Thursday, April 09, 2009
Many postcolonial writers have resorted to magic realism as a way of promoting national identity since it embodies practical reality of bygone and contemporary events while simultaneously creating desires to upturn the flow of occurrences. Realism renders nations’ appearances astoundingly the same, whereas the unrealistic features of magic realism can render them unique by manifesting yearnings in distinctive ways. With magic realism, postcolonial authors get to challenge what otherwise appears like realistic narrative by experimenting with a non-mainstream literary technique—fantasy—purposed at presenting an alternative reality in longing subversion of western (read: colonial) ways of constructing reality. To paraphrase Linda Hutcheon in “Circling the Downspout of Empire,” the postmodern technique of magic realism is linked to postcolonialism in that they both deal with the similar oppressive force of colonial history in relation to the past.
One such postcolonial writer is Salman Rushdie, who used magic realism in Midnight’s Children extensively. His fusion of fantasy and reality looks typically Indian because the characters strewn in present social and political disorder likewise own the power of epic heroes. As a novelist from a country with a colonial legacy, Rushdie is also concerned and involved with the concept of nation in his magic realist writing, which was motivated by (1) the necessity to cast away what Coleridge called the film of recent past’ familiarity through the use of fabulation and (2) the dilemma of presenting impossible events. As it is, magic realism is “a reflection of the ‘cultural heterogeneity’ of Latin America—a simultaneity caused by historical sedimentation due to colonialism (i.e., several cultures existing at the same place and time.” If the usual definition of a nation is the same people living in the same place or in different places, the postcolonial idea of national identity as depicted in Midnight’s Children is different: Indians are different people living in the same place. Most importantly, in interspersing fantasy in his supposedly realistic story, Rushdie responds to the stubborn construction of colonial peoples as the west’s Other through the supplanted prevailing ideology represented by the prefix “post”—after—in postcolonialism. India, like other postcolonial countries, may have yet to see the complete erasure of British colonialism pending its struggle to be formally independent while simultaneously staying culturally and economically dependent to the mother colonizer, but postcolonial literatures like the magic realist Midnight’s Children interrogate colonial paradigms so that the alternative construction of the Other may give India as well as similarly situated postcolonial nations a decolonized identity, that is, an identity bereft of Eurocentric or universalist images and ideas.
The novel’s opening sentence illustrates the postcolonial in magic realism: the I narrator, Saleem, tells, “I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time.” The initial part of his statement reflects 19th century social realism while the latter part employs the traditional English fairy tale formula to indicate the forthcoming fantasy. Saleem requires these two techniques to achieve his purpose of creating a significant identity in an anarchic and vicious world. He is afflicted with the Indian penchant of obsessing to summarize entire realities, as may be gleaned from the Indian encapsulation of long literary works like Rig Veda, Bhagavad-Gita, Mahabharata and Ramayana. In this obsession, myths permeate history while history turns mythic. Rushdie’s view of the “unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil” finds parallel in the term magic realism. The search for the whole, evident in Saleem’s compression of the entire Indian cultural history, catapults him past realism or fantasy alone. This quest can be acknowledged as finding what will make up his identity, a central concern in postcolonialism.
The author’s subject is identity, both national and personal. Saleem and the newborn state of India correspond symbolically. Both are born at midnight on August 15, 1947 with one thousand other children in the first hour of India’s independence from British rule. They prove to possess extraordinary powers, with Saleem’s being the most amazing, getting and losing the ability to link their minds through telepathy. After his failure of one power, he acquires another, for his prominent nose becomes capable of distinguishing scents beyond normal limits like being able to smell feelings and motives. However, the series of personal mutilations does not stop, from his pulled tuft of hair to his cut middle finger to his lost memory due to a bomb-blast injury. These misfortunes are indicative of the disfigurement of the protagonist’s identity for most of his life, a depiction of the enduring crisis of any individual in the cruel modern world. However, Saleem’s magic realist physical fracturing may also be a critique of the colonial predicament of identity fragmentation which results from the contamination of foreign culture in the native’s corpus. It becomes a steady pursuit, then, for postcolonial beings to attempt to reconstruct their identities despite or precisely because of this very contagion.
Midnight’s Children is a constant and understated exploration of the connections among order, reality and fantasy. The protagonist continuously links his life to that of the country’s. Saleem was born, enhanced and destroyed along with India’s birth, development and destruction and, essentially, his major characteristic has been ignorance of the direction where events are heading. As a reflective narrator, he can already realize all the relations, and his story ties India’s disastrous faltering into a design in which the country’s bizarre chaos shrinks to order via fantasy. The nation is metaphorically and comically imagined as disagreeing gifted children refusing cooperation, leading to their castration and deprivation of their impressive talents during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of 1976, when free India gets reduced into a despotic state. In Midnight’s Children, the characters appear to traipse through the leaves of history, stumbling into crucial times in India’s growth apparently by chance. Hence, Saleem’s grandfather is down on his knees after a vigorous sneeze when Brigadier Dyers’ machine-gunners fired shots in the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, Saleem tumbled into this world at the same time India did, and just about all his life’s important happenings, ultimately reaching the obliteration of midnight’s children concurrently with India’s destructive Emergency, coincide with the growth of the young nation. Both Saleem and India must cope with ancestral uncertainty as they struggle to establish their identities. Saleem’s genealogy rejects the classifications that the contemporary political condition permits. His grandfather labels himself Kashmiri, Muslim and Indian, but when a riot between India and Pakistan erupted over Kashmir in 1947, the combination confused Muslims. When Saleem confesses to his family his remarkable gift of hearing voices, his father smashes him in the ear. His “stupid cracks” turn into literally physical cracks. The “crack” in the body politic parallels the “cracks” in Saleem, who feels that he is crumbling into pieces. This translation of metaphors into occurrences is another kind of magic in Midnight’s Children. Therefore, magic realism is a means of manifesting reality more vividly with the use of different magical metaphors. The author moves up and down metaphorical substitution. This technique works well in conjunction with identity-related postcolonial strategies as may be viewed in the abovementioned examples.
In the specific context of the novel, the Indian culture of the past and its current amalgamation of cultures are bound by magic realism. This is what Stephen Slemon pointed as “a battle between two oppositional systems…, each working toward the creation of a fictional world from the other.” The world of fantasy and that of reality exist in the novel, the former being readily discernible and through which the latter becomes more salient. The thousand and one children parallel the fantasy and number of Arabian Nights as well as the author’s estimation of the Indian birth rate per hour. Also, the talent of telepathy must be considered a magical counterpart of the objective reality of present Indian society: there are so many people in India that one’s life is so intermingled with another’s that it cannot be anymore secret, unlike in the West where solitude can be either a luxury or a curse. In the author’s own words, the “polyglot frenzy” comprising “the inner monologues of all the teeming millions” is signified through the concurrently magical and realistic device that’s Saleem’s “All India Radio” telepathy. In a postcolonial magic realist work like Midnight’s Children, the actual social relations of postcolonial cultures are present—the different classes, ethnic groups and races coexisting in the case of India—something that Kumkum Sangari labels as cultural simultaneity.
As a magic realist text, Midnight’s Children captures a space for resistance because it is recovered from its colonial realist limits. Likewise, this resistance space is necessarily postcolonial because it is not shut down into order; instead, it is open to magical possibility. The potency of this containment of the colonial metanarrative cannot be undermined because the postcolonial magic realist novel’s subversion of the ordered space is a force that questions the equilibrium, which hopefully paves the way to new experiences. Instead of dismissing Midnight’s Children as feeding on a complicit relationship to imperialist ideology with its author’s exoticization of India or as falling short of the political goal of potentially redeeming the reader from the unethical reinforcement of the continuing spectacle of an Othered empire, it should be perceived otherwise. Rushdie portrays in his novel how the spectacle of the empire operates in Raj’s colonial design of India and the independence movement’s nationalist design of the country. The conflicting imagery of imperialist and nationalist spectacles shows how Saleem’s life reflects the narrative of modern Indian history. The protagonist obviously counters reality via propagandistic historical constructions. Midnight’s Children criticizes the chauvinistic spectacle of British cultural supremacy which the Raj instilled upon Indian history and culture during its conquest. The novel also parodies the manner wherein these paradigms were embraced and perpetuated by the country’s very nationalist movement.
Beyond the novel’s magic realist strategy to upturn conventional realism lies the opportunity to contest colonial models and this is to read magic realism as a postcolonial device. As a political position, the postcolonial provides a space for resistance toward the limiting realism of the west. The metaphors and allegories in which the novel is steeped facilitate a politicized resistance against western paradigmatic inconsistencies like its historical discourse of order which is not only false but also derogatory from a postcolonial perspective. For instance, Saleem’s “destinies [are] indissolubly chained to those of [his] country” by the strange fact that both were born on the same day. The magical connection in the two not only metaphorizes the narrator’s life as a microcosm of the nation but also sees it as an alternative to the grand narrative in which the history of India is written by its western conquerors. The postcolonial culture of India, with its combination of the Western and the Oriental conceals the violent nature of political and historical happenings, in effect laying difficulties in the establishment of and interrogates the achievement of a consummate Indian identity that is liberated from external contaminations temporally, spatially and culturally. In fairytale-ish fantasy, identities like Saleem’s can be created easily: the novel showcases India as a nation in its infancy stage which, like Saleem, relishes an incredible story and views the elements of the marvelous as everpresent.
Magic realism as inherent part of the novel, from the grandfather’s tears of diamond and ruby nosebleed through Ahmed’s vanishing skin to Narlikar’s luminous ashes, shows the significance with which the ordinary context gets blurred by miraculous events. First, it permits the plausibility in which characters like Saleem portray epic roles in Indian history. Second, it metaphorizes the cultural amalgam in everyday Indian society. Third, the fantastic events in Indian history actually happened, notwithstanding if Saleem himself admits that these occurrences are too marvelous to be believed. Necessarily, the fantasy becomes a tool with which to relate and remark on Indian history, politics and culture. Finally, magic realism helps define the identity of the Indian people with its offering of an alternative history: a counter-memory.
The magic realism in Midnight’s Children stresses the sustained struggle to come at peace with identity within the postcolonial scheme. Not only are the midnight’s children magical beings, but also are they the children of the times—“the last throw of everything…the true hope of freedom…”—in acknowledgment of their midnight nativity. While Saleem’s generation did not succeed in realizing the possibilities built within the dynamics of independence, a possibility is present in every generation of midnight children to construct a complete identity despite the increasing difficulty of formulating so in the contemporary context. In the ambiguous final sentence of the novel which says, “it is the privilege of midnight’s children to be both master and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and be unable to live or die in peace,” a similar thread weaves not only the marvelous with the real, but also the colonial with the self-asserting postcolonial individual. The reflection of political and historical problem in magic realism renders it as a legitimate critique of colonialism and its attendant ideologies. In upholding the identity of the Other in the novel, the postcolonial challenges the imperialistic movement that champions centrality despite the simultaneous recognition of the power of the center in the privileging of the margin. Through this, a rising society’s necessity to renew its self-description and to erode constructed Orientalism by the West may be responded. The reinscription of the marginalized magic realism and the celebration of identity in postcolonialism are means through which said centrality and, by extension, universality, may be questioned.
Hidalgo, Cristina Pantoja. Sharing Our Story: Philippine Literature in English. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Open University, 2006.
Hutcheon, Linda. “Circling the Downspout of Empire.” In The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ashcroft, Bill et al, eds. London: Routledge, 1995.
Legasto, Priscelina. Philippine Postcolonial Studies. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Department of English and Comparative Literature, 1993.
Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.
Purushotham, K. “Rushdie’s Images of Bharateeya Nari in Midnight’s Children.” In Indian Fiction in English. Rao, P. Mallikarjuna and M. Rajeshwar, eds. New Delhi: Atlantic, 1999.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Avon/Bard, 1982.
Slemon, Stephen. “Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse.” In Canadian Literature 116, 1988.