The Dynamic of Representation in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children

ęSébastien Blache, Doctorant à l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, Paris III [sebastienblache at — substitute "@" for "at"]

[Note: page numbers refer to the bibliography that follows this essay.]

The unravelling of the story — from the narrator's birth (Saleem) and life to the history of India and the subcontinent — accounts for what Roland Barthes called the "pleasure of the text" in his eponymous work. In Midnight's Children, the text is a tapestry of many texts and a mosaic of languages: "the subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel" (p. 4; author's emphasis). This is particularly relevant to the genre of the novel, in which voices are permanently intermingled in a constant dialogicality, according to the Bakhtinian concept. The "Midnight's Children Conference", which gathers all the children born at and just after midnight on the day of the Independence of India and Pakistan, August 15th 1947, can exist through Saleem's telepathy and is the forum of the subcontinental languages, a sort of new Babel. Midnight's Children is the locus of a constant dynamic in the narrative and the disclosing of both plot and events. A dynamic between two successive states implies a potentiality, a tension between what is virtual and what is actual, as the Aristotelian opposition has it. The natural "unfolding of [the] tale" (224) intermingles past, present and future storylines in the woven artefact of the text. In the novel, the signifier (and its network of meanings) is used to its full potential.

A narrative about possibilities

The introductory scene launches the paradigm of the "perforated sheet". Dr Aziz is only allowed to see his patient's body through it. It shows part of the body and hides the rest of it: this constitutive eroticism is, I suggest, a metaphor for Rushdie's narrative technique. Barthes drew a comparison between the two: "Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no "erogenous zones" (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance" (p.10). The pleasure drawn from the "strip-tease" is reminiscent of quite a few voyeuristic characters in Rushdie's novels. In Shame, Omar uses a telescope to spy upon others (p. 35); Saleem spies upon other characters — especially his mother — hiding in the washing chest or in the boot of the car. The writing becomes imbued with eroticism: as stated in The pleasure of the text, to represent is to unfold, to reveal and exhibit. Through the reading, the text regains its original and etymological dimension, that of material, of textus. It is a "perforated sheet" that lets us peep through its holes. Every page turned is a bit of sheet removed to uncover what is hidden, the rest of the story and the rest of the body. The narrator toys with this ambiguity by using the polysemic term "sheet" (bed linen but also page). The productivity, the potentiality of the signifier, and within it, of the letter itself, is founded upon the structuring around the time of the writing. It is a recurring fact in the genre of the autobiography. In Tristram Shandy , for example, the birth of the narrator coincides with the present of the writing. Indeed, the novel as fictional autobiography is centred on the time of narration, the time of utterance, that is to say the present. References to the moment of utterance are numerous in Midnight's Children. Saleem often mentions the office where he is writing, the "Anglepoised light" (p. 14) and the pickle factory. As at the beginning of the chapter "All India Radio" where the spectator moves towards the cinema screen, the movement of the narration seems to be incessantly oriented towards the magnet of the present: "Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up, row by row, until your nose is almost pressed against the screen" (p. 197). That section of time is also that of the continuous present of creation as in Descartes' works. It is a way of relentlessly renewing one's existence and one's conatus -- a concept coined by Spinoza, which expresses man's willpower to persevere in his being -- via the act of writing. Saleem is aware of his impending death: the anchoring of the narrative in the eternal present of the text enables him to challenge both the coming of an ending and of death itself. They are the unavoidable constituents of any fiction. Tristram Shandy is a succession of digressions: the narrator strives to obliterate the moment of his birth, as it would inscribe him in a biography with a beginning and an end, therefore implying his death. As for Saleem, having told about his birth from the outset in a very conventional manner, he tries to postpone his death, whose occurrence is fatal since the revelation of his birth. (His cracked body is the repository of the proleptic signs of death.) He keeps the telling of it until the end of Book One, in a decision that angers Padma (his audience) and causes her very Sternian criticism. The multitudinous interpolated stories are akin to dikes set up against bursting cracks, which would mean death: they fill the void. In this respect, Saleem is very Beckettian: to tell is to survive.

The productivity of the letter is first relevant on the level of narratological sequences. In his article on sequence in narrative texts, Claude Bremond defines three stages. First the virtual sequence is opened; then comes its achievement (or non-, or postponed achievement) and the period of time during which the action is done; then the process comes to an end, being either actualised or not. This very operative analysis can be applied to the pattern of revenge and retribution, and Midnight's Children is full of revenges and vendettas of all sorts. If we take the example of the punitive strategy set up by Alia, Saleem's aunt and Amina's sister, we can see that her aim is firstly announced. Its catalyst, in Book One, is her abandonment by Ahmed (Saleem's father) for Amina. This event opens the sequence: Amina will from now on try to take vengeance for that slight. According to the saying, "revenge is a dish best eaten cold" — or, should we add, "best eaten hot and spicy". The process of realisation will be very slow. When the Sinais move to Pakistan, Alia houses them and cooks for them. This episode gives the narrator the opportunity to develop his aesthetics (whose etymological sense is "sensation") and describes the vengeful flavours of the dishes: he calls it "the impregnation of food with emotions" (pp. 394-97). This achievement culminates and results in devastating repercussions. The pregnant Amina imagines she will give birth to a monster and becomes ugly while Ahmed's business goes bankrupt. The last stage is the ending of the sequence, its actualisation: the parents' death (and Alia's) corresponds to its closing (a bomb destroys the house). Chapter Ten's opposition between "snakes" and "ladders", in other words this "perfect balance of rewards and penalties" (pp. 160-167) is a metaphor for that strategy: to commit a misdeed will inevitably lead an individual to bear the consequences later. The narrator exploits every event to arouse the reader's curiosity, telling the reader, "The accident is almost upon me; and the children of midnight are waiting" (p.185). He uses the familiar rules of suspense and cliff-hanger, a method that is redolent of Victorian novels published in instalments. Padma is part of this process: her questions, especially at the end of chapters, verbalise the reader's doubts and add to the possibilities inherent to each element of the narration. For instance, in Book One, which is devoted to Saleem's birth and enigmatic parenthood, a single question asked by Padma re-establishes the potential of a sequence by creating doubt in the reader's mind and making him/her more curious. "'Is that him?' Padma asks, in some confusion. 'That soft cowardly plumpie? Is he going to be your father?'" (p. 53) (she is talking about Nadir the poet, Amina's first husband). Puzzled about the list of virtual fathers, he (or she) sees his (or her) interest being suddenly rekindled. The narrative has a constant capacity to self-begetting. The narrator himself recognizes that "besides [the jar] one jar stands empty." (p. 549). These pickle-jars represent each chapter: that one of them, on top of the other thirty, remains empty, is the acknowledgement of the impossibility of closure, both in the real and figurative sense of the word. The signifying chain is inexhaustible and the text is permanently reborn in an assertion of what Barthes called its dimension of "production". Indeed, in his article "Text" published in the Encyclopaedia Universalis, he drew a comparison between a text and a work: the former is a product, the latter a production. The first occurrence in the novel of the future tense in the last chapter re-emphasises the infinite possibilities of the text.

Productivity also deals with the level of the signifier. The Rushdian signifier is ubiquitous: it crosses innumerable dialects - without mentioning English and Urdu. It spreads all its semantic possibilities since it is the constant object of puns, spoonerisms and parodic uses. The most comical of them all is to be found in the passage in which Saleem, as he is talking about the quantity of mucus produced by his nose, alters the rose passage in Romeo and Juliet ("What's in a name?"), which turns into: "What's in a nose?" -- "What was in my nose was snot" (183). The permanent play on real sense and figurative sense also partakes of the activity of the signifier: the freezing of Ahmed Sinai's financial assets corresponds to the freezing of his anatomical assets. Language makes use of a lot of images and analogies: toilets are called "thunderbox" and the silence of the night splits "like milk" (p. 56) and: "╔And then the silence of the night split like milk by a single, sawn-off shriek" (p. 173). The English language transcribes the constitutive metaphoricity of the Urdu language. The letter itself, the initial, has in store a myriad of meanings. Saleem chooses the initials of the Metro Cub Club for the Midnight's Children Conference (p. 247). He randomly mentions that he borrowed these initials from those of the then English cricket team touring the country. Moreover, in the last chapter, the same initials are reused for the dismal and surreal "Midnite-Confidential Club" (p. 540). Another passage displays the productivity of the signifier; in it, full stops are the only punctuation signs and words seem to follow each other without any apparent logic. It is the extract about Saleem's anticipated vision of the prison in which he and the midnight's children are confined (p. 249; it is the beginning of the chapter entitled "At the Pioneer Café").. The vocabulary is limited to a few repeated words and it gives the narrator the opportunity to produce meaning, to exploit the liberating power of the signifier. Here, for example, is the beginning of this literally surrealistic passage: "No colours except green and black the walls are green the sky is black (there is no roof) the stars are green the Widow is green but her hair is black as black." Rushdie wrote in his essay on The Wizard of Oz (1992) that this vision was inspired by a nightmare he had as a child about The Wicked Witch of the West.

The word appears in all its ambivalence, in its semantic potentiality and in what Bakhtin coined its "dialogicality". It is also fundamentally baroque, according to Deleuze's interpretation of it: it contains an infinity of semantic nooks and crannies and little by little lets us see a whole world and all the meanings it can contain. Midnight's Children is a text that plays with the reader's desire. The reader has to find and guess what is partly uncovered. The book becomes the locus of an investigation in which evidence that will provide an illuminating insight into the riddles introduced at the beginning, is scattered here and there. Only at the end of Book One is the identity of Saleem's parents revealed; only at the end of the novel do we learn about the circumstances of his sterilisation. In both cases, the narrative consists in a succession of partial information and digressions. Barthes analysed that in terms of "function", which is in his terms a correlation. Therefore, everything has to make sense and if one element is mentioned, its presence will be understood later on. The emphasis granted in some descriptions to William Methwold's parting of hair is explained at the end of Book One, when the reader assesses the power of attraction of this libidinous entity. It is actually cryptically alluded to at the beginning: "and there will be another bald foreigner." The reader deals with a heuristic of the text: the narration becomes a series of evidence and traps. Even the narrator admits it, as he compares his novel to a field of investigation: "as I wrote centuries ago, the trick is to fill in the gaps, guided by a few clues one is given." Many events are postponed in the course of the narrative. For example, in Book One, the digressions are announced with warnings: "But there are other mothers-to-be, other future fathers, wafting in and out through the silence."The stylistic devices are varied: first the periphrasis, to avoid divulging the identity of Mary Pereira, the unexpected owner of the chutney factory, before the end. The narrator also abundantly uses the ellipsis and rhetorical devices whose aim is to interrupt the flow of the sentence so as to leave the reader in charge of its completion: the aposiopesis and the preterition. They can be spotted out by the massive use of dots, especially in Chapter Nine that recounts Saleem's birth. "Now my father began to think about me (not knowing ...); [...] possessed by the love of me (even though...)" (p. 135). Reading becomes a way towards elucidation: the goal is to avoid falling into the traps set in the narrative. The account of the narrator's birth shatters all the reader's certainties and breaks the pact of reading between the addresser and the addressee of the work. Examples are numerous: indeed, the narrator makes a lot of mistakes many times in the chronology of India, especially for Gandhi's death (p. 169; the error is noted on p. 198.) and the general election in 1957. Furthermore, he mixes up the conditions of the Mahabharata with those of the Ramayana (p. 177). Ruskin himself comments upon some of these mistakes in "'Errata': Unreliable narration in Midnight's Children " (p. 22). The most obvious example occurs in the penultimate chapter: Saleem deliberately lies to the reader, making him believe that Shiva (Saleem's main enemy) is dead. He corrects that lie in the last chapter.

Modes of narration

Narration in Midnight's Children takes the form of a dialogue between two voices: that of Saleem and that of Padma, who embodies the audience. Saleem now and again asks the reader questions using asides. The narrative is written and told in front of an audience: rhetoric is therefore paramount. Three main principles drawn from Cicero's technique can be summoned. It is under their aegis that the act of narrating is performed. The first principle of eloquence is movere , which means "to move" in Latin. The orator has to capture the audience's attention by playing with pathos and their emotions. This strategy starts at the beginning with the traditional captatio benevolentiae, so as to have the reader/spectator on his side: "And there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumours, so dense, a commingling of the improbable and the mundane! I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you'll have to swallow the lot as well" (p. 4). The narrator insists on the reader's and the audience's necessary good wills for the rest of the story. These captationes will recur throughout the narrative. Saleem arouses emotions in the reader as it is all about controlling the addressee's sympathy through a self-disparagement often full of involuntary irony as when he writes, "This flaw in his [Saleem's] character can partially be excused on the ground of his tender years: but only partially. Confused thinking was to bedevil much of his career" and, after a paragraph, "I can be quite tough in my self-judgements when I choose." (p. 204). His childhood is a string of unhappy and poignant events. The succession of mutilations, from the piece of hair pulled out to the eardrum pierced by a mighty blow dealt by his father (p. 194), from the cut finger to the sinus operation which brings about the loss of telepathy (p. 364), all of them arouse the two emotions Aristotle attributed to the genre of tragedy in his Poetic, that is to say pity and terror. The most moving mutilation is perhaps the one he ceaselessly tries to repress and which resurfaces throughout the narrative: the sterilisation he underwent. The second principle has to do with efficiency. It corresponds to the verb docere, which means, "to teach". Saleem is very intent upon delighting his reader/listener Thus he emphasizes how he strives "to recapture the rapt attention of my revolted Padma Bibi" by "recount[ing] a fairy tale" (p. 382). This concern with efficiency frequently makes use of what Roman Jakobson termed the phatic function, in order to keep contact with the addressee. Efficiency in a narrative is fundamental to Rushdie. In an interview, he drew a comparison between his style and the technique used by Indian storytellers: "In India the thing that I've taken most from, I think, apart from the fairytale tradition that we were talking about, is oral narration. Because it is a country of still largely illiterate people [like Padma] the power and the vitality still remain in the oral storytelling tradition. [. . . ] And it struck me that the storyteller much more so than the novelist, has the problem of holding the audience." (Conversations, p. 76). The least faux pas brings about a lack of interest in the audience whose disagreement will be shown by their leaving. This is what happens as Padma, weary of Saleem's digressions, decides to leave for three chapters (chapters eleven to thirteen ). The didactic mood can be found in the numerous rÄsumÄs of the novel: the first is in the last chapter of Book One and directly precedes the birth of Saleem and India. Style in these passages is alert and uses all the resources of prose to speed the narrative and involve the reader/ listener. The conjunction of coordination "and" and dots are used ad libitum, truncating sentences and regulating the delivery. Nominalizations and stylistic figures that create an effect of juxtaposition have a contrapuntal value as they bring instability and disorder. Asyndeton and anacoluthon remove logical links or interrupt the syntax without losing the meaning (pp. 123-26). Then, as in the first recapitulation, the anaphora of the phrase "there was/ were" provides the narration with an impetuous tempo which is mimetic of the constant jostling of allusions in the narrator's mind. "Thirty-two years before the transfer of power, my grandfather bumped his nose against Kashmiri earth. There were rubies and diamonds. There was the ice of the future, waiting beneath the water's skin. There was an oath: not to bow down before god or man. [ . . . ] And There was a sheet in a gloomy room" (p. 123; my emphasis). Then, during the anaesthesia that precedes the removal of his sinuses, Saleem's style turns into an elliptic one, which is in keeping with his progressive falling asleep. The absence of parts of the sentence and the elisions are germane to the anaesthesia of the language: "Can't catch me. Multitudes have teemed inside my head. The master of the numbers, me. Here they go again 'leven twelve. [ . . . ] Twen" (p. 363). These summaries are a paradoxical way of moving forward in the narrative and this is relevant with the etymology of the term prose, which comes "prorsa", meaning, "to walk." The third rhetorical principle is about "delectare", that is "to please". Parodies partake of this strategy as well as intertextual references. Some are made to Shakespeare: to be able to decode them is at the heart of a certain "pleasure of the text". For instance, New Delhi is described in terms that are strangely reminiscent of the kingdom of Denmark in Hamlet: "something smelled rotten in the capital" (p. 509). Book One is full of bawdy puns and funny anecdotes. Purple patches are also an important factor in order to please the reader, as the description of Doctor Aziz before the massacre recounted in the chapter "Mercurochrome" or when the reader realises that William Methwold's hair is in fact a wig. The writing plays with the unsaid to increase the surprise of the revelation. Mistakes when found out add to the delight of the reading/ listening experience. One can also notice the mirrored pleasure of storytelling, the most obvious instance being the interruption of a sentence at the end of a page that compels the reader to turn the page prematurely and causes Padma to fly into a temper — "the cloth of modesty, until eyes meet eyes, and then" (p. 61). The will to persuade the reader/ addressee is discernable as when the narrator states, "Padma, it's true" (p. 96) and "The midnight's children shook even Padma's faith in my narrative; but I brought her round, and now there's no more talk of outings" (pp. 236, 253). By being charming, he aims at coaxing the reader into consenting to the truth of what the speech proposes and imposes.

The two series of time and space compose the process of representation, according to Louis Marin in On representation. It is an idea that was first developed by Kant. There are two antagonistic patterns at the origin of representation: the pattern of "before" and "after", which is characterised by "a space articulated as the trajectory of successive places according to the oriented and irreversible line of historicity" and the pattern of "high" and "low", in which "what is cancelled out is time, in the temporal zero point that is the unique instant" (pp. 127-28). The two concepts are inseparable and any attempt to define them ends up in a tautological manner. It is first important to start focussing on the space of the narrative through the concepts of linearity and non-linearity, as it does not follow the usual chronology. The digressions are numerous as in Tristram Shandy. It can account for all the arguments between Saleem and Padma, who is only interested in "what-happens-next" and the logical order of the causes and their effects. Saleem himself recognises that he puts the cart before the bullock, which is why the notions of beginning, middle and end are so paramount, as well as their constant confusion . The title of Chapter Sixteen, "Alpha and Omega" reminds the reader of that dimension. Moreover, the narrator often refers to the time of enunciation and cannot help mentioning what is going to happen or what has just happened. Two strategies are used: he either does it himself in the very first chapter and throughout the novel, or he uses mediation such as the soothsayer in Chapter Six (p. 99). He announces the mysterious birth of Saleem and Shiva ("Noses and knees and knees and nose") and foresees the crucial moments of his life: " 'Spittons will brain him — doctors will drain him — jungle will claim him — wizards reclaim him! Soldiers will try him — tyrants will fry him . . . '" In this oracle, the poetic function of language is particularly emphasised: one can notice the same ternary structure (subject đ verb đ complement) and the same diphthong: "drain / brain / claim". In the last two syntagms, the play with the paradigm uses the two consonants "f" and "t" with "-ry". This literal projection of the principle of equivalence of the axis of the paradigm upon the axis of syntagm is at the origin of the poetic function, according to Jakobson in On Language. The effect is that of an incantation, of a magic formula that predicts Saleem's cycle of destiny. The soothsayer's movements, who circles around Amina, stress the obsessive character of it all: "circling fasterfaster [. . . ] whirling egg-eyed around her statue-still presence" (99). The narrator, in the same fashion, recalls past events. Genette named anachronies these "types of discordance between the two orderings of story and narrative" in Narrative Discourse. They are ellipses, analepses (the "retrospective evocation of an event before the point where the story is at") and prolepses (a "narrating manoeuvring consisting in telling or evoking a future event in advance") (pp. 40 seq.). They are extremely numerous and the "snakes" and "ladders", the title of a chapter and the popular game, can act as metaphors for these anachronies since the player — like the reader — has to go either backwards or forwards according to the die; prolepses occur on pages 12, 29, 37, 63, 349, 352, 382, 399 and analepses p. 445 and during the recaps (and passim.) The biggest prolepses, in terms of reach (that is to say the temporal distance between the moment in the story where the narrative is interrupted and the event itself) are as follows: in Book One, Saleem announces the date of his birth and the rest of that first part will consist in reaching it while starting in 1915. The loop of the narrative ends where it started at the end of Chapter Eight, the day when India became independent in a cyclical movement. Then, the other prolepsis has to do with the narrator's absence of sexual identity: the isotopic elements are introduced from the outset; they are evidence, such as the recurrent past participle "unmanned", of the impossibility to satisfy Padma's need and of the responsibility imputed to a mysterious "Widow", but the repressed moment of sterilisation is postponed to the last but one chapter. This oscillation between "before" and "after" is somewhat mimetic of the orality of the narrating, as Rushdie put it in an interview: "It's a very eclectic form; and of course, not at all linear. I mean, the story does not go from the beginning to the end but it goes in great loops and circles back on itself, repeats earlier things, digresses, uses sometimes a kind of Chinese-box system, where you have the story inside the story inside the story and then they all come back" (76).

Let us now focus on the metaphors and metamorphoses of temporality. Time is a baroque entity, as it folds and unfolds ad libitum . First, it is the catalyst of the narration's dynamic. The narrator is animated by a true sense of urgency to write before his final collapse. He hastens to narrate many times: at the end of the book, as at the end of Fielding's Joseph Andrews, he seems in a hurry to finish, interrupting himself with statements like "But it's time to get things moving" (p. 535), and "to cut a long story short" (p. 540). His situation, according to him, is also more precarious than that of Princess Scheherazade who, in The Arabian Nights , has to tell a story every night to stay alive: "But I have no hope of saving my life, nor can I count on having even a thousand nights and a night. I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade" (p. 4). It is in the same terms that the narrator of Proust's In Search of Lost Time describes himself during the writing of his ¤uvre. He writes towards the end of Time Regained : "If I worked, it would be only at night. But I should need many nights, a hundred, or even a thousand. And I should live in the anxiety of not knowing whether the master of my destiny might not prove less indulgent than the Sultan Shahriyar, whether in the morning, when I broke off my story, he would consent to a further reprieve and permit me to resume my narrative the following evening" (p. 445). The conventional chronology does not exist any longer: plays with the referential time are permanent.

Time ceaselessly transforms itself: it stretches in Book One, which starts in 1915 (or even at the beginning of mankind, with Tai the boatman) and finishes in 1947, it then considerably settles between Chapters Nine and Twenty, in which a period of eighteen years elapses, until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965. It then retracts itself even more in Book Three, which lasts twelve years, until the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's Emergency. It is in constant movement, as in Chapter One ("Time settles down and concentrates on the importance of the moment") and Chapter Ten ("Time is slowing down for Amina once more," pp. 17, 172). An analysis of the opening paragraphs of the novel shows all its complexity (pp. 3-5). "One Kashmiri morning in 1915" introduces the first temporal series, that is to say the moment when the grandfather hit his nose against the ground. "The world was new again" constitutes the second series with the use of the pluperfect. It expresses a result since it is about the metamorphosis of nature (after the winter), before the first temporality. "To reveal the secret of my grandfather" is the third temporality that precedes the other two. The pluperfect here expresses anteriority since it describes the years Aziz spent in Germany before coming back to India. There are two exceptions though: one in the preterit comes back on the incident of the nose injury and the other anticipates on the end of his life. "On the morning when the valley" is the fourth series. It immediately precedes the fateful moment when Aziz harms himself when praying. It joins up with the first temporality and hence closes the chronological loop.

The disclosing of the story presupposes the abolition of the classical time and it seems that one needs to borrow this pattern from Augustine, in Book Eleven of his Confessions . It is the notion of triple present, which, by the mediation of the distensio animi, of the movement of the mind, contains the past and heralds the future (compare Ricoeur). It seems that this temporality is at work in Midnight's Children . It characterises the conscience of the narrator:"just as consciousness, the awareness of oneself as a homogeneous entity in time, a blend of past and present, is the glue of personality, holding together our then and now" (p. 420) It is never better expressed than in passages telling about several synchronous events. The first occurrence of simultaneity is in Chapter Six, during Amina's visit to the soothsayer and the misadventures of Ahmed and his acolytes in the firm's warehouses. The two descriptions are told together: "One at a time, then╔and here is Amina Sinai beneath the high walls of Red Fort. [ . . . ] But here, refusing to wait for its turn, is another taxi, pausing outside another fort." One can see that in these sentences there are echoes through the use of deictic elements and logical links. "Clutching their grey bags, they [Ahmed and his acolytes] move into the ancient, crumbling world. ╔Clutching at her handbag, my mother sits beside a peep-show" (p. 91). Two techniques are used here: the dots, which acquire another meaning (the action is seen as taking place, in medias res) and the anaphora of the present participle "clutching" and of the same juxtaposed structure. "Somewhere above them, on the topmost landing of the turret tower, three grey bags wait in the gathering dark. . . . In the gathering dark of an airless stairwell, Amina Sinai is climbing towards a prophecy" (p. 94). The rhetorical figure used is the anadiplosis, the repetition of the same word (or group of words) at the end of a sentence and at the beginning of the next. The use of the "-ing" form makes it possible to maintain the process of the action and the link between the two utterances is all the easier to do. Another passage demonstrates the variety of the stylistic techniques employed to express the synchronicity of several events. The conjunction "while" is repeated ad libitum . This recapitulating sentence includes what has happened to the characters in an avalanche of embedded subclauses. It is a recurring technique in the novel that increases the surprise of the reader-listener: a very brief apodosis follows a long-winded protasis:

"Baby Saleem fell ill. As if incapable of assimilating so many goings-on, he closed his eyes and became red and flushed. While Amina awaited the results of Ismail's case against the State authorities; while the Brass Monkey [Saleem's sister] grew in her womb; while Mary entered a state of shock [ . . . ]; while umbilical cord hung in pickle-jar and Mary's chutneys filled our dreams with pointing fingers; while Reverend Mother ran the kitchens, my grandfather examined me and said, 'I'm afraid there is no doubt; the poor lad has typhoid.'" [p. 174; my emphasis]

Last, the narrating seems to correspond to an ordering of chaos. Disorder is not only perceptible in the teeming variety of narratives and events, but also in the cracks that metaphorically threaten the book. It is in keeping with the Rushdian conception of the novel, as the one expressed in Grimus , whereby a novel has to be "frayed at the edges" and have "loose ends" (p. 149). The syntax is mimetic of this deformation and the English language, broken, truncated by the dots and the punctuation, is also deformed. There remains that Saleem is literally obsessed by form and meaning — as is the subcontinent. One cannot escape them: "As a people, we are obsessed with correspondences. Similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things, make us clap our hands delightedly when we find them out. It is a sort of national longing for form — or perhaps simply an impression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning reveals itself only in flashes" (p. 359). He becomes the guarantor of this formalisation; the novel, a finite object, embodies this form per se . The three Books of the novel are reminiscent of the Victorian three-decker and the division into thirty chapters that are as many jars gives form to the not-yet-formed. Furthermore, the organisation and the ordering of the facts, of the plot, the "plotification", as Ric¤ur put it in Time and narrative, subsumes the multiplicity of fragments under a certain unity.

Disclosure and meaning

There is "no escape from recurrence" (p. 342), says the narrator: it is indeed recurrence that enables us to explain the process of disclosure of the narrative. One can here talk about the Rushdian leitmotiv — as one talks about the Wagnerian leitmotiv. The construction of the novel is first compared to composing a musical work: "I wish, at times, for a more discerning audience, someone who would understand the need for rhythm, pacing, the subtle introduction of minor cords which will later rise, swell, seize the melody" (p. 116). This could remind the music-lover of the composing of a fugue in particular: it starts by introducing the different elements that will then be progressively disclosed and unveiled. Rushdie himself insisted on the significance of the leitmotiv, which creates a formal field of meaning, "a non-rational network of connections" (Kunapipi ). It creates a backdrop without which representation is impossible. Leitmotivs — or as Eliot put it, "objective correlatives" — are very numerous. They are all linked with the turning points of the novel. The "perforated sheet" is the catalyst of the relationship between Aziz and Naseem and indirectly brings about the birth of a genealogy, however discontinuous it may be. It is also the catalyst of the story of the novel, its primo motu. It reoccurs many times to describe the love relationship between Ahmed and Amina, but also when Saleem uses it to dress up as a ghost and when Jamila sings for a concert. The "silver spittoon" is the object bearing a great influence: it is first given to Ahmed and Amina as a wedding present. It will remain with the narrator and will become the only object left after the destruction of his house and the death of his parents. These two objects are magical: the "perforated sheet" is identified with a "talisman" and an "open-sesame" (p. 4). It literally puts the narrating in motion and triggers the metonymic movement of the narrative. Moreover, the "silver spittoon" has a cathartic function. At the end of Book Two, the whirling object hits the head of Saleem, who instantly loses his memory and enters a state of amnesia liberating him from the fetters of the past:

As I pick myself up dizzily after the blast, something twisting turning somersaulting down, silver as moonlight, a wondrously worked silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli, the past plummeting towards me [ . . . ], because now I look up there is a feeling at the back of my head [ . . . ] before I am stripped of past present memory time shame and love [ . . . ] and then I am empty and free. [p. 409]

This amnesia is emphasised in the text by the ellipsis of the instant of the impact. The other main motifs are the blood, with its deceiving double, Mercurochrome (Naseem mistakes it for blood in Chapter Two ). This liquid is full of meanings: not only is it the blood of wound, of war, but also of soiling, of the loss of virginity, such as the one that stains the "perforated sheet". The "pointing finger" is also full of symbols: its first occurrence is a movement performed by the ferryman Tai, heralding the painting hung in the little Saleem's bedroom. In this picture, the young Raleigh can be seen looking at the "Fisherman's Pointing Finger" — the title of Chapter Nine. It designates the outside of the frame, off-camera, and points to the horizon or to reality, perhaps transgression. Red is also a recurring colour. It attracts attention, as it is redolent of the finger amputation that was undergone by the narrator, who is an avid observer of signs and reads the world as a book. Repetition is the basis of the musicality of Midnight's Children . Echoes are permanent throughout. For instance, in the passage in which Doctor Narlikar presents his project of tetrapods, he shows the building site with a "pointing finger" and in the chapter entitled "How Saleem Achieved Purity", the minaret of the mosque is compared to a "long pointing finger" (pp. 156, 394). The linguistic sign displays all its potential in this theme and variation structure. Repetition is also at the basis of the magic of the text: the many recaps, the leitmotivs are as many incantations and litanies that remind us that literature was originally oral. Indeed the poems of antiquity, the carmina , were above all songs, injunctions. This narrative is told as well as written: it therefore bears the characteristics of orality. This magic is materialised in the formula "Abracadabra" which runs through the last chapter and gives it its title. The search for semantic landmarks, through isotopy in particular, is coupled with a quest for meaning led by the narrator himself. It is almost compulsive and goes together with the quest for form. Indeed the term isotopy is relevant to meaning and literature: it is the field of meaning made possible by the repetition of the same in a different form in the same text. The reading of a narrative becomes possible and the entire world of reference relies on it. The text of Midnight's Children is a surface on which the semes of the sheet, of the veil and of revelation are sprinkled ("sheet, purdah, unveiled, carpet, reveal, bedsheet, Revelation). Meaning can only be half-perceived in the constant coding and decoding of the writing.

Representation can be defined as the substitution of a present element to an absent one. It is hence very close to the conventional definition of the linguistic sign, which represents something for somebody. To represent is also to display, to show, to insist, to present a presence. The very act of representing constructs the identity of what is represented and identifies it. According to Louis Marin, in On representation , the first part of the definition corresponds to a mimetic operation which "ensures the functioning, function, indeed the functionality of a present entity instead of an absent one". The second part refers to a "specularity, a self-presentation [which] constitutes an identity, a self-identification [which] ensures a legitimate value of beauty" (p. 256). Representing boils down to presenting oneself representing something. It leads us to the double dimension of representation: on the one hand it is "reflexive" — it presents itself — whereas on the other hand it is "transitive", when depicting something. There is a double effect: the subject effect and the object effect. The writing is ceaselessly staged: the fiction turns into a metafiction. Saleem describes himself as a sort of Prospero , the demiurge of The Tempest. He boasts about his omniscience and makes comments about every stage of the narrating. This fundamental metaliterary dimension inscribes Midnight's Children in the tradition of Sterne and the "self-conscious" novel . The narrator tries to write in a syncretic manner, which would enable him to say everything. As we have seen, the lists are very numerous, as well as the recapitulations: they are reminiscent of typical Proustian long-winded sentences. The will to exploit the possibilities of the signifier can be stressed stylistically. Hyphens and adverbs partake of this concatenation of the style that ends up creating hypallages. For instance, the concrete tetrapods for the land-reclamation process are described as "concrete dreams": the hypallage is here coupled with an oxymoron and a pun. The juxtaposition of a living characteristic to a thing occurs in the noun phrase depicting Ahmed Sinai's drunkenness, during a "djinn-soaked evening " and also in the description of the barbershop where the young Saleem was circumcised. The place is comically called the "circumcising barbershop": a hypallage is here added to a metonymy. The fantasy of a full and faithful mimesis is shared by a character redolent of the narrator: a painter who is a friend of the poet Nadir Khan and who wants to represent everything in his paintings. It leads him to a never-ending quest bound to fail, as he eventually takes his own life . Then Lifafa Das travels around with his "peep-show", a little box that contains a multitude of postcards meant to represent the world comprehensively . This shows the vertigo inherent to disclosing and representing reality. That was Pascal's point in his PensÄes : "A town or a landscape from afar off is a town or a landscape, but as one approaches it, it becomes houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grass, ants, ants' legs, and so on ad infinitum . All that is comprehended in the word 'landscape'." Pascal's description moves in the opposite direction to that of Saleem's when describing the cinema screen.

Every description then becomes "aporetic" and every attempt ends up in a loss of meaning or a loss of self. Representation is hence paradoxical and deceitful: the closer it strives to reach meaning, the further away it gets. This is a structural tension in the novel which crystallises itself in the dialectic of void and fullness. The impossibility of retrieving meaning is almost acknowledged in a book that develops an aesthetic of the trace, that "absolute origin of sense in general", according to Derrida in Of grammatology (p. 65). The narrating strategy of deferring of disclosure turns into an emblematic "differance" of sense, which is never established and always postponed. Two passages illustrate this point particularly well. Here is the first, drawn from Chapter Two, before the recounting of the Amritsar massacre in April 1919: "Close-up of my grandfather's right-hand: nails knuckles fingers all somehow bigger than you'd expect. Clumps of red hair on the outside edges. Thumbs and forefinger pressed together, separated only by a thickness of paper. In short : my grandfather was holding a pamphlet" (p. 31). Here is the second, towards the end of Book One, in the chapter entitled "Tick, Tock", when Methwold is about to leave India: "William Methwold raised a long white arm above his head. White hand dangled above brilliantined black hair; long tapering white fingers twitched towards centre-parting, and the second and final secret was revealed, because fingers curled, and seized hair; drawing away from his head, they failed to release their prey; and in the moment after the disappearance of the sun Mr. Methwold stood in the afterglow of his Estate with his hairpiece in his hand. 'A baldie!' Padma exclaims, 'That slicked-up hair of his . . . I knew it; too good to be true' " (pp. 31, 132). In these two extracts, written in a quasi-pointillist technique, we can notice a few points in common. The visual aspect is predominant owing to the absence of punctuation and nominalizations. The movement of the descriptions is the same: it oscillates between the whole and the part, between the one and the many. The precision is that of an entomologist: the shifters and the different semantic fields paradoxically emphasise the blurriness of representation and its vertigo. The A-B-A structure applies to both excerpts: "my grandfather" — body parts — "my grandfather", then "William Methwold" — body parts — "Methwold". The juxtaposition puts different, even antagonistic elements on the same level. In the second passage, two phrases seemingly contradictory are placed next to each other and only one comma opposes them: "pressed together, separated". Moreover, the two verbs share some identical phonemes: p,s,t and s,p,t. The similarity on the plane of the signifier diminishes the dissimilarity on the plane of the signified. The potentialities of representation are multiplied, all the more as the animation of the inanimate ("they failed to release their prey") confuses the issue. Last, the uncertainty between the whole and the part is maintained until the end, and culminates in the term "hairpiece", which refers either to a wig, either (proleptically) to a tuft of hair, such as the one that Professor Zagallo will tear off Saleem's head.

What is at stake in these two passages, true composition exercises, is, it seems, the analysis (in the etymological sense of "cutting") of the process that corresponds to what Derrida called the "formation of the form", that is to say "differance" (p. 63). A deconstruction of the significant elements has been operated, as Pascal did, to demonstrate the intrinsic aporia of every description, and Rushdie's technique is reminiscent of the aesthetic of the "Nouveau Roman", for which representation literally exceeded the real. The faculty of representing and figuring things out depends on the capacity to subsume the diverse and the multitudinous under a certain unity and not on the drifting into endless precisions which will only increase the fragmentation of the real. Pascal had said it at the beginning and at the end of the quoted excerpt, and this is what happens at the end of both passages, which end on a meaningful syncretic conclusion, both an overview and a metaliterary decoding. The former is performed by Saleem, the latter by Padma. These recapitulating sentences signal on the one hand the impossibility of putting an end to the constant circulation of meaning along the signifying chain and, on the other hand, the impasse in which any attempt to unveil reality is confined.

In this encyclopaedic book, the writing oscillates between the impossibility of total mimesis and the refusal of any partial disclosure. The reader is confronted to the "potential infinity of language" (Julia Kristeva) and constantly has to find new landmarks for representation.


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Last modified 24 June 2005