Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Does Salman Rushdie believe in his own magic? A few notes on Midnight's Children and Garcia-Marquez' 100 Years of Solitude

I was only a few pages into Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children when I had started making comparisons with 100 Years of Solitude, by Colombia’s own literary idol, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Both begin with one patriarch and trace several generations, often revealing the fates of their characters before the stories had come to them. A Wikipedia note of Rushdie as a “magical realist” got me thinking more about the worlds that Garcia-Marquez and Rushdie created in their respective stories. In MC, Saleem, the narrator, rather persistently doubts and questions the [what we would regard as] supernatural, with a kind of self-consciousness for what his readers might or might not believe. The ghosts of MC live in completely separate, intangible worlds, having only secondary effects on tangible characters. In nearly all cases, from the ghost of Joseph D’Costa to the prophecy of Saleem’s life, to Saleem’s telepathy itself, they are all reducible to coincidences or contrivances of their characters’ hyperactive imaginations. The ghosts and the magic of Macondo, on the other hand, make up every day life as much as any other character, to a point where one child character is assumed body and soul into the heavens.

Rushdie is notorious for his relationship with religion (and, in contrast to his truly engaging storytelling in Midnight's Children, disappointingly lacks creativity of position in his non-fictional literature on the subject - he offers himself up as the voice of the pet “Other-come-to-his-senses” in the panel of New Atheists... but I prefer not to get into this here). As he is a self-proclaimed atheist, I wonder if it is to be expected that his ambivalence toward the non-material permeate the world of Midnight’s Children. I sense that what Rushdie does not doubt is the impact of belief on the actions of believers, and the ability of actors to create and ascribe greater significances to the smallest things in one’s own life - we see this in Saleem’s story, who finds himself reconciling the pain of all his family’s trials by tying them with the events of India, to whom he convinces himself that he owes some great purpose, only to finally lose all sense of hope and purpose once he would literally get castrated by the state-sanctioned sterilization campaign of Indira Ghandi.

While I think that the different approaches to magic in these two works may have something to say about their authors’ beliefs in the non-material, what are perhaps more justly accessible are the authors’ approaches to writing. If it is true that Rushdie himself struggles to distinguish between the origins of the natural and the supernatural, perhaps the story is his battleground, or his negotiating table, between secular-Western and traditional Asian systems of belief. In MC he acknowledges the power of metaphor and meaning, but he himself, in the form of his main character, will not dive headfirst into that wonderland, will not even allow himself the godly role of author, where he can create entire worlds to say something about the world outside them. But it is perhaps this very frustration with the impotence of dreams and the delusory nature of the non-material (especially compared to that violently-materialized illusion of the state) that Rushdie hoped to convey in Saleem.

Although I don’t know enough about the personal religion of Garcia-Marquez to speculate on how it paints his writing, I can say that 100 YoS is not so [explicitly] preoccupied with distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, or between the beliefs of the reader and the contrivances of the narrator. Might I hypothesize, then, that Garcia-Marquez insists on the undoubted, unquestioned, and uninhibited integration of the natural and supernatural, where djinns and ghosts are materialized beings rather than just metaphors, to resist those secular-materialist-Euro-American systems of belief? Could Jose Arcadio Buendia’s determination to find a daguerreotype of God, to the consternation of his wife and neighbors to where he must spend his last days hogtied to a tree speaking an incomprehensible language, also be a comment on how an obsession with the strictly-material could drive one to antisocialization and, ultimately, madness?

Both 100 Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children are set in the midst of radical historical changes, and both seem to be commenting on how traditional systems of belief are affected by new world orders. Rushdie seems to do this rather consciously, through the repeatedly tested and ultimately destroyed quixotic beliefs of a single character, while Garcia-Marquez tries to capture the responses of several characters, over several generations, to the sequential cultural invasions in Macondo. Recalling the integration of [let’s just say] unnatural and natural events in 100 Years of Solitude, and comparing them to the persistent questioning of the supernatural in Midnight’s Children, I thought to myself, “Rushdie doesn’t believe in his own magic.” Now I am thinking: that was the point.


Terrence W. Zellers said...

An interesting comparison. I suggest you look for a literary or philo venue to post it.

-- TWZ