Monday, April 14, 2014

Review of Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude is a masterpiece of world literature.  Portraying the history of Columbia via a mode of writing the world had seen very little of at the time, the fantastical dimension of story achieved has effect to this day, and certainly will for years to come.  Though borrowing the premise (presenting history via a fictional family who represent actual people) and style (magic realist), Salman Rushdie’s 1980 Midnight’s Children is no less an achievement and a watershed event in Indian publishing in the Western world.

On August 15, 1947 at midnight, India gained its independence from the British throne.  Not as glorious a moment as one would imagine given the age of the country and the country’s desire for autonomy, the civil and social strife which preceded India’s right to self-government is no less dramatic than that which has followed.  Civil war, secession, assassinations, cultural divides, and strong religious enmity throwing the nation into chaos, from government officials to conscientious objectors, the rich to the destitute, few have gone unaffected.  Midnight’s Children, while most often presented in obtuse, indirectly satirical terms, recounts this window in India and our world’s history.

The novel opens with the birth of Saleem Sinai at midnight on the 15 th.  A man with an exceptionally large nose able to ‘sniff out’ matters in life, he starts the story by recalling his family’s history, beginning with how his grandfather and grandmother met in the early part of the 20 the century.  A curious tale involving a hole in a sheet and escalating to matriarchal proportions, it is only a hint of things to come.  Along with others born just after midnight, Saleem has a special power: telepathy, and through it he is able to communicate across the breadth of India with the common man.  His goal: discover the cultural, linguistic, and historical elements which bind India together.  Through waves of bizarreness coupled with veiled reference to real world events, Saleem’s story slowly unfolds. Basket of invisibility, snakes, spittoons—it is the innocuous elements of life Rushdie spins to the surreal for his story.

Though Midnight’s Children is likewise written in the mode of magic realism, Rushdie is by no means imitating the style of One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Marquez’s tale is more visceral and aesthetic, while Rushdie’s is more indirect and flighty; the fits and jumps of fantastika are most often double-entendres, meaning the majority of content must be read between the lines.  There is an airy, almost lackadaisical feel to the narrative—an interesting paradox given the book is actually quite dense.  It must be picked and teased like a knotted shoelace, rather than untied with a single tug.  Meanings on top of meanings, the novel possesses a versatility that rewards with patience.

But the greatest difference in approach is the manner in which Rushdie draws in the entirety of India, while Marquez limited his symbolism to a family and its immediate surrounds.  Saleem’s telepathic ability eliminates distance as an obstacle while making him privy to the breadth of Indian thought.  From the mountains of the north to the warm coastal waters, Sikhs to Muslims and government officials to the poor, Saleem accesses the sub-continent mentally, and in turn so too does the reader.  Telepathy a risky plot device (see Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human for a cheesy deployment), Rushdie uses it to the best effect possible: examination of a culture’s psyche.

Though there had been successful Indian writers before (e.g. V.S. Naipul via Trinidad), perhaps the greatest success of Midnight’s Children (besides winning the Booker) is that it opened the doors and eyes of the West to post-colonial writing coming from the East.  A wash of Indian writers, each with their own voice and style—Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Nayantara Sahgal, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Vikram Chandra, and others—have achieved commercial and critical success in the aftermath of Rushdie’s novel.  Placing the culture of India on the world stage, they have described their homeland, for all its beauty and ugliness, to give those who may not necessarily travel to the country a better look.  Unashamedly incorporating Indian realities, culture, and languages into their material, the reading world—and not only English—has been enriched for it.

In the end, Midnight’s Children is a superb novel of multiple dimensions and myriad smells and flavors of the Indian sub-continent. Rushdie utilizing many of the tricks and tools of post-modern writing, the narrative is less straight-forward and more a multi-lateral re-envisioning of modern Indian history, from the early to late 20th century.  A dense work that must be tended and cogitated upon, the delicious imagery and spurts of the fantastic motivate the plot.

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