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Authors: Salman Rushdie

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A genuine countertenor voice silences all arguments, its sidereal sweetness shaming our pettiness, like the music of the spheres. Don
Ángel Cruz gave us Gluck,
“Trionfi Amore,”
and the mariachi singers did a creditable job as Chorus to his Orfeo.

Trionfi Amore!
E il mondo intiero
Serva all’impero
Della beltà
.

The unhappy conclusion of the Orpheus story, Eurydice lost forever because of Orpheus’s backwards look, was always a problem for composers and their librettists.—Hey, Calzabigi, what’s this ending you’re giving me here? Such a downer, I should send folks home with their faces long like a wurst?
Hello?
Happy it up, ja!—Sure, Herr Gluck, don’t get so agitato. No problem! Love, it is stronger than Hades. Love, it make the gods merciful. How’s about they send her back anyway? “Get outa here, kid, the guy’s crazy for you! What’s one little peek?” Then the lovers throw a party, and what a party! Dancing, wine, the whole nine yards. So you got your big finish, everybody goes out humming.—Works for me. Nice going, Raniero.—Sure thing, Willibald. Forget about it.

And here it was, that showstopper finale. Love’s triumph over death.
The whole world obeys the rule of beauty
. To everyone’s astonishment, mine included, Vina Apsara the rock star rose to her feet and sang both soprano parts, Amor as well as Euridice, and though I’m no expert she sounded word and note perfect, her voice in an ecstasy of fulfilment, finally, it seemed to be saying, you’ve worked out what I’m for.

 … E quel sospetto
Che il cor tormenta
Al fin diventa
Felicita
.

The tormented heart doesn’t just find happiness: it
becomes happiness
. That’s the story, I thought. But I misunderstood the words.

The earth began to shake just as she finished, applauding her performance. The great still life of the banquet, the plates of meats and bowls
of fruits and bottles of the best Cruz tequila, and even the banquet table itself, now commenced to jump and dance in Disney fashion, inanimate objects animated by the little sorcerer’s apprentice, that overweening mouse; or as if moved by the sheer power of her song to join in the closing
chaconne
. As I try to remember the exact sequence of events, I find that my memory has become a silent movie. There must have been noise. Pandemonium, city of devils and their torments, could scarcely have been noisier than that Mexican town, as cracks scurried like lizards along the walls of its buildings, prying apart the walls of Don Angel’s hacienda with their long creepy fingers, until it simply fell away like an illusion, a movie façade, and through the surging dust cloud of its collapse we were returned to the pitching, bucking streets, running for our lives, not knowing which way to run but running, anyway, while tiles fell from roofs and trees were flung into the air and sewage burst upwards from the streets and houses exploded and suitcases long stored in attics began to rain down from the sky.

But I remember only silence, the silence of great horror. The silence, to be more exact, of photography, because that was my profession, so naturally it was what I turned to the moment the earthquake began. All my thoughts were of the little squares of film passing through my old cameras, Voigtländer Leica Pentax, of the forms and colours being registered therein by the accidents of movement and event, and of course by the skill or lack of it with which I managed to point the lens in the right or wrong direction at the wrong or right time. Here was the eternal silence of faces and bodies and animals and even nature itself, caught—yes—by my camera, but caught also in the grip of the fear of the unforeseeable and the anguish of loss, in the clutches of this hated metamorphosis, the appalling silence of a way of life at the moment of its annihilation, its transformation into a golden past that could never wholly be rebuilt, because once you have been in an earthquake you know, even if you survive without a scratch, that like a stroke in the heart, it remains in the earth’s breast, horribly potential, always promising to return, to hit you again, with an even more devastating force.

A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second, or one sixteenth, or one one-hundred-and-twenty-eighth. Snap your fingers; a snapshot’s faster. Halfway between voyeur and witness, high
artist and low scum, that’s where I’ve made my life, making my eye-blink choices. That’s okay, that’s cool. I’m still alive, and I’ve been spat at and called names only a couple of hundred times. I can live with the name-calling. It’s the men with the heavy weaponry who worry me. (And they are men, almost always, all those arnolds carrying terminators, all those zealous suicidists with their toilet-brush beards and no hair on their baby-naked upper lips; but when women do such work, they’re often worse.)

I’ve been an event junkie, me. Action has been my stimulant of choice. I always liked to stick my face right up against the hot sweaty broken surface of what was being done, with my eyes open, drinking, and the rest of my senses switched off. I never cared if it stank, or if its slimy touch made you want to throw up, or what it might do to your taste buds if you licked it, or even how loud it screamed. Just the way it looked. That’s where for a long time I went for feeling, and truth.

What Actually Happens: nothing to beat it, when you’re pressed up against it, as long as you don’t get your face torn off. No rush like it on earth.

Long ago I developed a knack for invisibility. It allowed me to go right up to the actors in the world’s drama, the sick, the dying, the crazed, the mourning, the rich, the greedy, the ecstatic, the bereft, the angry, the murderous, the secretive, the bad, the children, the good, the newsworthy; to shimmy into their charmed space, into the midst of their rage or grief or transcendent arousal, to penetrate the defining instant of their being-in-the-world and get my fucking picture. On many occasions this gift of dematerialisation has saved my life. When people said to me, do not drive down that sniper-infested road, do not enter that warlord’s stronghold, you’d do well to circumnavigate that militia’s fiefdom, I was drawn towards it almost irresistibly. Nobody has ever gone in there with a camera and come out alive, somebody would warn, and at once I’d head off past the checkpoint of no return. When I got back people looked at me oddly, as if seeing a ghost, and asked how I managed it. I shook my head. Truthfully, I often didn’t know. Perhaps if I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it any more and then I’d get killed in some half-baked combat zone. One day that may happen.

The closest I can get to it is that I know how to make myself small. Not physically small, for I am a tallish guy, heavy-set, but psychically.
I just smile my self-deprecating smile and shrink into insignificance. By my manner I persuade the sniper I do not merit his bullet, my way of carrying myself convinces the warlord to keep his great axe clean. I make them understand that I’m not worthy of their violence. Maybe it works because I’m being sincere, because I truly mean to deprecate myself. There are experiences I carry around with me, memories I can draw on when I want to remind myself of my low value. Thus a form of acquired modesty, the product of my early life and misdeeds, has succeeded in keeping me alive.

“Bullshit,” was Vina Apsara’s view. “It’s just another version of your technique for pulling chicks.”

Modesty works with women, that’s true. But with women I’m faking it. My nice, shy smile, my recessive body language. The more I back off in my suede jacket and combat boots, smiling shyly beneath my bald head (how often I’ve been told what a beautiful head I have!), the more insistently they advance. In love one advances by retreating. But then what I mean by love and what Ormus Cama, for example, meant by the same word were two different things. For me, it was always a skill, the
ars amatoria:
the first approach, the deflection of anxieties, the arousal of interest, the feint of departure, the slow inexorable return. The leisurely inward spiral of desire.
Kama
. The art of love.

Whereas for Ormus Cama it was just a simple matter of life and death. Love was for life, and endured beyond death. Love was Vina, and beyond Vina there was nothing but the void.

I’ve never been invisible to the earth’s little creatures, however. Those six-legged dwarf terrorists have got my number, no question about it. Show me (or, preferably, don’t show me) an ant, lead me (don’t lead me) to a wasp, a bee, a mosquito, a flea. It’ll have me for breakfast; also for other, more substantial repasts. What’s small and bites, bites me. So at a certain moment in the heart of the earthquake, as I photographed a lost child crying for her parents, I was stung, once, hard, as if by conscience, on the cheek, and as I jerked my face away from my camera I was just in time (thank you, I guess, to whatever horrible
aguijón
-wielding thing it was; not conscience, probably, but a snapper’s sixth sense) to see the beginning of the tequila flood. The town’s many giant storage vats had burst.

The streets were like whips, snaking and cracking. The Ángel distillery was one of the first to succumb to this lashing. Old wood burst open, new metal buckled and split. The urinous river of tequila made its frothing way into the lanes of the town, the leading wave of the torrent overtook the fleeing populace and turned it head over heels, and such was the potency of the brew that those who swallowed mouthfuls of that angelic surf came up not only wet and gasping but drunk. The last time I saw Don Ángel Cruz, he was scurrying in the tequila-drowning squares with a saucepan in his hand and two kettles on strings slung around his neck, trying pathetically to save what he could.

This is how people behave when their dailiness is destroyed, when for a few moments they see, plain and unadorned, one of the great shaping forces of life. Calamity fixes them with her mesmeric eye, and they begin to scoop and paw at the rubble of their days, trying to pluck the memory of the quotidian—a toy, a book, a garment, even a photograph—from the garbage heaps of the irretrievable, of their overwhelming loss. Don Ángel Cruz turned panhandler was the childlike, fabulous image I needed, a figure eerily reminiscent of the surreal Saucepan Man from some of Vina Apsara’s favourite books, the Faraway Tree series of Enid Blyton that travelled with her wherever she went. Cloaking myself in invisibility, I began to shoot.

I don’t know how long all this took. The shaking table, the collapse of the hacienda, the roller-coaster streets, the people gasping and tumbling in the tequila river, the descent of hysteria, the deathly laughter of the unhoused, the bankrupted, the unemployed, the orphaned, the dead … ask me to put an estimate on it and I’d come up empty. Twenty seconds? Half an hour? Search me. The invisibility cloak, and my other trick of switching off all my senses and channelling all my powers of perception through my mechanical eyes—these things have, as they say, a downside. When I’m facing the enormities of the actual, when that great monster is roaring into my lens, I lose control of other things. What time is it? Where is Vina? Who’s dead? Who’s alive? Is that an abyss opening beneath my combat boots? What did you say? There’s a medical team trying to reach this dying woman? What are you talking about? Why are you getting in my way, who the fuck do you think you’re trying to push around?
Can’t you see I’m working?

Who was alive? Who was dead? Where was Vina? Where was Vina? Where was Vina?

I snapped out of it. Insects stung my neck. The torrent of tequila ceased, the precious river poured away into the cracking earth. The town looked like a picture postcard torn up by an angry child and then painstakingly reassembled by its mother. It had acquired the quality of brokenness, had become kin to the great family of the broken: broken plates, broken dolls, broken English, broken promises, broken hearts. Vina Apsara lurched towards me through the dust. “Rai, thank God.” For all her fooling with Buddhist wisemen (Rinpoche Hollywood and the Ginsberg Lama) and Krishna Consciousness cymbalists and Tantric gurus (those
kundalini
flashers) and Transcendental rishis and masters of this or that crazy wisdom, Zen and the Art of the Deal, the Tao of Promiscuous Sex, Self-Love and Enlightenment, for all her spiritual faddishness, I always in my own godless way found it hard to believe that she actually believed in an actually existing god. But she probably did; I was probably wrong about that too; and anyway, what other word is there? When there’s that gratitude in you for life’s dumb luck, when there’s nobody to thank and you need to thank somebody, what do you say? God, Vina said. The word sounded to me like a way of disposing of emotion. It was a place to put something that had no place else to go.

From the sky, a larger insect bore down upon us, burdening us with the insistent downdraft of its raucous wings. The helicopter had taken off just in time to escape destruction. Now the pilot brought it down almost to ground zero, and beckoned, hovering. “Let’s get out of here,” Vina shouted. I shook my head. “You go,” I yelled back at her. Work before play. I had to get my pictures on to the wires. “I’ll see you later,” I bellowed. “What?” “Later.” “What?”

The plan had been for the helicopter to fly us, for a weekend’s relaxation, to a remote villa on the Pacific coast, the Villa Huracán, co-owned by the president of the Colchis record company and located to the north of Puerto Vallarta, in privileged isolation, sandwiched like a magic kingdom between the jungle and the sea. Now there was no way of knowing if the villa still stood. The world had changed. Yet, like the townspeople clinging to their framed photographs, like Don Ángel with his saucepans, Vina Apsara clung to the idea of continuity, of the
prearranged itinerary. She was staying with the programme. Until my kidnapped images were off to the world’s news desks to be ransomed, however, there could be no tropical Shangri-la for me.

BOOK: The Ground Beneath Her Feet
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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