Rushdie’s work East, West explores themes that are familiar ground for Rushdie and have already been discussed in his work Imaginary Homelands. This piece (as does Homelands) opens up a line of inquiry that asks: how do we view our homes within the inevitable and almost overwhelming context of nostalgia. His narrative style plays a pivotal role in inspiring this thesis for each story follows an kind of elevated, transcribed oral history. There’s an intimacy in the way he deals with the reader. The fourth wall is constantly broken the one is directly referred to, the narrator often speaks in the first person and at points the narrator candidly admits to withholding information, or simply not knowing and the plots of the stories are recalled as though they are folk tales. However, Rushdie is doing more than simply being a storyteller. He is pursuing more deeply and more lyrically the notion put forth in Imaginary Homelands, namely can one come to terms with the cracked, imperfect mirror through which home must be viewed or is an idealization and attempt at reclamation the only course of action.
A poignant example of this theme being explored can be found in the story The Free Radio. The piece opens with the assertion that “We all knew nothing good would happen to him while the thief’s widow had her claws dug into his flesh, but the boy was an innocent...you can’t teach such people”(Rushdie 19). However, the reader presently finds that the boy becomes a movie star and is awash in more success than one could ever imagine (Rushdie 31). Still the narrator persists that there is a mark of the old strain and fear that had begun slowly morphing into a profound anguish in the final days before the dream of the free radio was destroyed and a new dream forced to be realized and indeed that could be the interpretation of the boys success. He overcame the odds and through his fight and fire, he is forced to transcend to greater heights. This is not though how his success is read. Instead the question is begged: what did he lose on his way to stardom? What can a free radio to carry with during one’s dead end job represent that isn’t multiplied a hundredfold by all the trappings of wealth and stardom? The answer is, innocence. A free radio is no longer enough, nor is his quiet life as a rickshaw driver and there is a failure to acknowledge that, hence the “huge mad energy which he had poured into the act of conjuring a reality” (Rushdie 32) is still palpable. He’s still forced to conjure a reality but it’s one that seeks to make the complex and grand simple rather than make the simple complex and grand.Reading this story was interesting particularly after going this weekend to see the Peabody
Symphony Orchestra perform a piece by contemporary composer Kevin Puts entitled
(a little lamely) “Island of Innocence”.
It was a piece that dealt with the innocence and naivety allegedly felt before the 9/11
attacks. The supposition is a little problematic for a number of reasons (the least of which
certainly isn’t that the words “naive” and “innocence” can’t really be applied to a nation that
has the taint of genocide and slavery so deeply ingrained in its history) but for the purposes
of this essay, what’s most interesting is the desire to make the grandiose and complex i.e.,
the history and persona of the United States, into something simplistic, something innocent.
The music, for all of its technical mastery and cutting execution, was overly sentimental and
conveyed a theme or message that patently ignored the complicated loss of innocence that,
in all likelihood, this homeland (and possibly the boy) never really had.