Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
I have this thing where I sometimes prefer a later, arguably derivative variation on a theme to the original. I enjoy Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead considerably more than the Beckett plays it is clearly, heavily inspired by. I find Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns grating and much prefer some takes on Batman that take their inspiration from Miller but do their own thing with it.
Similarly, although in so many ways it looks to Günther Grass’ seminal The Tin Drum (1959), at times almost to the point of plagiarism, I would choose to re-read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, published in 1981, over Grass’ novel any day of the week. Have at me, German Studies PhDs!
I had a phase where I would have called Rushdie my favourite writer. I can’t remember whether I first read Midnight’s Children or the more (in)famous The Satanic Verses, which came out seven years later – but I think it was the former, as I discovered the Booker Prize shortly into my EngLit studies and afterwards devoured years and years of winners and shortlisted novels for a while. I found Rushdie’s prose style intoxicating, the world he was half-describing, half-inventing immersive, and his carnivalesque generosity of characters and stories highly engaging. I’d not read much magical realism before, but Midnight’s Children pulled me in almost from the first page. (Fitting my earlier observation about originals and derivatives, I enjoy it more than Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.)
Rushdie’s blend of cartoonish satire and high tragedy struck me as a fascinating way of representing the Partition of India and the ensuing madness. His narrator’s blend of mockery and despair, and the multitude of characters that are given a voice – Rushdie had found a great means of delivering scathing postcolonial and national critique while also telling a rollicking story that still left you thinking about its implications.
There’s something that happened to Rushdie and his writing in the years following The Satanic Verses and the fatwa – obviously this would leave a trace, as Rushdie’s life was under threat for years and collaborators of his were injured and killed as a result. Starting with The Moor’s Last Sigh, which reads like a more cynical but also disappointingly stale rewrite of Midnight’s Children, his storytelling became more bitter, his characters flatter and his humour more smugly superior. Rushdie had always criticised politics, religious leaders (and followers) and fanaticism of all kind, but he had always been very clear that doubt is essential and certainty is dangerous. Post-fatwa, he seemed to become more and more certain of his views of what was right and what was wrong, which also meant that his exuberant, subversive fabulation no longer made sense. Rushdie’s magic realism in Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses was a means of destabilising the capital-T Truths, but then the author began to ‘tell it like it is’, peddling his own supposed Truths. As a result, what had once worked for Rushdie turned more and more into a tired spiel.
I miss the old Rushdie (and not just because he helped me earn a salary for the first few years of my professional life – thanks, Salman!). I miss the sparkling, irrepressible, generous storyteller. Perhaps Rushdie isn’t, and never was, the right writer for a post-fatwa, post-9/11 world. But Midnight’s Children is still there, it’s still a better read than The Tin Drum, as far as I’m concerned, so you can come and take away my Shame, my The Moor’s Last Sigh, my The Enchantress of Florence and Shalimar the Clown. I might try to hide my copy of The Satanic Verses before you show up, but I’m definitely hanging on to Midnight’s Children.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.