My rating: 4 of 5 stars
With the assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie earlier this month, his books have returned to public attention—above all the scandalous Satanic Verses, that fantastical novel of 1988 whose portrait of the Prophet Muhammad incited a death sentence for blasphemy by the Ayatollah Khomeini, an edict still in force and sadly almost fulfilled under a would-be killer’s blade.
When considering a writer as irreverent—and as committed to free speech—as Rushdie is, false piety would be an insult. I will begin this essay, then, with a very impious suspicion about the almost-martyred Rushdie that has been whispered since the fatwa was first handed down: that he was merely a flashy, fashionable postmodernist-postcolonialist author typical of the 1980s, a novelist of tiresomely playful-polemical white elephants, a man who has, in essence, the Ayatollah to thank for artificially inflating a literary reputation that would otherwise long ago have been punctured by serious critics and contemporaries.
The religious and political controversies attached to his name seem to make a purely literary evaluation impossible, not that Rushdie himself believes that religion, politics, or literature are pure. Still, purity is one thing, exclusion another. Harold Bloom, for example, introduced an edited volume of critical essays on Rushdie’s work 20 years ago by complaining that all the pieces in the book dwelled entirely on politics to the exclusion of aesthetics, despite Rushdie’s own deeply literary, book-drunk and word-drunk sensibility. Bloom ended his brief polemic by pronouncing Rushdie a major writer.
If anything, the last decade’s renewed arguments over the the supposed demerits of free speech and the even more spurious harms of serious art have made aesthetic judgment even more difficult. The elite literati claims this month to “stand with Salman,” but it feels forced after years of their craven surrender to activist extortion in academe and publishing, to demands that creative writers tailor their work to imagined or artificially inflamed audience sensitivities or to Procrustean ideas of cultural or racial identity dreamed up by professors steeped in Marxist and fascist theorizing and then spread on social media by half-literate adolescents.
Given this complex context, readers are right to revisit Rushdie now, even if only for the sensationalist motive of trying to understand what all the shouting and agony have been about. But the prolific Rushdie deserves to be known as the author of more than one novel. I read The Satanic Verses when I was in high school because it was a dangerous and forbidden book—though not so dangerous and forbidden that I couldn’t check it out of my suburban branch library. I was impressed by its hallucinatory and experimental verve, and by its sustained satirical assault on dominant cultures east and west, ancient and modern. But for a novel that opens with its heroes falling out of the sky only to survive miraculously (if transfigured) when they land, the narrative felt weightless, like something vividly dreamed and then instantly forgotten. In college, when I read James Wood’s critique of Rushdie and his cohort for their “hysterical realism”—a literary mode where wild fantasy and heightened rhetoric replace rounded characters and a consequential plot—I thought he had a point, if an overstated and even dogmatic one. And so, give or take a novel here or an essay collection there, I never went back to Rushdie after my first adolescent encounter.
Despite his satanic succès de scandale, critics and popular audiences tend to acclaim as Rushdie’s masterpiece his breakthrough second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981)—witness its having essentially won the Booker Prize three times over, once upon publication and then in “Best of the Booker” contests in the 1990s and 2000s. With that in mind, Midnight’s Children is the book I read in reverent tribute to the wounded author—and out of irreverent curiosity about how I might judge his fiction now.
First, contra Bloom’s complaint that Rushdie critics are too politically fixated, Midnight’s Children is nothing if not a political novel. It recounts more than three decades of India’s 20th-century history through the life story of its narrator, Saleem Sinai, a Kashmiri Muslim born in Bombay at the stroke of midnight on the day India gained its independence, the 15th of August 1947. Despite the novel’s interpolated accounts of tumultuous historical events like the India-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971 or the Emergency of 1975-1977, when embattled Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil rights and tried to crush her opposition, the magical realist Rushdie also mines a rich vein of grotesquely comic fantasy. Saleem’s midnight birth on Independence Day has granted him magical powers—first, the psychic ability to enter the minds of others, and then, when he loses that capacity after sinus surgery, a preternatural sense of smell. Saleem shares this birthright of superpowers with the 1001 other children born in the midnight hour on August 15, only 581 of whom survive till their 10th birthday, when Saleem discovers his psychic abilities and opens his mind—which the media-obsessed narrator likens to “All-India Radio”—to their minds:
Midnight’s children!…From Kerala, a boy who had the ability of stepping into mirrors and re-emerging through any reflective surface in the land—through lakes and (with greater difficulty) the polished metal bodies of automobiles…and a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish…and children with powers of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri Hills, and from the great watershed of the Vindhyas, a boy who could increase or reduce his size at will, and had already (mischievously) been the cause of wild panic and rumours of the return of Giants…from Kashmir, there was a blue-eyed child of whose original sex I was never certain, since by immersing herself in water he (or she) could alter it as she (or he) pleased. Some of us called this child Narada, others Markandaya, depending on which old fairy story of sexual change we had heard…near Jalna in the heart of the parched Deccan I found a water-divining youth, and at Budge-Budge outside Calcutta a sharp-tongued girl whose words already had the power of inflicting physical wounds, so that after a few adults had found themselves bleeding freely as a result of some barb flung casually from her lips, they had decided to lock her in a bamboo cage and float her off down the Ganges to the Sundarbans jungles (which are the rightful home of monsters and phantasms); but nobody dared approach her, and she moved through the town surrounded by a vacuum of fear; nobody had the courage to deny her food. There was a boy who could eat metal and a girl whose fingers were so green that she could grow prize aubergines in the Thar desert; and more and more and more…
I use the term “superpowers” deliberately, since Rushdie fills the novel to the bursting-point with every type of mythological, religious, and literary allusion, and accordingly emphasizes Saleem’s youthful enjoyment of Superman comics. Moreover, the initial number of midnight’s eponymous children, 1001, alludes to the Thousand and One Nights. This casual blending of modern mass culture with ancient fable, of western with eastern inspirations, typifies Rushdie’s postmodern dismissal of cultural hierarchies and divisions. So does the above passage’s exuberant list-making, a key to Rushdie’s style, as is his habit of beginning his paragraphs with ellipses, as if the story were always withdrawn from some underground fund of endless narration. The whole teeming and over-plotted novel is itself a gigantic list or catalogue of all that has happened in Saleem’s life and in the Indian history for which Saleem’s life stands, since his body embodies the nation, its fragmentation over the narrative’s course portending the nation’s dissolution. The novel’s aesthetic represents the Indian artist’s attempt to wrestle the heterogeneous subcontinent into intelligible significance, what Saleem elsewhere calls the “national longing for form”:
As a young man he had shared a room with a painter whose paintings had grown larger and larger as he tried to get the whole of life into his art. “Look at me,” he said before he killed himself, “I wanted to be a miniaturist and I’ve got elephantiasis instead!”
(I am suddenly reminded of Nadir Khan’s friend the painter: is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality? Worse: am I infected, too?)
Because every element of the infinitely detailed novel connects to every other, this “elephantiasis” of style finds its thematic mirror in Saleem’s Ganesh-nosed visage and his son’s Ganesh-eared dome, Ganesh being the elephant-headed Hindu deity, patron of arts and sciences, to whom, in some versions of the tale, the epic Mahabharata was dictated. Examples of similar mythical allusions in the novel—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian—could be multiplied, especially by a critic more literate in comparative religion than I am. (In fact, I even owe the Ganesh explication to an old comparative literature professor of mine, who wrote one of the first monographs on the author: Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation.) Like James Joyce, his precursor in the experimental fiction of the postcolony, Rushdie raises his characters to the epic plane of myth even as he brings epic myth down to the comic dirt.
A counterexample to the novel’s ebullient mode—Northrop Frye, thinking of the western tradition, would call it Menippean satire—is provided by Saleem’s screenwriter uncle, Hanif. Hanif goes from scripting Bombay-cinema spectacles, another of Rushdie’s low-culture models alongside American superhero comics, to agonizing over socialist-realist exposés of laboring life that never get made because no one would want to watch them; the joke is that he’s kept on the payroll by his producer only because the producer is sleeping with his actress wife.
Yet Rushdie’s attempt to fuse nation and narration, individual and society, is not seamless. He was hardly writing in the 19th century, in the age of Romantic nationalism or realist nation-building, when figures like Whitman or Tolstoy could more credibly claim to speak with the collective voice of their countries, before the 20th century revealed nationalism to be as much a matter of conquest and genocide as of Enlightenment progress. Rushdie’s sophisticated metafiction defeats any attempt to judge his novel a triumphant expression of “all India.”
For one thing, there is the central plot twist: Saleem, it transpires, is not actually the child of his putative parents. He was switched at birth—for reasons too complicated to explain here; even V. S. Pritchett, in an encomium to the novel always quoted on the cover blurbs, get the details wrong—with the illegitimate son of a poor woman (who dies in childbirth) and the aristocratic Englishman who seduced her before leaving the country upon its independence. Saleem’s enemy double, the actual heir to the Sinai family, is a boy named Shiva, who grinds out his life in poverty before rising through the military ranks due to his own superpower: a pair of crushing knees, which he uses to brutal effect on all who get in his way.
In other words, our hyper-articulate and ultra-intellectual narrator is half-English and half-urchin, heir to the conqueror and the conquered, and the child not only of privilege but of dispossession. Here Rushdie cannily allegorizes his own position as educated exile and outsider to the masses he only half longs to embrace, warning us not to trust the teller of the tale. Saleem as narrator repeats the same warning again and again: he points out the holes in his plot and the blanks in his memory. As he writes the novel, an event he frequently dramatizes in the midst of trying to get the story told, Saleem reads it aloud to an illiterate woman named Padma who works in the pickle factory where he’s taken refuge after his travails. He interpolates her earthy ripostes into the narrative, dutifully recording her impatience with his highfalutin literary style and her incredulity toward his improbable narrative devices—margin notes from a marginal figure signifying the difficulty any writer faces in trying to write a nation into being. Writers are by definition privileged observers and educated outsiders to the national demos. Rushdie’s metafiction, then, insists that the “national longing for form” must always be frustrated.
Since I am neither an Indian nor a deep student of Indian history, I’m sure I missed many of the novel’s ideological nuances, but its political upshot is clear enough: Saleem’s dramatic conflict with Shiva and his comedic impasse with Padma represent the failure of postcolonialism’s promise, the inability of the nation ever to overcome its divisions of race and religion, its inequalities of class and status, to gather itself into a humane whole. (And as for Pakistan, the “land of the pure,” Rushdie portrays it as a complete dystopia, an authoritarian nightmare, foreshadowing his own later conflict with political Islam). Hence Saleem’s gradual fragmentation over the course of the novel, until he is literally—but also figuratively—torn apart by its rioting heterogeneity on the final page.
As a good postmodernist, Rushdie dismisses all ideologies because they are ideologies, constructs devised by the seekers or holders of power, and in the unkept promise of midnight’s children—a new generation empowered to redeem the nation—he can be heard lamenting that youthful verve will be ground down to sterility in the end. During his psychic conferences with his fellow superpowered 10-year-olds, Saleem imagines that that they can embody a “third principle” beyond the binary divisions of Muslim and Hindu, rich and poor, communist and capitalist; but to reify such a principle at all would be to make it one more ideology, one more idol and instrument of the world’s corruption. Saleem laments, with the pathos of a Wordsworth or Dickens, “If there is a third principle, its name is childhood. But it dies; or rather, it is murdered.” This political novel offers no political solution. As with the Romantics, so with the postmodernists: in lieu of our vanished childhood innocence, after the failure of our longed-for political revolution, all that’s left is art.
Rushdie’s art is almost too formidable to describe. A good way to go crazy would be to summarize the plot of Midnight’s Children—even Wikipedia, which will recount every plot of every episode of every TV show ever made, doesn’t even try and just helplessly links to an endless list of the novel’s characters. Excitable critics’ references to Rushdie as literary magus or wizard aren’t as exaggerated as they seem: he invents some new spectacle on every page, like the magician’s ghetto in Delhi, an encampment of fractious communist conjurers destined to be liquidated in the Emergency; or the delirious chapter set in the Sundarbans, a jungle near the Bay of Bengal where Saleem flees the war of 1971 and has visions of monkeys and houris, gods and demons; “and more and more and more”—the perforated sheet, the silver inlaid spittoon, the fortune-teller, the washing chest, the dancing hands, the torn tonsure, the moving pepperpots, the buddha, the sterilization; Amina who was Mumtaz, Jamila Singer who was the Brass Monkey, Laylah who was Parvati-the-witch! (The list-making is infectious.)
Though prodigal, Rushdie never pretends to originality. He wears his influences on his sleeve: Midnight’s Children is obviously modeled on The Tin Drum (with its grotesque boy as embodiment of political corruption), on One Hundred Years of Solitude (with its incest-ridden magic family saga as national epic), and on Tristram Shandy (with its metafictionalizing narrator who can’t get himself born as the novel’s hero until halfway through, as Saleem doesn’t narrate his own birth until the second of the book’s three divisions). But by applying these influences to a setting not then customarily approached in such a style, modern India, and by immersing them in endless tides of other cultural contexts from Ganesh to Superman, Rushdie achieves a vision all his own. It is a vision so capacious and vital that the charge with which I began—Rushdie as an also-ran kept alive by scandal—must be judged nothing less than libel.
And yet. Something of my inchoate early response to The Satanic Verses, and of James Wood’s more serious and coherent critique of Rushdie’s entire generational sensibility, haunted me as I read Midnight’s Children. “The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” yes, not to mention the critical axiom that we should only judge a work within its own mode and tradition—in this case, why apply the strictures of realist fiction to the fantasy and satire that Midnight’s Children so consummately is?
Still, it’s hard in the end to care as much as I want to care about an endless phantasmagoria, a spectacle grounded only in a prefabricated political allegory and not in a freely observed and explored reality, a narrative paradoxically immobilized by its very freneticism, immured in its imaginative profusion, like a temple or cathedral collapsed under the weight of too many gargoyles. I would contrast Rushdie (and in fact Grass and García Márquez) not with sober realists but with writers like Kafka, Saramago, and Morrison—magicians who keep one foot planted on earth. I never knew what would happen next in Midnight’s Children, not because the very logic of the plot was capable of engendering a logical surprise, but because anything at all might happen. This infinite horizon initially produced a sensation of wonder, but about halfway through the novel, it turned into weariness, an exhaustion with marvels, a surfeit, an unbalanced diet, too much cake and ice cream. In this way, the nation’s failure to cohere—at least as Rushdie sees it—becomes the novel’s too.
Speaking as a fellow writer, though, we should all be so lucky to boast of fragments and scatterings as alive as these. I won’t wait another two and half decades to meet this author again: long live Salman Rushdie.