Transfictional identities in Salman Rushdie's Grimus
Sophie Massé (Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3)
In an article entitled "Imaginary Homelands" Salman Rushdie writes: "The word "translation" comes, etymologically, from the Latin for "bearing across." Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained." (1) Men coming from one culture and entering another become, in Rushdie's own words, "translated men," men who have been "borne across." In such a perspective, transculturalism can be defined as a process of translation. Therefore, in this study of Rushdie's first novel, transculturalism will be referred to in this specific sense, with all the implications that the notion of "translation" may convey.
Transculturalism's most obvious aspect is its spatial dimension. In this respect the notion of space must be considered as being both physical and mental insofar as space can be a construct from direct perception but can also be a construct from remembrance or imagination. Consequently, fiction appears in its space-creating function in the sense that it creates mental worlds or in other words, "imaginary homelands." But transculturalism also has a temporal dimension in which home and foreign countries (whether imaginary or not) acquire temporal counterparts:
Homelands, London: Granta Books,
1991, p. 16.
Therefore transculturalism is no longer restricted to geographical and cultural displacement. It operates on both a spatial and a temporal level. As for the impact of transculturalism on men's identity, it is described in Rushdie's article as follows:
Transcultural or in other words post-lapsarian individuals become at once partial and plural. They are plural because they stand between and thus partake of two cultures, and they are partial because, having lost touch with their former world, they have lost part of themselves; they are fallen creatures in the Christian sense of the word.
Having chosen to define transculturalism as translation, in the etymological sense of the word, we will now revert to Salman Rushdie's first novel Grimus in order to focus on the way transculturalism pervades and shapes the fictional universe of Grimus. Part one will be devoted to the aspects assumed by translation on a diegetic level and Part two to the process of translation itself as the essence of the writing, process.
I - The art of translation in Grimus
A . Fictional identities
Grimus unfolds as a sort of odyssey depicting Flapping Eagle's quest for Grimus, a man who claims to be the orchestrator of his life. In the same way as transcultural identities are described by Rushdie as being at once plural and partial, the identities of both Grimus and Flapping Eagle are characterized by their hybridity. To start with, Grimus is described as a semi-semitic Middle European, a description which is a perfect illustration both of partiality and of duality. As for Flapping Eagle, he is an Amerindian, a term which sets him between two cultures. Because his mother died when giving him birth, the tribe first calls
him "Born-from-dead," with the consequence that this leaves him between the world of the dead and that of the living. Then in order to spare him hurt and because of the uncertainty of his sex at birth, the tribe changes his name to "Joe-Sue." There will be no need to insist on the ambiguity and the duality of such a hermaphrodite's name. Besides, Joe-Sue's duality is echoed by a shifting narrative point of view:
When he reaches the age of twenty-one Joe-Sue chooses the brave's name of "Flapping Eagle." In spite of the fact that his new name conveys a measure of coherence, the unity of his new identity is but a surface unity:
Flapping Eagle is but an empty man, a Shell without a Form (G 192), an empty envelope that can host many different identities. That specific property enables him to function as a link between the different worlds within the fiction: "the Gorf knew, when he saw Flapping Eagle, that this man was the link" (G 67).
Besides, when Flapping Eagle finally meets his creator, he merges with him and becomes part-Eagle part-Grimus, thus perpetuating his original duality.
B. Fictional world
But hybridity is not restricted to fictional characters; it pervades the fictional universe as well, taking on various aspects. First of all it is described as being purely Geographical. Only a few geographical locations are mentioned, one of them being Amerindia (where Flapping Eagle and his tribe live) while the other is "the port of X on the Moorish coast of
3. RUSHDIE, Salman, Grimus, London: Paladin & Grafton Books, 1975, p. 16. Subsequently referred to as G.
Morispain" (G 34). Nevertheless both locations display aspects of hybridity. As for the port of X it is reminiscent of Oedipus' crossroads and as such is a powerful symbol of hybridity. No wonder then that Flapping Eagle should leave from the port of X to arrive on Calf, the immortals' island, after falling, like Alice in Wonderland, "through a hole in the sea" (G 14). There again, the passage from one universe to the other is depicted in terms of a fall that fall marking the passage from a realistic universe (Amerindia, Morispain and the world in general) to a fantastic one (Calf Island): "The sea had been the Mediterranean. It wasn't now; or not quite" (G 14).
As a consequence, the post-lapsarian world of Calf partakes of both the realistic and the fantastic worlds. Besides the fact that its nature is ambiguous, the world of Calf Island appears as being plural in time and space. The fictional space is no longer described as unique at a given moment in time but it breaks down, it splits into a multitude of potential existences; it becomes multi-dimensional in the sense that it consists of an infinity of potential spaces:
Therefore, the fictional universe is but one universe among many others, without this cancelling the existence of other potential universes. In other words the fictional universe is potentially plural.
The fictional universe appears to the reader as a collection of potential spaces out of which one must weave a viable world; but this does not cancel out all other potential spaces. This functioning of the world of Calf Island therefore is a direct reference to the potential plurality of the text and to the way reading functions in the sense that reading activates potentialities contained in the text. The text no longer is a unique inscription on a page but it is a multiplicity of potential readings. Besides, because of the references to other texts it contains, the text appears as being poised between different fictional worlds. In this respect, the intertextual perception of the text can be twofold. It can be a perception according to which the text on the page appears as a surface under which there exist several layers that can be activated by a sentence or a word of the surface text a perception that establishes the supremacy of the surface text. However, according to another angle of perception, the text is described as a fabric combining other pre-existing, fictional universes which exist in the same right as what was called earlier the surface text. This latter perception is referred to in Grimus through the device of the "dimensions." This time the text no longer obliterates all other fictional universes which therefore exist on the same level as the inscription on the pace.
Because of the existence of an infinity of potential fictional spaces, the fictional universe of Grimus stands between potentiality and actualisation and this makes it highly unstable. And from time to time it is subjected to what is referred to as "blinks" during which Calf Island momentarily returns to non-being, to chaos: "[a] sort of blink. As though for a moment one wasn't there .... It was like a hiatus ... a break in time" (G 144).
II - Writing as the art of translation
A - Anagram as an aspect of translation: the reordering of reality
The world of Grimus follows a Chinese-box pattern. Flapping Eagle stands on the lowest level, which is supposedly supervised by Grimus; this first level universe is in turn observed by an alien being called a Gorf, who, being the highest intradiegetic perceiving subject, is therefore one degree below the narrative agency. Because of this proximity between the Gorfs and the narrator, we choose to focus on the way the Gorfs perceive and organize the world around them.
The Gorfs have a rather peculiar appearance: they look like huge stone frogs. They are incapable of moving and the only thing they can do is change the world around them according, to various combinations of their elements. So that their world at a given moment in time is but one possible reordering among many others: "The Gorfic planet is sometimes
called Thera. It winds its way around the star Nus in the Yawy Klim galaxy of the Gorfic Nirveesu. This area is the major component of the zone sometimes termed the Gorfic Endimions" (G 64),
It is important to note that the Gorfic versions of their universe (their Nirveesu) are anagrammatical reorderings of words such as "earth," "sun," "milky way" and "dimension." Therefore the Gorfs' skill lies in their ability to re-organize their environment:
This anagrammatical reordering is not restricted to language but affects the way the Gorfs perceive and therefore constitute the world. The fictional universe of Calf Island for example, as it is perceived by Koax the Gorf and as it has indeed been constructed is based on the anagrammatical reworking of the word "Grimus" that is to say "Simurg," the mythical bird of the Persian legend upon which the novel of Salman Rushdie has been built (the intertextual process workine backwards here):
The world according to the Gorfs is no doubt a metaphor of the writing process.
B. A passage to Fiction
The fictional universe of Grimus is divided into a realistic world (world and tabletop in Amerindia) and a fantastic one (Calf Island). Flapping Eagle falls into what stands for the Mediteffanean and is washed ashore by a sea which was the Mediterranean but is not quite so any longer.
The fantastic universe is presented as a reworking of the realistic one and this points out to the fact that the realistic universe itself is also a reworking of an extra-textual reality. The fictional universe follows the Chinese-box pattern of the narration and a specific reordering of reality corresponds to each perceiving subject and constitutes a specific
dimension. As for the passage from one dimension to another, it is described as a highly disturbing experience which is enacted through chaos:
Each dimension is constituted according to specific laws of perception. Therefore, in order to leave one dimension and enter another, the individual has to temporarily deconstruct his own "perceiving apparatus" so to speak in order to fit into the new perceiving pattern. As a consequence the universe is also momentarily deconstructed and is only re-constructed once the integration of the new perceiving pattern is complete. This has two major consequences. First of all it calls into question the supremacy of a unique perception; but this also points to the relativity of reality and submits it to perception.
The functioning of the fictional world of Grimus illustrates the passage from one fictional universe to another, from one perception to another and from reality to fiction and vice versa a passage during which universes undergo a reordering of their basic components. Nevertheless it seems that something gets lost in this process of translation: "The town was called Phoenix because it had risen from the ashes of a great fire which had completely destroyed the earlier and much larger city also called Phoenix. Nobody knew why the city had been given that name. It was a small town now" (G 24).
The fictional world is presented as being a reworking of a pre-existing, realistic universe. In such a perspective, fictionalisation is the reordering of a pre-existing reality the fictional world not being, therefore entirely created but partly found. But the process of reordering has a feed-back effect: the fictional universe chances the nature of the pre-existing reality which constituted its essence, in the sense that it chances the perception that the reader had of that reality. In the process of translation something, can be lost but something, can also be gained. Therefore the world one leaves is never exactly the same as the world one returns to. "The sea had been the Mediterranean. It wasn't now; or not quite" (G 14).