Aussies love satire, and Sons of the Rumour is a classic example of a storyteller ‘taking the mickey’ out of his listeners. Like drinkers in a pub listening to a tall story where the talker is spinning a yarn we know to be a lot of old nonsense, we surrender ourselves to the absurdity for the sheer fun of it.
At a time when there is a great deal of heavy handed political correctness about all things Islamic – we’re supposed to get to understand Muslims, so that they won’t feel alienated and then they might help to control Islamic extremists – David Foster has inverted a treasured Arabic text into an hilarious romp that mocks the style, content and purpose of the original.
Especially amusing is the way he deliberately inserts anachronisms into his reinvention of The Thousand and One Nights. In a tale that takes place in the 9th century, the Gypsy Kings get a mention as a ‘wedding band catering as well to bar mitzvahs’ (p254)…
Not only that but amidst the flowery prose and pseudo-Arabic language and (I assume) allusions to the original, there is the voice of the all-Australian Ocker. The Shah, unrecognised when he ventures from the palace to the market, hears himself criticised for his ‘butcherin’ of all them women’ when he’d been ‘such a lovely boy’, and is stung to defend himself:
‘He is only trying to defend your city to make sure you don’t get another dud queen. By the virtue of Him who created His servants and computeth their numbers, fain would the Shah lay up merit for the world to come by taking his wreak of wicked women.’ (p70)
And there’s this, when Bogu the Turk inspects the camels his raiding party has brought along to carry the booty:
‘Wouldn’t be so bad if they’d pillage items of use,’ complained Bogu from his camp chair. ‘Hoes, braziers, crossbows, cakes, deodorant, soap – that kind of thing – but no, they much prefer zithers, jujubes, goldfish and lapis lazuli.’ (p107)
The exchange between Shahrazad and the Shah in the Rabad is a hoot: he’s taken her out of purdah for a coffee, but she’s refused to change out of her transparent silk and the guards can barely restrain the sex-starved men of the city outside. ‘I can’t go anywhere without getting perved on and I’m so over it’ says Shahrazad, to which the Shah helpfully suggests that she might like to cover up with a chador and niqab, ‘the black tent the good women wear with the veil that covers the face‘ or failing that a tablecloth. (p125). But Shahrazad isn’t interested, she doesn’t want to be ignored, she just wants to be perved on with decorum. ‘Why can’t a woman wear what she wants to wear in a civilised city? Guys wear what they want to wear. Why can’t a woman do the same?’ she asks. Why indeed?
Funny as it is, Sons of the Rumour has a serious intent, and this exchange is but one example of the author’s agenda. For the Shah’s answer is: ‘Because Allah has made the man superior to the woman. The blood money for a woman is half that for a man.’ (p126) Shahrazad ‘has the morals and the manners of a man, which is to say, she is a slag’ says her putative father, the Grand Wazir. Her education has done her no good and she has no fear of men. Foster, as he tells us himself in the Author’s Notes in the back of the book, is interested in the collision between fundamentalist Islamic man and (anti-Christian) secular woman. I hope I do justice to his argument when I summarise it like this:
Pre feminism there were two ways for men to treat women:
- guard them against all temptation (as Muslim men do) and if they are sullied, kill them; or
- put them up on a pedestal (as Christian men used to) but surround them with temptation. If they succumb, blame them instead of themselves.
But while Christian men have moved on and accommodated the emancipation of women (though not always with mutually respectful results), it remains problematic for the Muslim world. Rapprochement between the Arab world and the West seems impossible because the Islamic world is conflicted in so many ways: it has to protect itself by opposing everything that comes from the wicked West (including the attractive things like industrial technology). Because of the rigidity of its tenets, Islamic faith can only survive if its adherents reject the ambiguities which underpin Western civilisation –
- Christian humanism – which opposes the summary cruelties of Islam i.e. Shariah law; and
- Secularism – which manifests itself (amongst other things) in the separation of Church and State and the freedom of women.
Thus both Christianity and agnosticism/atheism challenge the Islamic world view, and how to accommodate fundamental human male/female relationships in the modern world is a flashpoint. Foster witnessed the 2005 Cronulla riots where young Aussie males were outraged by young Muslim men who were perceived to be insulting Aussie girls (even as they fancied them) and deriding the free and easy attitudes of Aussie beach culture. Sons of the Rumour makes explicit just how conflicted Muslim man is, if he takes his religion and culture seriously. Modern Westerners do not fear God, (p359) while Muslims fear contemporary sexuality because they interpret it as debauchery (p375). These attitudes toward intimate human relationships are fundamental; liberals in the West will never surrender to fundamentalist discrimination against homosexuals or punitive treatment of women; it’s not negotiable.
In the original 1001 Nights the women are all victims. They are mostly dead: the Shah’s unfaithful wife and raunchy concubines have been all beheaded, and so – each morning after satisfying his lust – yet another virgin is sacrificed to the Shah’s fear of betrayal. The heroine Shahrazad is a victim who lives on her wits: each night she must tell a story so intriguing that the Shah permits her to live another day to tell the rest of it. No woman has autonomy in the 1001 Nights, and autocratic men have all the power.
But the women in Sons of the Rumour are a different matter altogether! Shahrazad is a big bosomy dame with attitude: she talks nonstop and lays down the law about the presence of her sister in the marital boudoir. Far from being an all-powerful ruler, the Shah is hen-pecked in humiliating ways. When he flunks it with the latest virgin, ‘his member masculine [reduced] to a filbert he can barely see‘ (p26) Shahrazad is there inspecting the pristine sheets and giving him advice about his technique while the houri petulantly submits to a Persian wax because ‘it is sometimes hard enough knocking down a levee without bashing through a jungle first’ (p26).
This irreverence continues when the Shah takes his bruised ego out for refuge on the streets: he is mistaken for a poultry dealer, and the swordsmith repairing the sword used to despatch the daily virgin is a bolshie tradie who ‘wouldn’t appear to be about’ (p27) but will surely turn up tomorrow. Like many a hapless renovator, the Shah has no recourse but to listen to the argy-bargy, and in a neat inversion of the gender relationships in 1001 Nights, a stocky Tartar tells him the tale of The Mine in the Moon to while away the time…
How sad this is, this tale of an all male society where boys grow up never having seen a woman. Is this how the warped attitudes of the Taliban are forged, in the religious schools of Pakistan and Afghanistan? Nadeem Aslam certainly thought so: in The Wasted Vigil his adolescent terrorist Casa had never known maternal love or female companionship – so when he stumbled into the gentle world of the eccentric Englishman Marcus and met a girl, he was simultaneously attracted and repelled, praying desperately to protect himself from wanting her.
Fairy-tales always have a moral, and although I’ve only read a bit of the 1001 Nights I assume that those of Scheherazade do too. Well, each one of Foster’s parodies within the main narrative serves a similar purpose. The Gilt Felt Yurt shows, for example, what happens when Singqu and the Uighur Turkmen come up against the superior technology of the Chinese at Chang’an. The Chinese, easily defeated in a previous encounter, have moved on; they have armour-piercing longbows, chainmail and catapults while the Turkmen have stagnated, their armour and weaponry outdated and useless. This story also shows what happens when the Turkmen convert to another faith: they lose their identity. The most confronting of these stories is The Man Who Fell in Love with His Own Feet, a salutary tale about foot-binding in China and the extent to which men will go when they objectify the female…
While one should never confuse a character’s belief’s with that of the author, I suspect that Foster thinks that all religion is misguided and that this is his philosophy:
‘Can it really matter when all religions are attempts, more or less successful, to describe One Truth?’
‘And what is it? What is this Truth?’
‘It has to do with the Two Worlds though perhaps such attempts are misguided. They seem to work in practice but not in theory, resulting in the imposition of Rules where in fact, it is not a case of “Do this, that or the other and you will achieve Happiness” but rather “Achieve Happiness and you will find yourself doing, instinctively, this, that or the other.” ‘ (p37)
I did not enjoy the second narrative as much as the first. This interlude is about a jazz drummer called Al Morrissey flying longhaul from Sydney to Dublin. The setting is contemporary, and although some of it is funny (especially his discontent with the onboard entertainment) some of this section is rather confronting. Al is melancholy about the end of his relationship with Pastel, whose teenage years in free-and-easy Australia made her vulnerable to assault, rape and exploitation, so that she thought ‘rape was the norm’ (p332). The criminal justice system exacerbated her suffering with drawn-out court cases and insulting token penalties for the perpetrators, and she became sluttish in her relationships. ‘We have the technology but have lost control of our women’ says the narrator haranguing Al, (p375) as if ‘Cronulla Woman’ were a dog to be brought back to heel.
This is the section that makes the work eligible for the Miles Franklin Award, (depicting ‘Australian life in any of its phases’) but it’s not congenial reading. It’s probably deliberate, but the style here is alienating. It’s scornful and cynical, and sometimes borders on hectoring. Where Foster links his narrative directly to the Cronulla riots, it’s not at all witty and amusing like the first part, it’s just nasty. Some of the Dublin scenes are as opaque as James Joyce’s Ulysses (that’s probably deliberate too) but whereas Joyce draws on history, myth, literary texts and a Bible with which many would be familiar, Foster’s allusions are often obscure or sourced from adolescent or ethnic sub-cultures that are difficult to appreciate.
Will it win the Miles Franklin? I don’t think so. The uncompromising intellectualism and the aggressive tone in the Al Morissey story might be a bit too alienating for the judges…it’s pity, because the parody of the Nights is splendid indeed.
BTW when reading and writing about this book I abandoned entirely Picador’s off-putting Notes for Reading Groups (referred to in my previous discouraged post about it). I recommend you do too, at least until you’ve read the book on its own terms. The author of the notes is so much at pains to reveal the intellectual richness and scholarly significance of the themes in Sons of the Rumour that he fails to acknowledge its light-heartedness and levity. I almost didn’t read the book because of these ponderous notes!
Author: David Foster
Title: Sons of the Rumour
Publisher: Picador 2009
ISBN: 9781405039581 (hardback, paperback due for release Sept 2010)
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Readings $34.95
Fishpond: Sons of the Rumour