A refugee from his former lives, Malik Solanka seeks refuge in New York City, the mecca of immigrants. He has been a university professor in Britain and a historian of ideas, who has rejected the narrowness and sectarianism of academic life. Always fascinated by dolls, he becomes a dollmaker and conceives a character, Little Brain, who captivates the public. Finding his work coopted as popular entertainment, Solanka rejects his second career, feeling he has lost control over his creation, even though he has sought this broader appeal for his work. He also jettisons his wife Eleanor, a beautiful, shrewd, and patient woman he met through contacts in the publishing world. She has given birth to a charming young boy who longs for his father to return to New York. Eleanor wants Solanka to return to her, and he grieves that he cannot settle down to the married, steady life she has so splendidly arranged for him. He is restless and angry, and Eleanor does not have the vocabulary or the sensibility to soothe this fretful man. Solanka knows that to others, including his best friends in London, he seems irresponsible, yet he cannot overcome either his wanderlust or his uncompromising dissatisfaction with the status quo. He does not defend his actions; he simply cannot bring himself to behave otherwise. Eleanor is certainly not to blame; it is rather the nature of the world and of himself that is the problem. Solanka’s fury is directed both at himself and at the world, and his companions tend to be similarly displaced people, raging at their deracination and seeking unsatisfactory ways of assimilating themselves into the mainstream.
Mila, for example, is the daughter of an important Yugoslav writer, whose last name is unfortunately Milosovic. Although he is no relative of Yugoslavia’s former leader and war criminal, she feels tainted by the name and haunted by her father’s own gradual submersion in the mire of his native country’s breakup. Similarly, Jack Rhinehart, a brilliant African American war correspondent, forsakes his genius and is corrupted by fame, becoming a token assimilationist minority symbol and losing his beautiful lover, Neela Mahendra. She, in turn, repudiates Rhinehart’s degeneration and transfers her affections to Solanka, who still burns with the outrage she equates with sincerity and energy. To have Neela, however, Solanka must relinquish Mila, whose gentle and prolonged lovemaking has calmed him. By choosing Neela, Solanka again enters the maelstrom of history, ultimately following her to a mythical country, “Lilliput-Blefuscu”—the names Jonathan Swift gave to two opposing kingdoms in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Like Gulliver, Solanka is a traveler seeking alternatives to his familiar world. There is a spirit of adventure and of novelty as Solanka describes the wonder of the new world (America, New York) just as Gulliver vividly anatomized the societies he encountered. Of course, Solanka is no Gulliver; that is, he cannot depict the world with Gulliver’s innocence and simplicity; yet like Gulliver he is searching for a utopia, a version of existence that can relieve his wrath at the world’s shortcomings. By involving herself in the revolution in Lilliput-Blefuscu, Neela tries to accomplish in the political realm what Solanka only dreams of doing in his work, and she abandons him precisely because he cannot commit himself exclusively to any movement or course of action.
Rushdie studs his protagonist’s thoughts with innumerable references to popular culture and world politics—the names and events of the last decade. Rushdie’s own experience as a political refugee, a hunted man marked for murder in Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous fatwa, pervades the novel—as do details of his personal life. Like Solanka, Rushdie left a wife and boy in London and moved to New York City. Like Solanka, he became involved with a beautiful woman (the novel is dedicated to her) and emerged...
(The entire section is 1613 words.)