The 2000 elections in the US are underway. A man and his three adult sons move to New York from an unnamed city in an unnamed country. Armed with new, classical names—Julius Nero Golden and his sons Petronicus or Petya, Lucius Apuleius or Apu (a nod to his origins) and Dionysus or D.—they decide to rid themselves of any connection with their past. Or, at least Nero does, and his word is law. When asked by his youngest son what they should say when asked where they are from, Nero says, “Tell them we are snakes who shed our skin. … Say we are from nowhere or anywhere or somewhere, we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters…. Do not tell them the name of the place we left. Never speak it. Not the street, not the city, not the country. I do not want to hear those names again.”
The family settles down in the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District, or the Gardens, “a place of happy retreat from the disenchanted fearful world beyond its borders”. The book is narrated by one of their neighbours, René, a young budding film director. Through him, we get to know the Goldens: Petya, who has Aspergers and is terrified of going outside; the artistic Apu, a man about town; and D. who is going through a gender identity crisis. And Vasilisa, a beautiful young Russian woman, who comes into Nero’s life, moving in and slowly taking over, playing her game with the skill and patience of a chess master. René thinks that they would be a good subject for a mockumentary and makes it a point to get close to them. Before long, he is drawn into their make-believe narrative and their tangled lives.
But the past seeps in through the cracks, and the family starts to unravel. The place of which they never speak is India, and the unnamed city Mumbai. Ostensibly, the Goldens left because Nero’s wife was killed in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. The truth is a lot more complicated, as Apu finds out when he goes back looking for his roots.
The story of the family plays out against the backdrop of the twists and turns of American political life, from the Obama years to the beginning of the Trump administration. Trump is the Joker, ushering in a time when “knowledge was ignorance, up was down and the right person to hold the nuclear codes was the green-skinned red-slashed-mouthed giggler”.
Rushdie creates a rich world teeming with characters: Ubah, the Somali artist with whom both Apu and Petya fall in love; Murray Lett, an Australian hypnotist with a bouffant hairstyle who comes to help Petya deal with his fears; Riya, the young woman who helps D. figure out his identity; and U Lnu Fnu, the Burmese diplomat who lets René use his flat to access the Gardens after René moves out. I love Rushdie’s way with words. When Petya tries to go outside, he panics and ends up in a police cell. “Only Nero’s arrival in a large, grave, apologetic limousine saved the day.”
My quibbles with the book are that it takes a while to get started, and there are way too many references to film, which can get a little distracting. But it’s a great story and well worth reading.
Rushdie’s main preoccupation here is identity, whether it is D. trying to understand who he really is, Nero trying to shed his skin or Vasilisa forging a new life for herself. Or for that matter, America itself, swinging from a president who embodied certain values to another who made nonsense of them. But in the end, you cannot escape your past: it is never dead—merely dormant, waiting for an opportunity to strike. And in the case of the Goldens, that is exactly what happens.