Review: East, West

East, West
East, West
Salman Rushdie
Vintage Canada, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1996

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — July 10, 1998, 6:00pm

Salman Rushdie is a clever writer, and he wants to make sure that you know it. While Rohinton Mistry paints a picture and sets you inside it and Kiran Desai tries to massage you with a voluminous vocabulary, Rushdie wants to give you literature, nothing but literature. He wants you to think, examine, and find something new every time. And he wants you to know that he’s good.

Rushdie’s East, West is in the spirit of many Indian writers: a book of short stories. The stories themselves are diverse: the "East" section starts out, predictably, in India, and the reader soon thinks that the book will be a feel-good collection of stories of the homeland, with a few foreign accents through in for good measure. But, ji nahin sahib!, this is not the case.

The closer we get to the "West" section, the stranger things seem. At first it appears that this is just a symptom of the "East." After all, they do things and think differently than we do in foreign lands. Get ready for another set of, "Indian tries to adjust to the West" stories.

But Rushdie’s "West" is no less unusual than the "East." Sure, this is the West that we’ve grown up in, but why, through Rushdie’s eyes, does it seem so unusual, so unlogical? Rushdie does a good job of illustrating how sometimes we can criticize other cultures, but the reason our culture can seem so ordinary is that it’s what we are used to. In "Chekov and Zulu" (in the "East/West" section), Rushdie illustrates how a bit of American pop culture can even seem foreign when it is interwoven with that of another society. With "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers," he expertly illustrates the western emphasis on movie stars and their fictional counterparts, to the extent of idolizing mere objects (in this case, Dorothy’s slippers from "The Wizard of Oz.")

But all is not as they appear in Rushdie-land. Lurking beneath the surface is the point that our fascination of such objects is possibly more ridiculous than foreign fascinations that appear strange to us. Is our inclination to collect movie memorabilia that far removed from the religious respect for a few supposed strands from the head of Mohammed, as in, "The Prophet’s Hair?" ("East")

To think that these subtle points are all that Rushdie has up his sleeve means that you slept through the book. What does "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers" really mean? Surely I’m not the only one to notice that the name of the narrator’s cousin, Gale, reminds us of the tornado in, "The Wizard of Oz" — is he talking about a person or a whirlwind (95)? Is, "the last straw" (94) an allusion to the scarecrow? Yet Dorothy’s famous, "there’s no place like home" seems to remind us again of the entire struggle between East and West, between old homes and new, between the familiar, the strange, what becomes familiar, and what becomes strange. This entire work clearly needs to be read, no, studied again.

Rushdie’s plots are twisting and full of hidden meanings. His style varies immensely. Rushdie even tries to preempt the Bard himself in "Yorick" (in the "West" section, of course), in which, I must admit, some of his phrases are quite clever. Speaking of Ophelia’s marriage to an old Yorick (this is Rushdie’s version, you must remember):

In the matter of this Ophelia: she’d less than half his years and more than twice his looks, so it will instantly be perceived that what follows may be ascribed to divisions and multiplications. An arithmetical tragedy, in sum. A grave tale, fit for gravesides (66).

If you read East, West, you’ll learn only a little more about Indian culture and only a little more about Western thoughts. But if you enjoy clever writing, you’ll be entertained by the always-changing style and content. If (like me for the moment, unfortunately) you don’t have the time to reread these stories and dig out their hidden meanings and messages, you will have missed as much a measure as you might have gained. East, West is a diverse collection of stories that illustrate the diverse talents of the author. And I’m sure that’s exactly how he meant them.