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The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Salmon Rushdie’s “rock and roll” novel

By Zarminae Ansari

The Harvard Square Book Festival started out with a bang. While most of the events in the festival are free, the $12 tickets for its first event were sold out days before the event. On May 10th, 1999, six hundred people attended a reading and book signing of author Salman Rushdie’s new book The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

Rushdie, already a well-known and celebrated writer of such novels as Midnight’s Children, became an international celebrity when his book The Satanic Verses was condemned as being blasphemous to Islam by the religious leaders in Iran, and a death sentence was passed on him. Subsequently the book was banned in most of the Islamic world. Rushdie spent years in hiding; his movements cloaked in heavy secrecy. When he came to MIT a few years ago, students were told only that a “special speaker” had arrived. The doors of Room 26-100 were closed so that no one could leave the auditorium.

The Iranian government recently lifted the sentence, or “fatwa”. Yet, Rushdie still moves around with security and understandably so, since what the Ayatollah unleashed was a Pandora’s box and may never totally go away Metal detectors, plainclothesmen, Boston Police only added to the nervous energy and sense of anticipation of the crowd that had gathered hours before the event to stand in line.

Rushdie received a standing ovation when he entered. His new book has been described as a “rock and roll novel”, a love triangle and a reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. As Rushdie commented during the course of the evening, his novels defy compartmentalization into a genre. His work is most often referred to as written in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa; i.e. magic realism. After a brief introduction to his latest novel, Rushdie chose a decidedly non rock and roll passage from his book to read from.

Those who wanted to ask questions at the end of the reading were asked to make a line at the front of the church and ask questions one by one. It was unclear whether this was to facilitate organization or if it was a security measure. Since the event had started late and an overwhelming number of people wanted to have their newly acquired copies of the book signed by him, not everyone got an opportunity to ask questions at the end of the reading. Those who were fortunate enough to have a chance to speak to the author, had the most mundane of questions answered with Rushdie’s hallmark quick wit and eloquence, speckled with personal anecdotes.

Rushdie fans had been following his book reviews and interviews in print and other media including two shows on National Public Radio the week before. Most people who would attend such an event and buy tickets in advance would at least have the most basic of information about this new book. The questions were largely intelligent or at least informed, except for one clueless member of the audience who may have had some other inexplicable personal agenda in asking a question of Mr. Salman Rushdie and asked him what his connection was to the song by U2 of the same name. “I wrote it” was his succinct reply, as the audience dissolved into laughter in disbelief. To his credit though, he had the courtesy to explain his relationship with the band at length and the background to his collaboration with them on their upcoming album.

He answered questions about the recurring characters in his books, about his childhood haunts in Bombay. He also defended his choice of predominantly English writers in an anthology of modern writers in India, the exclusion of certain writers in regional languages due to the unavailability, or quality, of existing translations. He gave a hilarious explanation for his recent photographs at the Playboy mansion. It was he said, a publishing party, which a publisher friend took him to. When the Bunny found out that he was an author she said that she did not like to read because it made her “head hurt”. When the photographers captured this conversation on film, she was later quoted as being a great fan and having read all his books! It seemed like a story from one of his books.

The question that he did not answer, was based on the passage he had read where a world famous and truly talented photographer the narrator in the book, Rai, gains his initial success. It is the story of a sordid secret: an act that he justifies to dispel self-doubt. The photographs that give him his initial success were a dead colleague’s photos -- they were someone else’s story. There is no doubt that Rai is talented and deserves the success that he now enjoys--all his later work proves it--but they were someone else’s story.

When asked how autobiographical the novel was, especially since he became a celebrity after someone created the story for him--i.e. the fatwa, Rushdie only discussed the difficulty of writing in the first person narrative. All the experiences, the observations, sound like those of the author- as they very often are. The question was left unanswered. The audience did not seem too perturbed by that -- most of us could not wait to get back home to start reading our treasured signed copies of the book.