Title: The Golden House
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 699
Nero Golden — that is, “the man who called himself Nero Golden” — is not what he seems. Except in living up to his assumed name: he lives in a golden house and plays an 18th-century violin. And, towards the end of the novel, we are told in the opening paragraph, there will be “a large — and, metaphorically speaking, apocalyptic — fire.”
Salman Rushdie’s new novel The Golden House is a witty, intelligent narrative that traces the fall and fall of one wealthy immigrant family in New York City against the backdrop of the eight years beginning with the election of Barack Obama as President.
Unimaginably rich, with business interests ranging from construction and shipping to online betting and “Mind your own business”, Nero Golden suddenly appears in the middle of a quiet, cosmopolitan New York City neighbourhood with his three adult sons in tow. Their house, inside which much of the novel is set, is called The Golden House. The Goldens seem to have left their pasts behind, inasmuch as the past can ever be left behind. This deracination reeks of crime and worse: unspoken, unspeakable things. In compliance with their father’s decision to leave their old identities behind in the country that must not be named (but which is, of course, India, how could it be otherwise in a Rushdie novel, and the city is Bombay), the sons have chosen classical names for themselves: Petronius, Lucius Apuleius, and Dionysus. But in the zany way of a Rushdie narrative, they are soon known as Petya, Apu and D. Petya is a high-functioning autistic person who cannot lie but who finds ways to avoid telling unpleasant truths about his family; Apu is a brilliant artist who feels the pain of exile; D is struggling with his identity as transgender.
Into this family home comes first one intruder, and then another. First, Nero’s new wife, the beautiful Russian, Vasilisa from Siberia. In the Russian fairy tale, the narrator reminds us, Vasilisa is eaten up by Baba Yaga the wicked witch who “became, outwardly, the spitting image of Vasilisa the Fair, though she remained sharp-toothed Baba Yaga on the inside.”
The second interloper is the narrator himself: Rene, the filmmaker son of liberal Belgian academics who live nearby. Rene begins as a detached narrator — one of the “we” of the neighbourhood, watching the Golden family drama from outside, but soon becomes a part of the story. He first decides to make a film — a “mockumentary” as he calls it — about the Golden family, by imagining everything that goes on inside the house — and then, literally moves into the house at a later point and becomes a part of their innermost secrets.
A Rushdie novel always wants to put everything into its pages, and in this novel, apart from so much other detail about New York life, it is all of cinema. Movie references abound, beginning with The Godfather, and while this might have been annoying in the hands of a lesser writer, in a Rushdie novel it is an intelligent delight. Here is Rear Window, with the residents discreetly looking out as the family tragedy plays out in the gardens; here is The Deer Hunter; Truffaut; the Marx brothers; Dumbo and the feather. Here is the exquisite grief scene with the tar-shehnai in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. And here is a jejune film-maker imagining a screenplay into life.
To add to the dense cinematic allusiveness are other cultural references. In case readers don’t get it (‘reading is boozhwa’, one of the side characters at the Occupy protest, which is also in the novel, might say), the allusions are listed in profusion. It is a uniquely Rushdiean and very readable laundry list: from The Great Gatsby to Hercule Poirot; Tintin and PG Wodehouse cheek by jowl with Homer, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Kafka.
Through all this dense allusiveness, the narrative succeeds as only a Rushdie narrative can, in turning the reader’s gaze upon the bigger picture. What is the question that the story of Nero Golden must address? asks the narrator’s filmmaker friend. “The question is the question of evil,” replies the narrator. If the choices made by an individual lead to their destiny, Nero Golden’s destiny begins even before the choice of his new name, imagining that he can leave behind the explosive secrets of the past — secrets that are at the heart of their family story. As Petya Golden says to Rene, quoting the words of the anthropologist Edmund Leach: “The family with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets is the source of all our discontents.”
A final word about Bombay. “The abandonment of the past makes a man meaningless,” says the witch Baba Yaga in her monologue inside Vasilisa’s skin. Rushdie’s novels are always as much about the secret, troubled, irretrievable time gone by, as about the giddy present. He returns to the city of his childhood over and over in his fiction, and memories of Bombay are at the deep heart of this novel, too: not only in its explosive plot riddled with violence and horror across two decades, but also in the stray, fleeting descriptions of a beloved city: the child being driven to Cathedral school; the happy family moments spent at the Hanging Gardens and Kamala Nehru Park; and that moment of Bombay beauty, the sight of “the art deco mansions lining the Back Bay into which the red sun dove head first every night.”