Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Liberating the Truth from History

How do you tell the story of a country? Tell it as the story of a person. The main character and narrator of Midnight's Children, Saleem Sinia, is born (or at least someone is born, because there is a bit of a muddle) at the stroke of midnight, on August 15, 1947, the day that India gained its independence from British colonial rule. Narrating his own story, Saleem tells his country's story, and that of the other 1,001 children who were born that day, and blessed with special powers because of their special place in history --not that it helped with their survival in many cases, but then nation-building is fraught with risks.

Salman Rushdie, also fortuitously born in 1947, took to heart the classic advice to budding authors: write what you know. The result is beyond history, beyond testimony; it is art. He identifies the truth in the storytelling, or as he puts it: he liberates the truth from history.

The book is tightly interwoven although at times it seems loose and meandering. Saleem's faithful companion Padma speaks for the reader and urges Saleem to get back on track. My favorite aspect of the writing was the sensual quality: it is tremendously atmospheric, and permeated with considerable wry humor. The imagery is rich and resonating. Nothing is gratuitous. Every detail, every description, has either symbolic or historical relevance. This is what sets Salman Rushdie apart from writers who can spin a good yarn and keep the reader engaged, but who have no sense of literary construction, not to mention history.

History is the main theme of the book; personal history, the nation's history, and the need to create one's own history. History has cracks, it comes together and disintegrates, memory is faulty. But overall, history is always invented and it depends on who is doing the telling.

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans"
One aspect that several people at book club mentioned as being difficult was the fact that this is the kind of book that must be read while paying close attention; you can't skim through it or else you will miss key information. Often Rushdie will offhandedly toss out a fact, or mention an event, and then 20 pages later (not just one or two pages) it will be revealed that the aforementioned detail was a key turning point in the life of a character or the country.

Rushdie plays freely with the supernatural (ghosts, but are they?), oral storytelling, voices, prophecies, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious conventions, melding them into a unified, if surreal, whole. The priests are instructed to tell their Indian Christian converts who might be concerned about whether they will be accepted into Heaven if their skin is darks: Tell them that Jesus is blue as the "Hindu love-god, Krishna, is always depicted with blue skin. Tell them blue; it will be a sort of bridge between the faiths." This is a Solomonic solution rife with absurdity. Upon being told that Jesus is blue, Saleem's nurse Mary Pereira is indignant, "You should write to Holy Father Pope in Rome, he will surely put you straight; but one does not have to be Pope to know that the mens are not ever blue!"

The multiplicity of voices was another aspect that was problematic for some readers. Events unfold simultaneously. We get to hear different voices speaking at the same time, just as Saleem hears the voices of the midnight's children in his head. This is the literary convention that Rushdie uses to express what the main character is experiencing, as well as representing the conflicting forces in the country.

Midnight's Children is a book that is epic heroic, historic, and yet completely human and accessible, because for all its scope and grandeur, it is a story about life, as it unfolds and is told from the perspective of a fictitious narrator who reveals his world as he sees it, with his inconsistencies, frustrations, and memory lapses, but with the honesty of an inhabitant of the world he describes. He is no stranger to this land. And even though the readers of this book may come from widely divergent cultural backgrounds, the underlying humanity of the story is universal.

This is one of the great novels of the 20th century, and the Man Booker Prize committee agrees: in 1993 Salman Rushdie was awarded the Man Booker Prize as the best book selected in the past 25 years. It is also one of my favorite books.

I was fortunate to be able to hear Salman Rushdie speaking in Bogota in February 2009, following his appearance at the Hay Literary Festival in Cartagena. This is an excerpt of my review of Rushdie's conference.

Forthcoming, affable, with a sharp sense of humor, Rushdie spoke about his books, elements from his life that have influenced his writing, and the novel as an expression of popular culture.

Interviewer and Hay Festival Director Peter Florence began the interview by noting that Salman Rushdie has often been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his use of magical and supernatural elements in his writing. Rushdie acknowledged the similarity in the sense that both he and Garcia Marquez write about characters whose world view is colored by a sense of a world of wonder and magic that surrounds them and that this magic has become part of their everyday existence. "I'll take the comparison," Rushdie said, playing to the crowd. But there the similarity ends, for whereas Garcia is an eminently rural author, Rushdie's works are rooted in the in the hustle and bustle of the cities of India, color by his experience of growing up in Bombay (Mumbai), and nuanced with his experience of living in the cities of London and New York.

His first successful novel, Midnight's Children (1981), tells the story of a boy and other children, who were born on August 15, 1947, the day that India became independent of British colonial rule. The personal stories are interwoven into the fabric of history and, as Rushdie notes, his purpose is to liberate the truth from history. He also wanted to write a book to give voice to the vernacular to the Indian people. Until this point, the only authors who had written about India were British, such as E.M. Forrester's Passage to India, written in an English that was cool, classical, distant, and reserved. Rushdie wanted to capture the feeling of life in India, in all of its hot, vulgar, smelly, noisy, spiritual, surrealist glory. He joked with the audience that Latin America has nothing on India when it comes to squalor and passion.

Rushdie commented that for him the novel must always be something new, something different. Just as the character explores a new concept identity, Rushdie allows himself to explore in the novel form. He stressed that the novel is inherently an irreverent form in which nothing is sacred, and that as an author he has the right to question as he sees fit. It is his voice, his unique voice, he stated, and nobody owns him. He referred to the novel as a vulgar form, meaning of the common people. He commented on the validity of the different expressions of music, film, and popular culture as reflecting the sensibilities of the times. Rushdie noted that people tend to like or dislike his books for exactly the same reason, often citing their cinematographic quality.

I came away from the interview with a newfound respect for Salman Rushdie, an author of creativity, artistic integrity, humor, and gritty sensuality.

No comments: