The polyglot novel

The trouble with the phrase magic realism, is that when people use it, they tend to hear the magic and not hear the realism, whereas in fact one of the things about going to the world of García Márquez is that you discover he is telling the truth. He is not exaggerating; he is understating. And that’s really what I thought about India. You can’t tell the truth about India; it’s too weird; nobody would believe it. So, these books which people call fantasies are actually mild understatements of the truth.. [Salman Rushdie]

My last few weeks have been spent in the vicious unyielding grip of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – Sweet irony and  bitter romance, horror and history, fountains of blood and stains of mercurochrome all mixed together in this tour de force of magical realism. I am reading slowly now, not wanting the story to end, and not wanting to forego one of the magical aspects of consuming this novel:  the impression that it is written simultaneously in English, Urdu, Marathi, Hindi, Sanskrit and host of other languages that I cannot guess. This is a story about my country and culture, and I sense an incommunicable pleasure in swimming through it; a conspiratorial feeling of being in on the writer’s mischief. Because of this, the plot – intricate as it is – throws unpredictable flashes in all directions and lodges itself more vividly in my head.

For I smile to myself repeatedly during this book. My smiles, some of them happy giggles, others pursed and wry, and still others sad and unexpressed, have to do with knowing suddenly that the strange “fool from somewhere” is actually “pagla kahin ka”, and “dung-lotus” refers to a goddess who grew out of Vishnu’s navel in a colorful Indian myth. “Really truly?”  puts me in mind of a letter in my closet, full of pain and love; And “hot chana hot” takes me back to smoke-filled gas-lamped evenings on Indian railway platforms with the hiss of steam engines and their sore throat whistles. I have become aware of only a few of Rushdie’s turns of phrase. Being unschooled in Sanskrit and Urdu, and having stayed away from the day-to-day collision and collusion of Indian languages and subcultures for more than a decade, I may have missed some of the landmines embedded in his dense prose. (I note joylessly, that if the novel’s many-tongued expertise extends to choice gutter language, then my familiarity with Hindi and Marathi swear words and their oddly musical English translations has remained  unsettlingly fine.).

Quite by chance, I came across a 1989 interview of a young Christopher Hitchens – hale and hearty and no less articulate – talking about The Satanic Verses, and the fatwah that drove Rushdie into exile. I recommend the entire interview for a sense of that politically charged time, where the Ayatollah’s power was seemingly in its last throes, and as if to say that he wasn’t finished, the religious despot saw fit to let loose a messianic bounty hunt for the infidel writer’s head. But, in the context of my current reading experience, the following extract was surprisingly a propos:

…Rushdie is a genius with language, … but there is a difficulty which if you are starting the book today, you should bear in mind. He’s got an absolutely magnificent ear, and his ear is brilliant at catching the nuances and the turn of people who speak in Indian or Pakistani subcontinental English. He is fantastically good at this, makes almost poetry out of the prose … Unfortunately, that is not very well understood here [The United States] as it is in England, there aren’t that many people from the subcontinent in America…

This makes me wonder about some of the translations that I have read. How far and how deeply have I understood them, beyond the structure suggested by their plot, and beyond their English approximation? How much of the music, playfulness, taboo, triumph and defeat from the original language has seeped – or been assiduously woven by a perspicacious translator – into the English version. It is true, especially of the great novels, that their themes are universal and on that account they profoundly affect readers of all stripes, but I cannot help but wonder what I may have lost because of my ignorance of the local. I think of the perceived contrast between the books of García Márquez which I loved immediately and devoured as if in a feverish trance versus Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum which – after the unforgettable beginning of Joseph Koljaiczek’s refuge under a four-skirted Kashubian peasant girl – I could admire but not come to love. How much does it have to do with my – however minimal – familiarity with Spanish as opposed to my complete ignorance of German language and culture? Perhaps this is another post on another day. Or perhaps, a second reading of The Tin Drum is in store.

2 thoughts on “The polyglot novel”

  1. I read Midnight’s Children in college. It was my first Rushdie and l loved it in spite of knowing that I missed a lot because I wasn’t very familiar with the history of India and Pakistan at the time. I really must reread it sometime. I often wonder what I miss when reading translations and how different a book would be in the original language.

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