of humour, but also to those yet unsure whether, and how, to approach his works. This brand new release may prove a great introduction to Salman Rushdie.
My rating: 4,5/5 stars
Read in: English
Format: Kindle / Hardback (I grabbed the last signed edition in Waterstones! :-))
Date read: December 2017
PS: Are there any Salman Rushdie’s fans among my readers? What’s your favourite novel of his? What makes you admire his works?
PS: I still can’t go over the fact that the writer visited Poland around three weeks ago, as a part of his book promoting tour and I just couldn’t make it to go to Warsaw! Such a lost opportunity…