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High Shelves - Lessons in Evil and in Love
"For God's sake, open the universe a little more!" (Saul Bellow, The Dean's December)

In the breaking hours of Victoria Day, I awoke to the distressed yelping of refugees from the rain. A female racoon had taken up residence on the roof of the neighbour's garage the day before, her native habitat in the maple tree having grown too cramped for her maturing brood. But the roof provided no shelter from the elements, and I could only watch from the bathroom window as the mother tried frantically all night to keep her squealing young dry, huddling them into a niche under a too narrow overhang, shielding them with her body, and fetching the inevitably squeezed-out quadruplet which was seeking vain haven in the air-conditioning unit. At first light, she went in search of yet another, more suitable home.

The quest for a new home that propels many out of their native environment into an unknown elsewhere is a signature trope of these times. "The predicament of the emigrant has become almost the universal experience of the second half of the twentieth century," declares theatre critic Jan Kott in one variation of the theme. "Displacement and misplacement are this century's commonplace," seconds poet Joseph Brodsky in another.

As was brought to my attention last month on two unrelated occasions, there is no more apt anthem for the "migrational" condition than "Over the Rainbow" from the quintessential déraciné film, The Wizard of Oz-a film which could only have been made in a nation of immigrants, that is, as Salman Rushdie has defined America, a country which "has created great literature out of the phenomenon of cultural transplantation, out of examining the ways in which people cope with a new world" (Imaginary Homelands).

The first occasion was private-at the narrow, whitewashed, heritage row-home of Josef Skvorecky located on a tiny, dead-end street in Toronto's Cabbagetown, a neighbourhood reminiscent of London or the Old Towns of Prague or Gdansk. In Skvorecky's new novel, we find the invocation: "O, Canada, our home, not exactly native, but still our land! You generous haven for anybody! You unreal land over the rainbow!" Here, the author effectively transposes our national anthem into a song for immigrants, hyphenating it with the hymn of emigrants in an "entangled synchrony" (Kott) of past and present, there and here, yearning and possession.

The second occasion was public, during an onstage interview with Rushdie at a ritual site of passage, the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall. "`Over the Rainbow'," he mused, "has a curious resonance, a yearning for away. The thought that there can be more in our lives makes people sail over oceans, be tempted into slavery. The song encapsulates the dream of leaving. Why does Dorothy want to go [back] home [to Kansas]? It's in black and white. I never got it... There are some people in whom the idea of home is weaker than the idea of leaving... But freedom is a harsh thing, and in the end most of us do not want it."

Rushdie regaled the crowd of about 1,700, who had good-naturedly submitted to a two-hour lineup and body search by twenty-eight security guards. The writer emerged from hiding in order to promote his new book-appropriately, on the site of the first burning of The Satanic Verses, and appropriately, with proceeds from ticket sales going to PEN Canada's campaign on behalf of imprisoned writers.

Sometime following the February 14, 1989 decree by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the now-retired-in-Florida Munchkin who had announced that "The Wicked Witch is most sincerely dead" sent Rushdie a photo of the famous clip with his name inscribed on the death-scroll. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Knopf) begins likewise with the annunciation of sacrifice, of death in the name of: "On Valentine's Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim." But, instead of the tornado that lifts Dorothy into the sky, transplanting her in a foreign land where she must learn its laws in order to cope, the novel begins with another kind of violent convulsion-an earthquake which literally cracks open the ground beneath Vina's feet, changing suddenly the path of life.

Skvorecky and Rushdie-at the risk of making facile comparisons which the convergence of occasions nevertheless tempts. Both exiled from their birthplace. Both banned. Both creating in a second linguistic and cultural home. Both dealing productively with the plurality of vision entailed by emigration. Both enjoying the thaw and reversal of political positions (since September of 1998, the Iranian government has tried to distance itself from the fatwa, and the Indian government has extended a visa to Rushdie; Skvorecky has received honours from the Office which had once stripped him of his citizenship and banned his books). Both emerging, tinged, yes, but joyful (Skvorecky flourishing in the freedom Canada offers, though not unaffected by the circumstances and consequences of his exile; Rushdie having received, not only a "lesson in evil", but a "lesson in love" as well). And, of course, both inspired early on by Judy Garland flicks.

Rushdie wrote: "It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being `elsewhere'. This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal." And speak eloquently they both do (though Rushdie remained curiously silent about writers less fortunate than himself, writers imprisoned and oppressed, about whom the world rarely hears): on the co-existence of worlds, of worldviews which are radically different and incompatible, and which sometimes tragically collide.

And, finally, both just may find common ground with another exile, Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian poet living in America, who writes in "Thanksgiving Day" (Winter Dialogue, Northwestern University Press):

I offer my thanksgiving for the answers,

Which the sleepless mind is weary of pursuing.

For the new water. For grasses belonging

To the future. For the patient wind

Over them. For the grave in the foreign land,

For the weight of the foreign stone, not killing,

For nonexistence. And for Thee, Who can

Draw something from it. If Thou dost will it.

(translated by Diana Senechal)

Diana Kuprel


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