Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie: writing for a new world

Colin MacCabe
9 October 2005

Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, revealed a major talent slightly overwhelmed by the influence of her immediate predecessors as chroniclers of multiracial London, Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi.

Her third novel, On Beauty, confirms her abundant talent as she, with enormous grace and elegance, plays a campus novel riff on EM Forster’s Howard’s End. “Only connect”, said Forster in his “matter of England” novel, and Smith casts her net even wider to connect the old country with the United States and (in the guise of an Haitian sub-plot) the global south.

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh and professor of English at the University of Exeter, England. He also edits Critical Quarterly

Also by Colin MacCabe in openDemocracy:

“James Joyce’s Ulysses: the end of masculine heroism” (July 2004)

“Mumbo-jumbo’s survival instinct” (February 2005)

The first thing to say is how joyously clever this book is. In the middle of the book the plot turns for twenty pages around that glorious campus adjective “inappropriate” and it is impossible not to howl with laughter at the acuteness of Smith’s ear. More seriously the debate between London’s financial and intellectual districts – the City and Bloomsbury – which animates Forster’s book becomes a conflict between conservative and progressive views on race and art, articulated as fairly as the author of A Passage to India would have wished.

A cavil that should be noted is that Smith is currently ducking Forster’s more pessimistic realism – the Leonard Bast figure, in this version a member of the black underclass, is neither as desperate at the beginning nor as dead at the end as Forster’s character and the novel’s engagement with economic realities never quite manages Forster’s painful honesty.

There is, however, a major gain. Forster’s unlikely love story marries aesthete Margaret Schegel to magnate Henry Wilcox and ends with Henry’s unlikely recognition of the connections he has always disavowed. Smith’s love story bonds the English Howard Belsey, professor of art history, with sensible non-academic African-American Kiki Simmonds. The novel opens with the marriage in a crisis caused by Howard’s infidelity and builds to a spectacular climax when, in a plot twist it would be criminal to reveal, Howard is forced to reveal his love both for Rembrandt, the painter he has devoted his life to deconstructing, and Kiki.

If On Beauty shows a young talent coming into her full power, Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown shows an old master still at the top of his game. In his latest novel, Rushdie returns not just to the Indian subcontinent but to the Kashmir where Midnight’s Children began.

The book could be described as the tragic love of Shalimar for his childhood sweetheart Boonyi who, after their marriage, abandons him for the American diplomat Max Ophuls. Such a compression misses its genius: the way that individual fate is depicted as the outcrop of the story of two villages which encapsulate the tragic history of modern Kashmir.

From this perspective, Shalimar the Clown’s main characters are the villages themselves, Pachigam and Shirmal, and its central event the murder of a culture in which Hindu and Muslim lived easily together. Its sub-plot is a story from Europe’s Kashmir – the Alsace fought over in bloody rivalry by France and Germany from 1870 to 1945.

The cavil that Rushdie’s novel raises lies in the complex metamorphoses that transform Max from Alsatian hero of the French resistance, to John Kenneth Galbraith-type American ambassador in India, to a master of the dark arts of United States state terrorism. This may be convincing as the arc of the west’s trajectory in the 20th century but it taxes any notion of individual personality.

Such minor doubts dissolve in the overwhelming story of the two villages and their destruction at the hands of an Indian state determined to preserve its territorial integrity (even if that preservation renders the territory a desert) and a Pakistan willing to encourage a fundamentalist Islam which turn a clown into a murderer.

If Smith looks to Forster and a very English tradition, Rushdie’s models are more international: Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez come immediately to mind. To read these novels side-by-side is to realise the power and range of contemporary Anglophone fiction. As the world wastes, the word fertilises.

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