Salman Rushdie World Literature Analysis
“Putting down roots in memory,” Rushdie wrote in Grimus, “is the natural condition of exile.” People in this position, he says elsewhere, “are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt.” An exile suspects reality: “Having experienced several ways of being, he understands their illusory nature. To see things plainly, you have to cross a frontier.”
Since Midnight’s Children, Rushdie has become the voice of those who have crossed that frontier, of all the migrants, such as himself, who have been torn from their place, their language, and their social norms, and who have been forced to reshape and root themselves in a strange new world. He suggests the instability of their identities by giving his major characters more than one name and, often, uncertain parentage; a physical fall—from the sky in Grimus and The Satanic Verses, or from a bicycle in Midnight’s Children—is his recurring symbol of their loss of the firm footing of home and self. Since the self is, above all, a narrative—a construction of memory—each of his novels is built of the stories that characters tell to define themselves and their worlds. Yet like most products of memory, the stories that fill his novels are flawed, unreliable, skewed by the obsessions and blind spots of their tellers. In such stories, there can be no externally verifiable reality, so Rushdie’s novels cannot be contained by the conventions of the realistic novel.
Instead, Rushdie’s books are a unique and fascinating blend of literary genres and religious and cultural traditions. To be true to his own sense of reality, his own layered consciousness, he has had to develop a novelistic form that allows him to bring together the widely disparate parts of his own experience—East and West; secular humanism and religious fundamentalism; sacred and profane; Hindu, Muslim, and Christian history and myths; First, Second, and Third Worlds; Bombay cinema and English television; India, Pakistan, and Great Britain. “We are here,” Rushdie has said, “and we’ve never left anyplace that we’ve been.” He once described the perspective that is required to capture this plural experience as “stereoscopic vision,” a vision that allows him to look simultaneously at two societies from both the inside and the outside.
This stereoscopic vision is supported by Rushdie’s spendthrift imagination. His is essentially an aesthetic of excess—of piling episode on episode, character on character, plot on plot, pun on pun, comic name on comic name, digression on digression. Mixing the narrative energy of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, the playfulness of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), and the political and psychological ambition of Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), this aesthetic has provided Rushdie with the formal space that he needs to treat the multitude of subjects that press themselves upon him.
First published: 1981
Type of work: Novel
This saga depicts modern India, told through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, a changeling born at the same moment as his country during the midnight hour of August 15, 1947.
The central conceit of Midnight’s Children is that 1,001 children were born during the first hour of India’s independence, that all of them were born with magical powers, and that the extent of the powers that they were given decreased as the hour unfolded. Two boys were born at the exact stroke of midnight, and they had the greatest powers of all. One of them, Saleem, is the novel’s narrator; the other, Shiva, is his alter ego and nemesis. Saleem is the illegitimate child of a poor family; Shiva, the legitimate son of the wealthy Sinai family. Secretly switched at birth by a nursemaid in love with a man who opposed the caste system, they grow up with each other’s names, living each other’s lives.
“I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country,” Saleem says at the beginning of his tale. A self-consciously postmodern Scheherazade, Saleem relates the story of his ancestors and his life to his housekeeper, Patma, over thirty-one Indian nights. In the process, he shares his version of sixty-four years of Indian history: the years under the British, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the religious and language riots following partition, the conflict between secular nationalism and religious fundamentalism, the wars between India and Pakistan, the birth of Bangladesh, the rise and fall of Sanjay Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi’s “emergency.” All these events and more tumble onto the page from his faulty memory, with dates jumbled and facts twisted into falsehoods.
Like Tristram Shandy, Saleem Sinai is not born until midway through the novel in which he tells his story. His most important feature is his nose. At age nine, Saleem learns that he has both the power to hear the voices and thoughts of others—including all the other children of midnight—and the power to transmit the thoughts of each to all the others, like a radio. His “antenna” is his long nose. How he suddenly learns that he has this power and how he loses it are two of the novel’s most hilarious and inventive scenes.
Rushdie’s treatment of Saleem’s nose is a perfect example of his literary method and “stereoscopic vision.” It is, first of all, outrageously comic and...
(The entire section is 2319 words.)