After a largely ignored first book and a spell toiling as an ad-man, pushing cream-cakes, Rushdie attempted to write a Serious Novel of the kind people in 70s England were thinking only Americans were allowed to do (see above). In order to make a splash, he picked India as his topic and Magic Realism as his toolkit but couldn’t help including film-buff Hollywood allusions. The basic conceit is a sort of John Wyndham idea that all children born in India or the two Pakistans at the precise moment of Partition in 1947 were gifted with super-powers. Yes, a bit like Heroes. Our narrator, Saleem Sinai, is trying to tell his and the country’s story to his girlfriend but keeps digressing and trying to balance explaining everything with keeping it chronological. Tristram Shandy is an ancestor of this book as well as the Ramayana and Garcia Marquez. I found it hard not to think of Ronnie Corbett first time I read it.
It’s a lot less haphazard than it presents itself as being. A great deal of effort and trial runs must have gone into positioning the references to the implied listener getting frustrated or bored at the times when nine out of ten readers are thinking exactly that. It’s far from random but it attempts to seem improvised. A similar effort has gone into making sure that a detailed knowledge of Indian politics and the various religions and mythologies isn’t compulsory before you start. This is, however, not to be trusted as a primer on such topics.
Above all, it’s a book that is concerned with the sensation of being overwhelmed. On a first reading it’s all you can do to keep your head above water and struggle to the end. That’s not a bad thing in itself. It might almost be a good analogy for living in India under Indira Gandhi. Rushdie throws every trick he knows into this novel and nothing he’s done since quite matches up. The next-best attempt at an Anglo-Indian Magic Realist saga, The Satanic Verses, might as well have been called Tonight, Matthew, I’m Going to be One Hundred Years of Solitude. Rushdie’s got a knighthood now, hangs out with Bono and dates models. He’s an insider, a pillar of the establishment, a position he earned by articulating a special form of not-quite-outsider status.
By Tat Wood