Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Humor of a Fool is Never Lost in Translation

Salman Rushdie’s East, West is unique among the texts that we have covered so far in that much of it actually does occur in the West. It merges stories that involve Western culture and stories that involve Eastern culture. Some of the tales incorporate famous characters from history and literature, like Columbus and Hamlet. Others merely involve artifacts like Muhammad’s hair (I suppose Rushdie has nothing to lose here, already under a fatwa). He picks events, characters, and customs so particular to each culture. However, even before he merges East and West in the latter half of the book, Rushdie is already blending them seamlessly through his satire of basic flaws in human nature. Flaws like greed or over-weaning naivety persist in every culture, and he continues this satirical thread as a means of weaving a unity between stories.

Rushdie shows partiality to neither culture as he lampoons the greed and ignorance of many of the characters in his stories. Hashima with the endless rationalization of his usury manages to convince himself that he is doing society a good by pocketing the coveted relic of Muhammad. Characteristically, the religious revival he experiences under the influence of the hair (forcing Huma to cover herself, praying five times daily, etc.) does not lead him to follow the Shari’ah any closer in regards to his treatment of his debtors. Eventually, the relic is closely guarded in a shrine. For all the death it caused, it is essentially of value to no one, sitting in its vault.

Rushdie continues this theme of greed for an object that value is arbitrarily assigned to. He carries the theme into a Western story, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers.” The price of the ruby slippers (interestingly taking after the movie, not the silver shoes of the book. Perhaps this is to parallel the Indian story, “Advice is Rarer than Rubies”) which may or may not hold an actual value, are driven outrageously high at auction. The narrator, possibly the only person to whom the slippers hold a personal value, is driven out of the bidding by people who do not seem to know what the slippers actually are. Since they are unaware of the shoes’ actual function, the value comes from the greed the others have for them. The narrator parallels this to the story of the edible panties, over which a similar bidding war was launched (ignorant of the stockpile of panties that exists). Rushdie portrays the basic human nature of greed, common to both stories and cultures.

Ironically, Rushdie has a far crueler time mocking the naïve than the greedy. While not an evil human nature, Rushdie lays into these naïve characters for their stupidity. He creates such a pathos inducing character in Ramani the Rickshaw-Wallah (a famous profession associated with the East). The poor man seems to have absolutely no grasp on human nature. He is manipulated by the thief’s widow and holds out a pathetic hope for his radio. The radio represents the fact that he has taken up the ultimate emasculation in order please others, heedless of his own wants.

Rushdie then makes the bold choice to satire Columbus, a hero of Western culture. He portrays him as naïve, fawning after Isabella, despite the mockery and abuse he is met with. Columbus blindly pursues “consummation” (a clever twist of words, as he is literally being consumed by his desire for her favor). He relegates a character, usually portrayed as noble in Western literature, to the humiliation of pig sties. Again, a man suffers emasculation in pursuit of an immature fantasy.

Rushdie takes heed to keep the tone consistent in these stories. While the settings may be diverse, the humor with which they are presented, and the types of human nature are analogous. Much like Rushdie who is a “translated man,” the stories merge two vastly different cultures.

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