Grimus: Introduction

Multiple Journeys - Attar's Qaf

The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross the library in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.    (Borges, “The Library of Babel”)                                            

Multiple Journeys

The notion of an unlimited library crossed many times helps to get at Rushdie's labyrinthine first novel. Grimus has a tight architectonic logic which differs from the tangential meanderings and the quasi-historical trajectories of his next novel, Midnight’s Children. While Grimus has a more definable shape in one way — it clearly conforms to the epic journey in general — the novel also shuffles from order to disorder and suggests multiple epic journeys that start, finish, and start again.

To say that Grimus makes use of the epic journey is to understate the case. It would be more accurate to say that the novel fuses four mythic or religious traditions into one journey. Fusing Attar’s Conference, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hindu mythology, and the Norse Voluspá, Rushdie create an iconoclastic plot which goes like this: Virgil (the mystic) and Deggle (the Loki-like trickster) work in strange partnership so that Eagle (the iconoclastic hero) can climb the mountain and destroy the dimension maintained by Grimus (the God-like, Odinic tyrant). After Eagle frees the island-mountain from Grimus and his selfish use of the God-object, the Stone Rose, the novel opens out yet further into a vague infinity, into an open-ended scenario implying any number of future patterns or dimensions. Having threaded his way through a series of dimensions, Flapping Eagle finds that the end of his journey is the start of his next.

In general, Rushdie borrows most deeply from Dante and Attar, both of whom envision mystical journeys to the Ineffable — here represented by Dante’s circular vision of Heaven and by an Islamic geometry whose perfection suggests God:

Gustave Doré’s take on Dante’s Heaven (coloured by me).

Gustave Doré’s take on Dante’s Heaven (coloured by me).

The ceiling of the tomb of the Persian Sufi poet Hafez (1315-1390) in Shiraz (Wikimedia Commons).

The ceiling of the tomb of the Persian Sufi poet Hafez (1315-1390) in Shiraz (Wikimedia Commons).

Topographically, Grimus most resembles Dante’s Comedy: the protagonist Flapping Eagle journeys through the forest of the world, descends into his own personal hell (with a man called Virgil as his guide), struggles up an island mountain in the sea, and then (accompanied by a woman) soars into another world. Flapping Eagle also resembles Dante’s version of Odysseus, whose wanderlust precludes the final resting place Homer awards him. 

Like Borges’ “eternal traveller,” Flapping Eagle journeys for centuries, and then appears to continue travelling after he appears to die. Yet unlike that traveller, he finds no final Order. After traversing the world till the age of 777 and after refusing to stay in the town of Calf (the novel’s Ithica), he drowns, resurfaces, then dies another time (both sexually and physically), only to rise on the wings of the Phoenix and the Simurg. At the end of the novel Flapping Eagle is both of these birds, yet he is also Shiva, the Hindu god who has sex with Parvati -- yet refuses to call that goddess wife or that mountain home.

In Grimus Rushdie at once subverts and adds to, undermines and overmines, the epic mode. If one imagines a time-line extending from Homer and Dante to the subversions of Joyce’s Ulysses, one might see in Grimus a continuation of this line. For just as the epic journey becomes in Joyce a one-day odyssey through the pubs and brothels of Dublin, so in Rushdie literary tradition is turned on its head: the novel’s epic guide Virgil Jones spends much of his time in a brothel; the demonic antagonist Nicholas Deggle becomes a cheap side-show conjuror; and the hero Flapping Eagle traipses through a farcical world. Grimus heaps epic figures and motifs into uneasy and highly metafictional juxtaposition, approaching the conventions of the epic at multiple angles, as if taking a run at them from various angles of disorder. 

At once subverting and extending the epic journey, Grimus is a novel to reckon with, less for its skill in language or characterization than for its fusion of cosmological settings, its mix of diverse epics and mythologies, and its tension between mysticism and iconoclasm.


Attar's Qaf

While Dante’s epic journey down to the depths of Hell and up to the peak of Purgatory dominates topographically, the most crucial source for Eagle's journey remains Attar’s Conference. For Calf Mountain is an iconic, golden calf version of Attar’s Qaf or Kaf, the mountain which is at once very far from, and very close to, the human heart. In The Conference of the Birds the guide of the birds, the Hoopoe, tells his flock that “beyond Kaf’s mountain peak / The Simorgh lives, the sovereign whom you seek, / And He is always near to us” (33). Likewise, God is very far (He’s nowhere to be seen) and very near (in the Qur’an He is said to be closer than the jugular). In Mystical Dimensions of Islam Annemarie Schimmel points out that the Q in Qaf

is mainly connected with the concept of qurb, ‘proximity,’ and the qaf-i qurb, the ‘first letter,’ or ‘Mount Qaf,’ of proximity, becomes a rather common expression - especially since this mountain is regarded as the station at the end of the created world, the place where man can find true proximity, qurb, on his way toward God (who, since Attar, has sometimes been symbolized by the Simurgh). Another combination is that of q with qana‘at, ‘contentment’: the perfect Sufi lives, like the mythological bird, in the Mount Qaf of qana‘at.”  (421)

At the end of Grimus Eagle realizes the “qurb of proximity” by journeying to the peak of the mountain and by uniting with the infinite spirit which is at once within him and beyond any conception he might have about God or the soul. This type of mystical experience differs from the experience of the egomaniacal Grimus, who controls the mountain below him like a god manipulating people for his enjoyment. In Grimus' mind, mysticism consists in predicting and prescribing rather than allowing the infinity of God to overwhelm the self. Grimus sees Qaf as a “model for the structure and workings of the human mind” (G 232), yet he forgets the love and selflessness which lie at the heart of Sufi idealism. 

dervish and qaf.jpeg

Apart from Qaf, the other crucial component of Attar’s mystical scheme is the figure of the Simurg. Schimmel calls it the “mystical bird that, according to Islamic tradition, lives on the world-encircling mountain Qaf and that became the symbol of the divine” in Attar’s poetry. At times the Simurg of Persian myth takes on a fairly concrete shape: Anthony Mercantante defines it as “a gigantic bird whose wings were as large as clouds,” adding that it “sat on the magical tree, Gaokerena, which produced the seeds of all plant life.”  When it moved, “a thousand branches and twigs of the tree fell in all directions.” Rushdie by and large employs Attar’s less figurative Simurg, which Mercantante calls “a symbol of the godhead” (Mercantante 590-591). The only time Rushdie’s Simurg takes on something like a concrete form is when Koax foresees “the imminent clash of the Eagle, prince of earthly birds, and the Simurg, bird of paradise, wielder of the Stone Rose” (G 197). It’s crucial to note that Grimus sees himself as the Simurg - “Grimus” is an anagram of “Simurg” - yet this is precisely the type of egomania Rushdie attacks in the novel. Flapping Eagle isn’t only on a quest to destroy the definitions and boundaries Grimus imposes on the otherworldly mountain and those who live on it; he’s also on a quest to defeat the desire to play God.


Next: Grimus: Beginnings

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