Tumbleweed is blowing across the screen.
A month since the last post – has this blog been abandoned – yet another of those graveyard internet pages, barely stumbled across, growing ever more spiderlike and dated as the days tick on by until it’s consigned to a Graveyard of Dead Code?
No. No, it’s just I’ve been reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and that takes a while.
Salman Rushdie is a bit of a superstar. Winner of The Booker’s Booker, no less. So widely praised, so widely loved. So why does no-one seem to have read him? Rushdie’s work seemed a guiltily gaping hole in my little red literary house (and yes, published by Vintage, as with everything else I read), so I plumped for Midnight’s Children as a less forbidding alternative to The Satanic Verses.
It is extraordinary. Simply extraordinary.
There seems to be something about India which compels people to write stories about it on an epic scale – and what more epic premise than this: a country and a boy born on the same day, their histories entirely entwined. Does the country impact the boy – or the boy impact the country? Add layers of family history, intricate detail, and a rich vein of spirituality/fantasy (depending on your reading) and you get a work of stunning richness and character. Yes, its 600 pages are at times heavy-going – you need to pay attention – but the writing is exceptional on all levels. Its historical/political side is fascinating, its characters pin-sharp, and it is thematically one of the most interesting works I’ve ever read.
On top of all of this, Rushdie layers a quite astonishing level of imagination. My favourite element of the novel is its play between physical reality and human interiority. Emotions leak out of psychology into the real world. In several instances, cooks stir their emotions into their food, affecting all those who eat it as surely as poison.
“What my aunt Alia took pleasure in: cooking. What she had, during the lonely madness of the years, raised to the level of an art-form: the impregnation of food with emotions… while we lived in her Guru Mandir mansion, she fed us the birianis of dissension and the nargisi koftas of discord; and little by little, even the harmonies of my parents’ autumnal love went out of tune.”
Even more wonderful is the protagonist Saleem’s ability to smell anything with his gargantuan nose – intent, emotion, and situation. Here’s a wonderful passage about him accustomising himself to this gift:
“Early attempts at ordering: I tried to classify smells by colour – boiling underwear and the printer’s ink of the Daily Jang shared a quality of blueness, while old teak and fresh farts were both dark brown. Motor-cars and graveyards I jointly classified as grey … there was, too, classification by weight: flyweight smells (paper), bantam odours (soap-fresh bodies, grass), welterweights (perspiration, queen-of-the-night); shahi-korma and bicycle-oil ere light-heavyweight in my system, while anger, patchouli, treachery and dung were among the heavyweight stinks of the earth. And I had a geometric system also: the roundness of joy and the angularity of ambition,; I had elliptical smells, and also ovals and squares… a lexicographer of the nose…I snared whiffs like butterflies in the net of my nasal hairs.”
So not only is an epic tale told – is it told with unparalleled creativity and originality – almost craziness – of vision. Like India, it is a world of baffling richness. I feel frustrated by my inability to capture even a percent of it in this post, but it will linger in me, and I and my little literary house is the stronger for it.
Having said all that, it was a right old slog at times and I now need some compensatory lightness. I’m heading to that most rare forms on my bookshelf – the sub-300 page novel! Blow away, tumbleweed – I’m back.