No ordinary life

Midnight’s Children
by Salman Rushdie

Wow. I have struggled for three weeks with this book and there were times I hated it, times I wondered why I was punishing myself, but now that I am finished I find myself captivated by it, stunned by the world it created and almost, possibly, missing it.

This is no ordinary book. If the mass of prizes it has won – Booker Prize 1981, James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1993, Best of the Booker 2008 – do not convince you of that, then let me. I read a lot and I assure you that this is a very different book. It most definitely stands out. I am reasonably certain, though, that I will never call it a favourite. It’s just too hard a slog.

Rushdie is not known for being an easy or accessible writer but I have read three other of his books and this was by far the hardest for me. The style is complex, rambling almost, repetitive and yet secretive, at pains to point out patterns and symbolism, to explain history and myth, at the expense of making ordinary lives hard to follow. Although, if we’re to believe the narrator (a tricky one, as I’ll explain), no life is ordinary: “How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility…To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.”

The story is told by Saleem Sinai, a 30-year old Indian man, speaking both to us (in the form of writing his autobiography) and to his lover Padma. The book is split into three sections – his family history leading up to his own birth, his childhood, and his adulthood. Unusually for me, I found the adulthood section easiest to read, perhaps that’s because I was finally fully engrossed in the book by that point. Saleem was born at midnight on 15 August 1947 – the exact moment of India’s independence. Thanks to rich parents and a media campaign he is hailed as a symbol of the new nation, and indeed as a narrator he takes great pains to draw parallels between every incident in his life, large or small, and the fate of the nation.

Which is a big story to tell. The first 30 years of independent India were turbulent, to say the least, and Saleem does not move quickly. He lingers on details, gets sidetracked by memories or lost memories, resists telling what is difficult to tell, lies even. He is quite possibly the most unreliable narrator I have come across. He admits this multiple times, accusing his memory of failing him, though he has other excuses on some occasions: “I told you the truth…Memory’s truth…It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality…and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

And then there’s the magical realism. I have come across this before, but perhaps never quite so fully as in this book. The magical is central to the book and yet, just possibly, could be explained away as not magical at all. I will try not to give away too much, but it relates to how Saleem discovers that he is just one of 1001 children born in India during the first hour of India’s independence, and his attempts to create a community of “Midnight’s Children” and to follow all their fates. They are not all, thankfully, introduced as characters, but a handful of them in addition to Saleem’s own family and neighbours gives this book a large enough cast of characters to confuse me at times. Generally, though, Saleem spends plenty of words on reminding you of who someone is, with a string of nicknames related to characteristics or incidents in their pasts.

There is a lot of humour to balance out the necessarily harsh details of a country that suffered riots, war, police brutality and much else in this time period. Padma, our fellow listener, quite often interjects with disbelief or frustration or even contradiction to Saleem’s narrative. Many characters are described with far-from-subtle abnormalities, bordering on the grotesque, like a cast of circus freaks. Saleem’s view of the world is immensely narcissistic (he does, after all, believe his life to be inextricably linked with that of his great mother country) and yet his cruellest words are often aimed at himself.

Mostly, Saleem is a vessel through which the early story of India and Pakistan can be told. His family is ostensibly Muslim (though not devout) so that though he is born and initially raised in Bombay (as it was then called), other family members go to Pakistan shortly after its creation. The action moves throughout the two countries (three countries, after Bangladesh comes into being), with Saleem somehow being wherever the news is being created, where the eyes of the world are focused (or perhaps should be focused, but aren’t). It’s a stretch, certainly, but the whole is told in such a style that you either have to believe he is making it all up to make his point, or you have to suspend disbelief and accept it all, magic included.

As a story of India it is fascinating and I learned a lot. I was particularly struck by the resistance, almost cynical, to considering India a great nation: “A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulted into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history…was nevertheless quite imaginary…a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will.” And yet it made me want to learn more, want to go there and see the great festivals where paint is thrown over people in joyous celebration of life, where Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and numerous other religions have existed side-by-side for centuries, thousands of years even (not always peacefully, admittedly), where smell is a hugely important part of daily life (so often left out of descriptions in books, in this one it plays a central role).

But I can’t deny that I struggled, I found it hard to read. Not because of subject matter or lack of interest – the style itself is tough-going. And because of that, those times I have been asked, while reading it, if I would recommend it to others…I honestly didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer.

See also: review by The Girl.

First published by Jonathan Cape in 1981.

War novels do not necessarily glamourise war

Slaughterhouse 5
or, The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death
by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

Slaughterhouse-Five

This is a book I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought it, some people recommended it, and I got excited and lined it up for the recent 48-hr TBR read-a-thon. Then someone else told me it was really hardgoing and I got scared of it. Then some lovely people on Twitter encouraged me to give it a go anyway so I did. Yes, it’s a little crazy but it is a great great book.

There are no surprises in this book. Everything is laid out in chapter one, which is actually a sort-of prologue, or a “Why I wrote this book”. Vonnegut’s style takes a little getting used to. It’s chatty in a realistic kind of way, by which I mean that it’s not always fluid, jumping around between subjects, but not in a stream of consciousness way.

The central story is that of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier, prisoner of war, optometrist and time traveller. At least, he says that he was kidnapped by aliens on the night of his daughter’s wedding and ever since has been able to travel around in time the way they taught him to. This allows his life story to jump around in time, only dealing with the horrors of war in small chunks. I was never entirely clear how seriously we’re supposed to take the time travel thing, or whether Billy himself really believes it. But it makes sense for a person whose whole life has been coloured by the awfulness of witnessing the Dresden firebombing, who was institutionalised and became a fan of cheap science fiction, to latch onto this coping mechanism.

Vonnegut gives Pilgrim a lot of his own wartime experience, often stating things like “I was there too”. It is unclear how much Pilgrim is himself or how much Pilgrim is other people he observed during the war. Despite the awfulness of what both men observed, Vonnegut doesn’t linger on gruesome details. Though they are there, this book is primarily about the emotional impact of war. He states early on that this is an anti-war book and that is undeniably true. There is a very telling quote directed at his publisher: “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Despite the tough subject matter and obscure manner of storytelling, this is a tender, funny book. It is moving and also oddly innocent – Vonnegut’s subtitle is certainly apt. He shows great sympathy for dogs, horses and children, which challenged my assumption that a war veteran would be hardened emotionally.

First published 1969.

One day in the life

Saturday
by Ian McEwan

I have read a few of McEwan’s books, and have had a pretty variable response to them. This one kept me so thoroughly hooked (staying up until 1 a.m. to finish it) and had such masterful language that it is definitely my favourite so far (oh, except maybe A Child in Time, which was heartbreakingly beautiful).

The story is about one particular Saturday, a day that is both ordinary and extraordinary for main character Henry, a brain surgeon in a wealthy part of London. McEwan goes into a lot of detail in this book, not something I remember particularly of his previous writing, so I suppose maybe it’s intended as a reflection of Henry’s precise nature. There are pages and pages detailing medical procedures, for example, both adding authority to the story and revealing how very much the job is a part of who Henry is.

Henry wakes early, unable to sleep, and by chance sees a plane burst into flames from his bedroom window. This is how his Saturday begins. It goes on to include a squash game, a minor car crash, food shopping, a family reunion and his observation of the Don’t Invade Iraq protest march. Yes, it’s set on that particular Saturday.

It’s an interesting set-up and is executed extremely well. The impending Iraq invasion pervades the whole day. Henry can’t get it out of his mind. He is completely torn on the subject. Not ambivalent – he definitely cares – but he is honestly not sure whether it’s the right thing to do. He’s not concerned about WMDs but he has met Iraqi intellectuals who tell awful tales of Saddam Hussein’s regime, tales that make him think that removing such a man from power could only be a good thing. But Henry’s an intelligent, astute enough man to know that it’s not that simple. For one thing, war is always to be avoided. There’s also the question of what happens next – does the UK suffer from reprisals? Does Iraq get another terrible dictator who inflicts unspeakable crimes on his own people? Does the US try to rule Iraq, causing a much bigger, longer-drawn-out war? Does this give us licence to go invade every other country with a despotic leader who we think is doing bad things?

I think this is part of why I liked the book so much. I relate very strongly to this in Henry. It’s easy to say in hindsight whether something was good or bad, whether it was done well or badly. But at the time I was so uncertain. A lot of my friends went on that protest march through London and a few people were surprised that I didn’t. I’m a pacifist – I could never be for war – but there was a strong argument for removing Saddam from power. It would be wonderful if this sort of thing could be managed through the International Court of Justice, but it’s never that simple.

But back to the book…Henry is in some ways an irritating, smug, well-to-do character who is so far removed from war zones and human rights violations that it could have been hard to care about what he thinks. He certainly has money, a comfortable lifestyle, a loving wife and children, a job he thrives on. His difficulty relating to his creatively minded children could have been clichéd. At a party I might not be inclined to speak to him. But McEwan manages to both find the humanity of this man but also write his story in a way that does not ask you to care. In a way, the whole point is how comfortably middle class Henry is because he epitomises the capitalist consumer, he is the person Al Quaeda despises and wages hate campaigns against. And he is very close in type to the people who actually made the decision about whether or not to go to war. You imagine that he was probably classmates at public school and later university with key cabinet members.

In his favour, Henry is a thinking man and McEwan gives him a believably erudite turn of phrase. For instance, when considering his difficulty with reading poetry, his thoughts run:

“…it cost him an effort of an unaccustomed sort. Even a first line can produce a tightness behind his eyes. Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time…But to do its noticing and judges, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling.”

(Incidentally, I’m not sure if I somehow had an American edition but I did get a little annoyed that this well bred Englishman was using American terms like “airplane” and “movie” rather than the British English equivalents, but that’s the sub-editor in me coming out.)

This was a very well executed novel that held me in its thrall and I am very grateful to Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…] for recommending it.

First published 2005 by Jonathan Cape

Little Friday review

Little Lost Robot
by Paul McAuley

This is actually a short story, not a novel, that Tim had been trying to get me to read for some time. It was first published in Interzone, which has been home to some excellent science fiction, so I finally gave it a go.

The story begins impersonally, describing the “superbad big space robot” as it travels through the universe, fulfilling its killing mission. Gradually it becomes more and more personal. The machine has four “subselves”, programs I suppose, that run it together, in collaboration. They repair damage, formulate tactics, arm weapons and discuss their next move. Over time the robot has taken a lot of damage, including to its memory, and this is where it gets interesting.

It’s such a short story that I’d rather not give away much more than that. I found myself a little doubtful that I would like the story at first. It was a robot at war, described distantly and with reverence. But the story slowly zeroes in on the robot’s Librarian subself, imbuing it with something approximating personality, self-doubt, humanity even. It’s a very cleverly written and structured piece and toward the end I definitely felt warmth for this cold space warrior.

It probably helps, reading this, to have some familiarity with computing terminology. The robot uses a combination of strictly mechanistic terms (time periods in teraseconds, rather than being broken down into years) and oddly human terms (anger, loneliness, tenderness).

The story wasn’t what I expected. The title suggested to me something cute and sweet, maybe Wall-E-like and, though there are similarities, that’s not what this is. This is the super-efficient soldier slowly revealing his inner humanity and it’s definitely touching, but it’s not cute.

Published 2008 in Interzone 217. You can read it here or listen to it here.

Nominated for the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction 2008.

Putting the story into history

Shalimar the Clown
by Salman Rushdie

This book is very much about its settings. The time and place of events is irrevocably linked to the story and I found that intriguing. It doesn’t hurt that I have a long-held fascination with India and it is India, perhaps unsurprisingly, that is depicted with the greatest affection.

I found the writing more accessible than I had expected, which was good because a lot of the story is set in war-torn Kashmir and I’m not a big fan of war stories (Yes they’re very important and the genre includes some genuinely great writing but sitting down day after day to read about military tactics and lots of people dying in gruesome ways? Not my cup of tea), so I needed something to keep me in.

Thankfully there’s a lot more to the novel than that. It centres around four characters: Max Ophuls – an aged ambassador for the US and World War II Resistance hero, his daughter India – named for the country of her birth though she has no memory of it, Max’s killer – an Indian chauffeur who calls himself Shalimar the Clown, and Boonyi – the Kashmiri beauty who links their lives.

The story begins with Max’s murder on India’s doorstep. It is bloody and calculated. We then go back to learn why it happened. What was it about Max’s past and Shalimar’s that led to this event?

This book isn’t about the plot twists or the ending. The plot is mostly given away from the start. I remember reading once that in India the endings of stories – books and films – are openly discussed without concern for who does or does not know the details already. That was my experience here and it’s a definite break from what I’m used to. Not only does this novel give away it’s own ending but it also discussed the endings of three or four major films.

What makes this book great is the depiction of moments in history from one or just a few people’s perspective. Max was a Jew in Strasbourg in the years leading up to and during World War II and there’s a lot of detail about the gradual change in daily life packed into a small number of pages. A later section is set in LA during the riots of 1992 and again there’s so much detail that the chapter could almost pass for a history essay, if there weren’t a few fictional characters mixed in there.

Boonyi’s Kashmir is described in adoring detail, from the earthly paradise of her youth, when whole villages made a living from traditional arts and crafts and families of different faiths lived side by side without it being an issue (in fact they sometimes helped each other celebrate their religion); to the increasingly fractious, suspicious Kashmir following the India–Pakistan divide, when the valley gradually came under fire from all sides and your religion became all-important; to the deeply scarred warzone that Kashmir had become by the 1990s. It is a tale of tragic loss, of human idiocy and impotence. There were details that were appallingly horrific and, though this is fiction, I don’t doubt closely resemble real events and that sickens me.

The loss of the beauty and happiness of Kashmir is mirrored in the tale of Boonyi. A combination of history and human fallacies lead her ever downward and the world around her follows suit.

There are no particularly sympathetic main characters. Or at least, there weren’t for me. The love stories are touching but the characters involved are too cold or too single-minded for me to like them. My favourite character – and I’m sure the reader is meant to react this way – was the Sikh governor Sardar Harbans Singh who stayed true to his love of Kashmir to the end.

As with any novel with a historical setting it was sometimes unclear which bits were real history and which were fiction. I suppose it doesn’t matter really , except perhaps when words are put in the mouths of real historical figures. Is that okay? Is that allowed?

I greatly enjoyed this and was sad when it ended but it’s not a cheerful book. Consider yourself warned.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.

In the future there will be war

The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman

Tim has been bugging me for a year to read this so I finally gave in. I can see why it instantly became his favourite book. It’s an immensely clever look at war and humanity, with some very interesting ideas about space travel and the future.

This is one of those books that I think is brilliant but I didn’t hugely enjoy reading. I tend not to like war-set stories, particularly those that focus on the fighting and the tactics. While there was much more to this novel, there was a lot of war stuff to wade through and that meant that my overall enjoyment took a big hit. It was all, of course, necessary. The clue was in the name.

It wasn’t in any way a slog to read. The storyline is clever and the writing is accessible even for people like me without the greatest background in physics or military tactics.

I don’t want to give away too much of the storyline but it begins with the conscription of William Mandella into Earth’s army in space. Space travel is near light-speed and makes use of black-hole-like gateways so that vast distances can be covered, but the cost of this is that space travellers do not age as fast, so when the first soldiers return to Earth they are still in their 20s but decades have passed (it’s something to do with general relativity), which is reflected both in the age of their loved ones and in the great changes that have happened – socially, politically, environmentally and technologically. It’s a clever way of adding emphasis to the returning soldiers’ sense of displacement.

This is one of those rare occasions where I think the background of the author and the time of writing are relevant when honing your thoughts on the book. Haldeman is a veteran of the Vietnam War and wrote this shortly afterward. He even starts the book in a future near enough so that the officers who train Mandella are Vietnam vets themselves. This drives home the parallels between the fictional war and the real one, though they at first seem starkly different.

For instance, there’s the great changes that happened in the USA while soldiers were away in Vietnam. Hippies, free love, rock music, drugs, civil rights, feminism. These are not hugely dissimilar from the changes that Mandella struggles with. There’s the use of drugs and hypnotism to condition the troops to hate the enemy (I’ll admit here that I don’t know that much about the Vietnam War besides what I learned in A-level history many years ago but I believe there was drugging of the troops – is that right?) There’s the use of old-fashioned military tactics against a little known enemy who fights very differently.

What I liked most was the personal struggle to deal with so much unknown and so much change. By making Mandella the narrator this book keeps its focus on an individual’s reactions to news and events, however huge those events get.

The political and sociological changes to mankind as time passes are completely believable and the way that information drip feeds out to the soldiers, light-years away from Earth, is very well crafted. I did find the middle section hard-going because it paints a dark, depressing picture of the future that was all-too believable and I suppose that frightened me. But it was worth reading on. I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first.

As a depiction of mankind’s future this is a great book. Shame about the war but it’s an unlikely future that doesn’t have war in it, right?

First published as a serial in Analog magazine. First published as a novel in 1974. Revised by the author 1991.