History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
In magic realism, the realistic narrative undermines its drive for mimesis by deliberately introducing elements which can only be explained through the involvement of supra-natural forces, i.e: magic. Magic realism disrupts the normal schemes of causality and time (history), the laws of physics, and the conventional relationship between the object and its symbolic meaning. At a fundamental level, magic realism is a device for defamiliarising the familiar. It has its roots in a curious incident in Hoffmann’s 1822 Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, in which Prince Irineus loses his kingdom when it slips out of his pocket one day as he is taking a walk in the neighbouring principality. In some of Hoffmann’s Tales, this defamiliarisation of reality, casting doubt on the realism of the narrative, reveals archetypal Romantic irrational forces. In Gogol’s tale The Nose of 1835, a story which was a key influence on magic realism, narrative uncertainty is also created by the presence of magic. Only magic can explain the presence of a nose inside a loaf of bread, and its reappearance in the guise of a state councillor. In Hoffmann and Gogol, the presence of magic in an otherwise realistic setting is directed towards psychological aims, a way of exposing the drives of the subconscious.
It was Dostoevsky who saw the potential of this kind of narrative uncertainty for a way of looking at historical questions. In Dostoevsky’s short tale of 1865: An Extraordinary Incident, a St Petersburg bureaucrat is swallowed by a crocodile, and thereafter receives visits from high society, curious to hear his views on life from the inside of a crocodile. Dostoevsky was trying through this narrative to show the conflict in the Russian identity between the Slavophiles and the Westernisers: the crocodile represents foreign capital, exploited by Russians and exploiting them in turn. For Dostoevsky, the inclusion of magic was as much a way of circumventing the censor as subverting history: he hid his politics in an innocuous and amusing fantasy.
It was Bulgakov, another Russian, who took this narrative uncertainty and introduced magic for a sustained political attack. The Master and Margarita, written during the height of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s included the devil at large in Moscow (Stalin), talking cats (the ubiquity of KGB informers) and so on. Gunter Grass, during the late 1950s, as part of an overall trend towards literary self consciousness during the decade of the noveau roman, added Brechtian verfremdungseffekt to the presence of magic, breaking the narrative frame the more to highlight the political purpose of his writing, to jolt the reader into a new political awareness.
So we can see a transition, then, from a ‘magical realism’ used as a symbol of the subconscious, to ‘magic realism’ used as a way of showing the dislocation of the political, the individual and the historical. It is noteworthy that magic realism as a genre comes from places where the political scene is so strange, so mad, so autocratic, so whimsical, judged by the standards of ‘normal’ Western democracy, that only a sense of magic can do justice to it: South America (Allende, Garcia Marquez, Llosa), Russia (Bulgakov, Pelevin), India (Salman Rushdie), Germany (Grass), China (Han Shao Gong).
The emperor, on a whim, decreed that all the birds in the kingdom were pests and the spreaders of disease. He issued an edict to the effect that all birds should be expelled. All the subjects in the empire thereupon spent days and nights on their rooftops, in the parks, in the streets, anywhere where birds could land and rest, shouting and waving banners, to prevent the birds from alighting. Gradually, exhausted, the birds left the kingdom, never to return.
Magic, or mad reality? Actually, this really happened in 1961 in China under Mao’s ‘Four Pests Campaign’. The campaign was so successful that the absence of sparrows in the cities thereafter created a glut of mosquitoes and flies, and the embarrassed Chinese had to ask the Soviets to export 200,000 sparrows to them in order to deal with the insects. Reality can have a metaphorical content; that does not make it less real, says Saleem Sinai.
In Midnight’s Children, magic realism has this kind of function, to highlight the absurdity of the political scene in post-Independence India, and to expose the complex nature of the relationship between the individual and their position in history. The central project of the novel is to answer this question: How, in what terms, may the fate of a single individual be said to impinge on the fate of the nation? And it does so with an astonishingly bravura performance, in which the extraordinary events of modern Indian history are related while at the same time examining the acts of writing, language, of memory, story telling, and the forging of identity, both personal and national. These issues are foregrounded in three main ways.
First, the narrative voice. The narrator, Saleem Sinai, is writing/telling his story to his assistant and friend, Padma, in a pickle factory. Rushdie’s/Saleem’s writing is intense and vivid and very beautiful: Like scraps of memory, sheets of newsprint used to bowl through the magicians’ colony in the silent midnight wind. Most of the considerable pleasure in reading the novel comes from the texture of the sentences and language.
The narrative switches disconcertingly and self-consciously between Saleem’s story (then) and its creation (now). Padma participates in the latter by asking questions, displaying impatience with Saleem’s digressions, encouraging and admonishing him: an emblem for the relationship between the writer and reader of any narrative. Sinai is one of the most amazing creations in modern fiction: cucumber nosed, birthmarked, bow-legged and with small horns on his temples, a riotous imagination and a genius for spinning tales about all the people in his life. To understand just one life you have to swallow the world…perhaps if one wishes to remain an individual in the midst of teeming multitudes, one must make oneself grotesque. Born at the midnight hour, at the same moment of India’s Independence, he receives a letter from Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. From this moment he sees his destiny as linked with that of India’s. Due to an accident in a laundry basket, he is able to channel through telepathy all the other children born at the same time, and creates in the space of his mind a convocation of all the midnight children, each of whom is the possessor of some magical gift. As the novel progresses, Sinai starts to question his narrative, and to warn his reader/hearer about the unreliability of his memory, and of his ultimate uncertainty regarding his place in the scheme of things: Am I so far gone in my desperate need for meaning that I’m prepared to distort everything – to rewrite the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role? He frequently voices anxiety concerning the solipsism of arriving at an understanding of the individual’s role in history, especially when that history is unsettlingly permeated by what can only be understood as magic. Throughout, the narrative undermines Sinai’s integrity as narrator, with the use of other names (snot nose, stain face, piece of the moon), the switching of pronouns from I to he and a foregrounded awareness of the inconsistency between I-as-he-then, and I-as-myself-now, raising questions of the reliability of memory/history: Since the past exists only in one’s memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred. Towards the end, his own narrative raises the question of Sinai’s madness: are the voices of the midnight children merely schizophrenic voices; the magical elements in his narrative merely the hallucinations of madness, his arrest and treatment at the hands of the Widow merely an expression of insane paranoia? However, this interpretation of the narrative uncertainty is ultimately and clearly rejected in favour of a political one: Midnight’s children can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view: they can be seen as the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive in our myth-ridden nation, whose defeat was entirely desirable in the context of a modernizing twentieth-century economy, or as the true hope of freedom, which is now forever extinguished; but what they must not become is the bizarre creation of a rambling diseased mind.
Secondly, the narrative structure is not straightforward. There is a general linear trajectory, but events later in the novel appear as throwaway asides in the early part of the novel, coincidences and correspondences are foregrounded, characters appear before their time, and scenes are chopped up and described in parallel. There are several reasons for this. Apart from the alienating effect of magic realism’s disruption of time and causality, Sinai sees his narrative in terms of musical structure: I wish at times for a more discerning audience, someone who would understand the need for rhythm, pacing, the subtle introduction of minor chords which will later swell, seize the melody…It is also part of the Indian national culture: As a people we are obsessed with correspondences. Similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things,… are a sort of national longing for form, or perhaps simply an expression of our belief that forms lie hidden within reality, that meaning reveals itself only in flashes. The foreshadowing of later events is an expression of the Hindu belief in predestination (Muriel Spark plays the same games with narrative sequence in her novels as an expression of her Calvinist belief in predestination). Sinai is under pressure throughout the book to complete his narrative before he literally cracks up and breaks apart from some magical disease which is eating away at him. Kermode points out in his Sense of an Ending: In a novel the beginning implies the end: if you seem to begin at the beginning: ‘It was a fine evening in 1922…’ you are in fact beginning at the end. The end is inherent in the beginning in Midnight’s Children, which begins: I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. As the end – the dissolution of the narrative and therefore of the narrative voice and therefore the cessation or ‘death’ of Saleem Sinai- draws near, the writing reaches an almost unbearable pitch of intensity as the destruction of the midnight children by the Widow is described. Through these narrative games Rushdie seems to be saying that in order to really understand Indian history, a straightforward, uncomplicated linear narrative of the kind offered by Vikram Seth in A Suitable Boy is inadequate, artificial and restricting.
Thirdly, magic and realism balance each other perfectly throughout. Sinai/Rushdie is as much as theorist of magic realism as a practitioner. Matter of fact descriptions of the outré and bizarre, and their reverse, namely heightened, stylised versions of the everyday, he says, describing perfectly his own method. A characteristic device is to describe objects as though they were people, and people as though they were objects: Dr Narlikar, the physician who delivers Saleem Sinai into the world, glows in the dark like a phosphorescent object, while the chutneys his ayah makes are full of the emotions and disappointed hopes of human beings.
Another device is to metaphoricise history. Sinai identifies four modes of writing retelling perceiving relating to history:
Sinai exists (as person and as narrative voice) within spectra composed of these four poles:
active-literal: how Sinai impacted history directly (this might be Sinai’s solipsistic madness- can the actions of one insignificant individual be said to impact history?)
passive-metaphorical: how the growth of the state is symbolised by the growth of the baby Saleem born at the very moment of Independence (Saleem as a symbol of post- Independent India)
passive-literal: how the events of history impact Saleem’s family (the closest to realism: Sinai’s father’s assets are frozen in the real clampdown on Muslim finances in the early 60s)
active-metaphorical: how the things which happen to Sinai are shown to be symbolically at one with the events of history (when Sinai cuts his finger off, revealing the secret of his birth, similar eruptions of secrets happen all over India: metaphor itself becomes a magical object or event, rather than a mere symbol.)
Most narratives switch between the middle two modes, mixing realism and symbolism. Magic realism lies in the outer two: the subverting of causality and time (history) and object and metaphor. If autocrats can impact (rewrite) the history of their nations on a whim, then so can ordinary (or indeed fictional) individuals. If metaphor can become magic, then so too can history.
We must live, I’m afraid, with the shadows of imperfection.