Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed
Into different bodies.
– Ovid, The Metamorphoses
And so, “The Firebird’s Nest” by Salman Rushdie begins.
It begins with language, painting the landscape with words, allowing us to feel dry heat settling and stagnating over the barren land, and immediately connects the land to the body, defining the land in terms of gender, knowing that the body is always political.
It is a hot place, flat and sere. The rains have failed so often that now they say instead, the drought succeeded. They are plainsmen, livestock farmers, but their cattle are deserting them. The cattle, staggering, migrate south and east in search of water, and rattle as they walk. Their skulls, horned mile-posts, line the route of their vain exodus. There is water to the west, but it is salt. Soon even these marshes will have given up the ghost. Tumbleweed blows across the leached grey flats. There are cracks big enough to swallow a man.
An apt enough way for a farmer to die: to be eaten by his land.
Women do not die that way. Women catch fire, and burn.
Then Rushdie drops us into the story; we are travelling over the landscape with Mr Maharaj, a prince, and a yellow haired American woman who is presented as his bride. It is the beginnings of a fairy tale.
Here Mr Maharaj is still the prince, and she, his new princess. As though she had entered a fable, as though she were no more than words crawling along a dry page, or as though she were becoing that page itself, that surface on which her story would be written, and across which there blew a hot and merciless wind, turning her body to papyrus, her skin to parchment, her soul to paper.
It is so hot. She shivers.
Rushdie draws strong connections to the body, and directs us towards the physicality of “story” as told through the body. He alludes to books, tangible words, pages and papers in which a story is written, leading us to the actual story being written, our present history, our present fairytale. “It is so hot. She shivers.”
The fairytale idea also continues when they pass a wedding party. The American imagines that “they have found this happy ending” and is surprised that the wedding is between an old man and a young virgin from a distant village. She is even more surprised at the talk of dowry, the economic exchange of brides and money, and panics as transsexual dancers and chaos surround the vehicle after recognizing her as an American.
Then the story begins to present the characters in a more complex way. The yellow haired woman is a financial advisor, a “rainmaker.” She is America, the “american dream”, an embodiment of the physical country. Mr Maharaj is India, old India struggling to survive in this modern world.
The body, once again, becomes the stage in which this plays out. And all of a sudden, the story is no longer about these two characters, but about these two countries, and ecomomic realities dictated by money, the terrible divide between the poor and the rich.
Once upon a time in ‘America’, they had shared an Indian lunch three hundred feet above street-level, at a table with a view of the vernal lushness of the park, feasting their eyes upon an opulence of vegetation which now, as she remembers it in this desiccated landscape, feels obscene. My country is just like yours, he’d said, flirting. Big, turbulent, and full of gods. We speak our kind of bad English and you speak yours. And before you became Romans, when you were just colonials, our masters were the same. You defeated them before we did. So now you have more money than we do. Otherwise, we’re the same.
The American then guesses that “he came from a place unlike anything she had ever experienced, whose languages she would struggle to master, whose codes she might never break…” She enters the crumbling palace of Mr Maharaj, and is woken in the morning by the sound of drums and dancers. The lead dancer is Miss Maharaj, Mr Maharaj’s sister. The American faces her, asking
What are you doing?
A dance against the firebird. A propitiatory dance, to ward it off.
The firebird. (She thinks of Stravinsky, of Lincoln Center.)
Miss Maharaj inclines her head. The bird which never sings, she says. Whose nest is secret; whose malevolent wings brush women’s bodies, and we burn.
But surely there is no such bird. It’s just an old wives’ tale.
Here there are no old wives’ tales. Alas, there are no old wives.
Again, the body. The dance inhabits the body and gives it power, weaving movement and intention; the dance becomes a ward and protection against the firebird; the firebird’s touch is the touch of men, the annihiliation of women. Later, Miss Maharaj tries to explain to the American:
Without noticing its beginnings, so that we did not resist until it was too late, until the new way of things was fixed, there has occured a terrible, terminal rupture between our men and women. When men say they fear the absence of rain, when women say we fear the presence of fire, this is what we mean. Something has been unleashed in us. It’s too late to tame it now.
Miss Maharaj goes on, trying to explain the meaning of the firebird in another way, a simpler way. “Once upon a time there was a great prince here…” Here, Rushdie engages fairytale again as another method of truth telling. “And the villagers said that the old prince, consumed by rage, has been transformed into a giant bird, a bird composed entirely of flames, and that was the bird that burned the princess, and returns, these days, to turn other women to ashes at their husband’s cruel command.” The American asks her if she thinks the story is true, and she responds:
Do not mistake the abnormal for the untrue. We are caught in metaphors. They transfigure us, and reveal the meaning of our lives.
And that is the crux of what I love so much about this story, that it spins and spirals and reveals itself in all of its many facets, by connecting the body to language and love and sex and enviornment and politics and economics and mythology and history.
The story expands again when the American becomes pregnant, and culminates in a confrontation with the firebird. I am not going to transcribe or summarize any further, only to say that this is an amazing piece of work, important and devastating and brilliant, and deserves to be read and shared and reflected upon.
I found this story in the anthology “Telling Tales”, edited by Nadine Gordimer, an overall excellent collection!