restricted access Leading History by the Nose: The Turn to the Eighteenth Century in Midnight's Children
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Leading History by the Nose:
The Turn to the Eighteenth Century in Midnight's Children

Every novelist's work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel.

—Milan Kundera

If Ganesh breeds with Tristram Shandy to hatch Saleem Sinai, then who is the butt of the joke?

—Kumkum Sangari

Salman Rushdie's Midnight'S Children has been widely seen as typifying both postmodernism and postcoloniality. As such, it has been taken to represent a new, "de-totalizing" way of writing history, specifically, the history of India as a modern nation-state. The novel figures prominently, for instance, in Linda Hutcheon's The Politics of Postmodernism, where it exemplifies a structure that both installs and subverts "the teleology, closure, and causality of narrative, both historical and fictive" (63). Rushdie's postmodern techniques of narration, in this view, express a self-reflexive and wary detachment from all totalizing modes of historical thought. For Hutcheon, the combination of a contemporary self-reflexivity plus the relativizing juxtaposition of "Eastern" and "Western" modes of thought seems to sum up Midnight's Children. Rushdie's novel "works to foreground the totalizing impulse of western—imperialistic—modes of history-writing [End Page 147] by confronting it," in Hutcheon's words, "with indigenous Indian models of history" (65).

Rushdie's way of engaging these histories, however, seems both more subtle and more forceful on the whole than the mere juxtaposition of contradictory "Eastern" and "Western" models. Hutcheon's analysis relies on a polarization of terms that Rushdie's novel is at pains to undermine. For one thing, the narrator Saleem Sinai is more the unreliable narrator than the spokesperson for some tradition or culture. Raised a Muslim in Bombay, he claims to write as someone "well up in Hindu stories" (Midnight's Children 177). Just previously, however, Saleem has made a two-fold error in identifying which epic personage (Vyasa, not Valmiki) dictated which epic (the Mahabharata, not the Ramayana) to that patient stenographer, elephant-headed Ganesh (Rushdie, "Errata" 23). And, for another thing, it is not entirely clear what the value would be, beyond a rather banal relativism, of staging such a confrontation, which conceivably could reinforce the ideological theme of an essential and unbridgeable gulf between "East" and "West."

I contend, rather, that Rushdie's novel exemplifies the potential of a more nuanced politics of literary affiliation and periodization. Midnight's Children enacts a cultural politics that explores the retrospective fabrication of origins. This involves, above all, the unmasking of the trope of metalepsis, by which effects are retrospectively constituted as origins and causes.1 This trope, as Martin Bernal and other historians are teaching us, found its largest and most scandalous instance in the late eighteenth-century fabrication of Ancient Greece as the origins of the "West." It is in this sense that Rushdie's gesture of reaching back to Tristram Shandy can be seen as a fitting strategy of reappropriating the European past for the emerging political and cultural project of postcoloniality. According to a broad critical consensus, the main literary precursors of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children are One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, and Tristram Shandy.2 The usual emphasis on Rushdie's postmodernity has obscured the full implications of his turn, via Tristram Shandy, to the eighteenth century.3 Criticism has not yet attempted to explain why a novel published serially between 1760 and 1767 should be so central to an important postcolonial novel in the late twentieth century. Critics have not explained what meaning, as a gesture of revival or return, such an affiliation might have. The insistent allusions to Tristram Shandy have received only a perfunctory interpretation as a way of pointing to "the imperialist British past," as Hutcheon puts it, "that is literally a part of India's self-representation as much as of Saleem's" (104). Criticism, furthermore, has not closely considered why Rushdie should feel an elective [End Page 148] affinity, remarked upon but little elaborated, for the eighteenth century. In an interview with Una Chaudhuri, Rushdie mentions this unexpected affinity: "I'm very keen on the eighteenth century in general, not just in literature. I think the...


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