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Black Orpheus

THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET;\o7 By Salman Rushdie; (Henry Holt: 592 pp., $26)\f7

May 02, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI

The high-concept word on the street on Salman Rushdie's latest novel, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," was Orpheus and Eurydice as a couple of rock 'n' roll stars. You remember Orpheus, the lyre virtuoso whose music not only moved man and beast but made the very rocks and waters shake, rattle and roll. The groom who mourned the untimely death of his bride so intensely that he braved a trip to Hades to beg a second verse for Eurydice. The crooner who charmed the King of the Underworld into granting his request on the single condition that he not look back at his nymph until both had reached the surface. The man who, like most musicians, had no patience.

Word also was that Rushdie was hanging with U2, even writing songs with Bono, to get the pu of rock 'n' roll. So it was no wonder, as we turned to the first page of Rushdie's novel, that visions of Cocteau's film "Orphee," with its Elvis-era motorcycles and wrap-around shades, danced like marrons glaces through our heads.

And to a certain extent, Rushdie delivers on both vision and concept. His Orpheus is one Ormus Cama, born in Bombay in 1937 to Sir Darius and Lady Spenta Cama, a family of Anglophiliac Parsis. Eurydice is Vina Apsara, born in the USA to an Indian butcher and a Greek American mother, who finds herself, at age 12, sent to distant relatives of her father, only to fall unavoidably in love with 19-year-old Ormus in a Bombay record store.

Despite the twists and turns of natural and human faults, Ormus and Vina become the Ike and Tina, the John and Yoko, the Kantner and Slick (but thankfully not the Sonny and Cher) of post-Sinatra pop. Between Vina's voice and Ormus' music, they channel the zeitgeist of a fracturing world, as the '60s flip into the '90s, and turn it into platinum. Until one day, the Earth breaks for good. On Valentine's Day 1989, while Vina is on tour in Mexico, the ground beneath her feet opens and drags our Eurydice-in-sequins into an underworld just south of Puerto Vallarta. And our Orpheus follows into 10 years of living hell.

But Rushdie is too good a writer to damn us to such a simplistic remake. King of the myth-cegenists, he cross-pollinates the myths of East and West--Hindu and Muslim, Greece and Rome, Memphis and Liverpool--and plays more riffs on Orpheus and Eurydice than Cocteau and Gluck (not to mention Clapton and Allman) combined. Out to double our pleasure, double our fun, Rushdie doubles Orpheus and Eurydice with yet another theme--twins. Imagine the possibilities.

Ormus--in just one example--has not only a pair of twins for brothers but also a dead twin of his own, Gayomart, stillborn just minutes before Ormus entered at his heel. Ormus owes his early musical success, in fact, to his ability to channel dead Gayo's consonantless humming of hit tunes 1,001 nights before they hit the hit parade. Thanks to his dead twin, Ormus also has visions of movies yet to come, the films of Fellini and Bergman, their characters pleading to him from the limbo of the silver screen to do an Orpheus and free them. "Less glamorous than the hall of uncreated film and television characters is the room of unmade stage roles, and tawdrier still is the parliament chamber of future betrayals, and the saloon bar of uninvented books, and the back alley of uncommitted crimes, until finally there is just a series of narrow iron steps descending into pitch blackness, and Ormus knows his twin brother is down there, waiting, but he's too afraid to descend."

Rushdie has borrowed duality--one of the great Ur-themes of East and West, North and South--for much of his writing before. But in "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," he borrows (from Borges' and his sci-fi precursors) the ultimate twin--a twin Earth, a parallel planet that revolves with a history and population very much, but not quite, like our own. The Earth of Ormus and the Earth of Gayo both include people named Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, for example. But in one, the Kennedy dodges a Dallas bullet in a decade that hears Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel sing "The Sounds of Silence." In this novel world, Kurt Vonnegut's fictional Kilgore Trout and Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman are real novelists, and "Don Quixote" really was written by Borges' own Pierre Menard.

Within all this confusion, Rushdie suggests, at the core of all these doubled myths and trembling earths, beneath the feet of writers and musicians, bubbles an Ur-question:

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