Saturday, 19 January 2013

Do you believe we’re in a steep literary decline?

Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

How we worry about losing our love for language—texters and their OMG, the use of u for you, broken grammar, misspellings, we seem to be afloat in language sewage.  We often lament that writing just isn’t what it was in the golden ages of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare or James Joyce.
But look at whose novel has just been made into a movie, who was the screenwriter himself of that movie, and who earlier won The Best of the Bookers for that novel, twice.  If you’ve ever read anything by Salman Rushdie, you know that well written literature is still produced. 

I will concede that the movie isn’t the biggest of box office hits, and there are many who won’t be finishing this novel, but even so, at least 87 editions of the book exist.  Those who do finish, and there are many, recognize this author is as complex and brilliant as any writer in the English language, including Shakespeare.
Midnight’s Children is a huge and complex allegory. To fully understand it, the reader would need to be well versed in Hindu and Islamic theology (at the very least), British Colonialism, the history of India/Pakistan/Bangladesh,  majority and minority Indian cultural mores,  Greek mythology, umm, what else…  Knowledge about lime pickles and the geography of Mumbai would come in handy.  But even without a full understanding of the book, any reader who appreciates elegant writing will be dazzled.  Here he describes how an “Annie Oakley in toothbraces” establishes herself as a bully among a group of bedazzled boys:

                On and off the cheetah-seat, Evie performed.  One foot on the seat, one leg stretched out behind her, she whirled around us; she built up speed and then did a headstand on the seat!  She could straddle the front wheel, facing the rear, and work the pedals the wrong way round… gravity was her slave, speed her element, and we knew that a power had come among us, a witch on wheels, and the flowers of the hedgerows threw her petals, the dust of the circus-ring stood up in clouds of ovation, because the circus-ring had found its mistress, too:  it was the canvas beneath the brush of her whirling wheels.

The novel is narrated by a broken young man in a pickle factory, as he tells his story,  that is India’s story, to a wife-like companion.  He tells his story complete with critiques of his own wording as well as her reactions to his literary style:

                (she)…prepares my food on two blackened gas-rings, only interrupting my Anglepoise-lit writing to expostulate, ‘You better get a move on or you’ll die before you get yourself born.’  Fighting down the proper pride of the successful storyteller, I attempt to educate her. ‘Things – even people – have a way of leaking into each other,’ I explain, ‘like flavours when you cook.  Ilse Lubin’s suicide, for example, leaked into old Aadam and sat there in a puddle until he saw God.  Likewise,’ I intone earnestly, ‘the past dripped into me…so we can’t ignore it…’  Her shrug, which does pleasantly wavy things to her chest, cuts me off.  ‘To me it’s a crazy way of telling your life story,’ she cries, ‘if you can’t even get to where your father met your mother.’

 I’ll be moving on to Rushdie’s Joseph Anton next, another huge book, which I’m expecting to be as powerful.  It frequently struck me while reading Midnight’s Children that just as his narrator, Saleem, personally experiences the historical events of India, Rushdie himself personally experienced Islam’s impact on the modern world.  
As far as literature therapy goes, this one will convince you that the English language continues to be written with as much depth, humour, detail and meticulous polish as from any golden age.


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