David Bjoerling Jensen

Tag: Salman Rushdie

“The God of Small Things”

Roy, Arundhati.  The God of Small Things.  New York:  Random House, 1997.

Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” is an ominous and enigmatic novel with a pernicious tone that is set early on.  It’s like a dark and heavy fog at dawn, leaving the reader to guess whether the sun will eventually emerge to burn off the fog, or if it’s getting ready to drizzle and thunder and lightning all day.  Set in India circa the time of the Communist revolution, it is a tale of two lovers fatally attracted to each other (literally), and two children who are fraternal twins.  The story ends on a happy note, but doesn’t have a happy ending.  That is, the plot is chronologically disjointed in such a way that certain major events are foreshadowed, while subsequent chapters jump back to fill in the blanks as the story unravels.  The writing is extremely rich with detail, a lot of which is pertinent and revisited time and again, but a lot of which isn’t, and only serves to poetically bolster the language.  For example:

Years later, when Rahel returned to the river, it greeted her with a ghastly skull’s smile, with holes where teeth had been, and a limp hand raised from a hospital bed.

Both things had happened.

It had shrunk.  And she had grown…

Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now.  A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish.  It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furrowed brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater.  Bronze-winged lily-trotters walked across it.  Splay-footed, cautious.

Roy’s writing style is Rushdie-esque in at at least two ways.  Firstly, she takes excessive liberties with the rules of the English language, often combining words to make one, or breaking one apart to make two, and uses sentence fragments frequently to accentuate matters.  Secondly, her manner of storytelling is like an overgrown and untamed flower garden, splendorous but chaotic…naturally beautiful and organic, but a lot to sort through.  The tale unfolds with a quality of dream-like effluvia, held cohesive by the exaggerated use of repetition.  Lots.  And lots.  And lots of repetition.

While the content is eerie and the tone despondent, I very much enjoyed reading this novel.  My only critique is that sometimes the commandeering grammatical rule-breaking comes off as a touch self-indulgent.  But hey, for a first-time novelist to win the Booker Prize on her debut work, I’ll allow it.

“Haroun and the Sea of Stories”

Rushdie, Salman.  Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  New York:  Viking Penguin, 1990.

This book first caught my attention as I was cataloging the Salman Rushdie portion of the Booker Prize Collection at the Morgan Museum & Library.  One particularly rare edition, replete with illustrations, beckoned a closer glance, which motivated me to read through a few pages.  I didn’t have time then, but I told myself that I would one day read this novel…and the time has come.

Reminiscent of “The Never Ending Story” or “Alice in Wonderland,” this work is quite unlike any of Rushdie’s other novels in theme, but quite similar in terms of imagination and descriptive creativity.  It is the story of Haroun, the protagonist, on a quest to preserve clever storytelling in the Kingdom of Gup.

So Iff the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun.  He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale.  Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe.  And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns.  It was not dead by alive.

Along with an accompaniment of a few other lively characters, Haroun ventures into the neighboring Kingdom of Chup in order to both rescue a captured princess and defeat  the evil cult master Khattam-Shud, whose aim is to poison the Ocean of the Streams of Story, thereby ensuring silence and glumness among all the land.  A fanciful battle unfolds–and you can probably guess who wins.  But to say much more would ruin the story…

As an eccentric fantasy novel, it is appropriate for children and adults alike.  That is, the story at face value is a fun, imaginative, dream-like tale to be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation of whimsical fiction.  But  when read between the lines on a deeper level, the author has inserted allegorical commentary on the prevailing political and cultural status quo.

By all means, I endorse this lighthearted foray into fantasy fiction as a recommended read!

“Midnight’s Children”

Rushdie, Salman.  Midnight’s Children: A Novel.  25th anniversary ed.  New York:  Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006.

This is one of my favorite passages from this novel:

Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence; I must be guided by the memory of a once-glimpsed file with tell-tale initials; and by the other, remaining shards of the past, lingering in my ransacked memory-vaults like broken bottles on a beach…(491).

I like this quote because I find it poetic, but also because it encapsulates the reading experience I had while involved with this detail-rich, densely-packed story.  That is to say, my memory of the essence serves me well…but the inexhaustible character development and twisting deepening turning plot leave me a touch evaded…like a dream from the distant past that you still remember, one that was profoundly symbolic and stuck with you for days after it occurred, but is now somewhat amorphous not in theme but in detail, as imagery has gently dissipated with time, while its fundamental gist still remains.

Rushdie, the marvelous teller-of-tales that he is, has descriptive capabilities easily on par with Charles Dickens.  Told in a first-person narrative, this fictional autobiography is set in the turbulent time period directly after India gained independence from Britain’s imperial authority in 1947.  The intent of this review is not to recount the storyline, but rather, to elaborate on what makes Rushdie such a unique and exceptional novelist.  His sentences are complex, while he breaks bends distorts rules of punctuation and syntax in a dynamic and creative way.  He uses repetition brilliantly…a perforated sheet, a silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli, saffron-and-green, the blue of a Kashmiri sky; these are a few themes that poignantly, yet casually, emerge again and again, which make you smile each time because of how deeply couched they are in context and meaning.  Moreover, his marvelous vernacular usage truly breathes life into this novel.  Certain place names, terms of endearment, or other colloquialisms were completely unfamiliar to me as a Western reader.  But that’s what gives this book a whole other level of depth.  I mean, I loved the story because it was complex and imaginative and emotional.  But for an English-speaking Indian audience, on top of its literary refinement, it must certainly carry cultural overtones/undertones and historical frame of reference that  hit home more so than I can even begin to imagine.

Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1981.  It also won the Booker of Bookers Prize in 1993, which was judged as the best novel among all previous winners in the 25 year history of the prize at the time.  A similar prize known as The Best of the Booker, was awarded in 2008 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the prize. A shortlist of six winners was chosen and the decision was left to a public vote. The winner was again Midnight’s Children.  So, yeah, if you like ingenious storytelling and have the wherewithal to stomach a substantial 533-page work of fiction, then get on with it…this one is well worth your time!

And for what it’s worth, the Hollywood film adaptation is due out in early November of this year.