Friday, 7 November 2008

The Ground Beneath Her Feet - Salman Rushdie

The Ground Beneath Her Feet was the first Salman Rushdie novel I read, and as such it holds a special place in my affections. I read it on my honeymoon in a lovely apartment in Barcelona, above an ice-cream shop. There were repeated power cuts, which led to, amongst other things, a lot of melted ice cream. The Athens Olympics were taking place, and I would sit in a quiet study listening to Ed Harcourt and losing myself in this wonderful journey.

It is the story of music legends Vina Aspara and Ormus Cama, whose love for one another is as insatiable as it is impossible. Ormus Cama is a one man history of the most creative and genre-bending music of the last fifty years. Together with his dead twin who sends melodies to his dreams, Ormus writes the songs which define generations. He is the rock god of all rock gods. A combination of Elvis’s pelvic mastery, Lennon’s penchant for making bread at home, and the global heritage and stage persona of Freddy Mercury. But he is nothing without Vina Aspara, his love and his voice, the woman who makes him tick. Without her, he shuns the limelight, and resents fame. He needs her to be his, but she is not the sort to be anyone’s, and so he spends his life finding, losing, finding, and then loosing her again, chasing her across the world, from India, to England, and then on to New York, and eventually even beyond death.

And all the while, the action is being narrated by Rai, their biographer, photographer, and friend, whose unrequited love for Vina is the glue which holds their entire careers together.

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie creates a whole new mythology for the rock’n’roll generations, an inverted history of popular music since the 1950’s. Because of its subject matter, it is one of the most accessible of Rushdie’s novels, the perfect book for those wishing to discover him for the first time. As with all Rushdie, the intellectual fodder is unrivalled, with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth here recreated for our celebrity times. But on top of this we have rock’n’roll history familiar to most of us. You can have a great time trying to work out which famous songs Ormus Cama writes, which celebrities are being parodied. But this is not satire. It is a paean to the sometimes vain and dirty, always bright and amazing world of global rock’n’roll. And when Rai discovers parallel worlds through the lenses of his camera, the question is posed: is this another trick of technology, or has he broken through into something that the human eye can never hope to perceive?

The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a tremendous novel, right up there with Rushdie’s very best. I love his ability to adapt magical realism to very real situations, to bring mythology alive and represent what a character may be thinking or feeling in some otherworldly happening which feels so believable it is amazing that it doesn’t happen like that in everyday life.

There is only one problem with this novel, and it is a problem with most novels about music. The flowery language and descriptions of brilliance make one yearn to hear, just for a second, this music of the Gods. It is unfair to give so much life to a music which can never be heard outside the printed words on the page. These impossibilities make my heart weep with desire, just as Ormus and Vina weep for each other, for they can never stay sufficiently earthbound to be together. It doesn’t matter that U2 actually recorded the central song here, for it just doesn’t live up to the words on the page. And this is the problem of a great writer: when you shut the final page of a treasured book, you feel remorse that it is the printed world which is fictional, and not this endlessly complex world of everyday life.

9 out of 10

No comments: