‘Racing cracks’: Memory and Time in Midnight’s Children
The ‘inexorable ticktock’: as soon as Saleem’s narration starts, the countdown is set off and will not come to an end until the final full stop of Midnight’s Children (MC 82). Throughout the story, Saleem, being a ‘child of ticktock’, is remorselessly rushed on (MC 533). Towards what, one might ask. His childhood memory of a ‘fisherman’s pointing finger’, on a picture hanging on his bedroom wall, haunts Saleem throughout his narration as a reminder of his ‘inescapable destiny’ (MC 167). More precisely, the fisherman is pointing towards a letter send by India’s first Prime Minister on the occasion of Saleem’s birth which coincided with the birth of India as an independent nation. With this letter, Nehru proclaims that Saleem’s life will be the ‘mirror’ of the life of all Indians (MC 167). From his birth, Saleem thus carries the burden of being a reflection of his country and its people. With this enormous responsibility imposed on him, he is pushed on through his narrative. Literally, Saleem is racing against increasingly destructive cracks that threaten to destroy his body. On a metaphorical level, he is fighting against a force beyond his power, a force that ultimately, is going to win: time. Saleem’s narrative is drenched with a sense of fatalism, of it being ‘too late’. The race is already lost, but at least he must resist his defeat as long as he can, that is, until he has brought his narrative to an end. And all the way through, we hear the threatening tick tock, always aware that the final point zero is approaching fast and could surprise us, along with Saleem, at any moment. Interestingly however, where conventional story tellers build their narratives up towards one big countdown, one decisive climax, Saleem provides us with numerous countdowns. The first one leading up to Saleem’s birth, coinciding with India’s independence and partition, followed by a countdown leading up to Saleem’s amnesia. The birth of his son and his final annihilation constitute the two last countdowns. However, these countdowns do not grant his narrative any disclosure or release, but they seem to be endlessly renewed. Once a countdown is up, a new one begins; each promising a final purpose and meaning, but each time leaving us unsatisfied.
In her essay ´The Art of Suspense: Rushdie’s 1001 (Mid-)Nights’, Nancy E. Batty identifies this narrative technique as a ’suspense strategy’ employed in order to ‘defer the end of the narrative act’ (Fletcher, Reading Rushdie, 70). She furthermore argues that the narrator’s constant previewing of events to come is ‘the most obvious and effective suspense-creating device in the novel’ (Fletcher 71). Saleem can indeed regularly be found announcing events to come and characters about to enter his narrative’s world: ‘[...] Evelyn Lilith Burns is coming; the Pioneer Café is getting painfully close; and - more vitally – midnight’s other children [...] are pressing extremely hard’ (MC 248). Saleem’s intention must indeed be seen as the creation of suspense as he himself declares early on that ‘there is nothing like a countdown for building suspense’ (MC 142). He thus builds expectation up, deferring its fulfilment as long as he possibly can.
Batty also draws attention to the fact that, ‘like the perforated sheet through which Aadam Aziz views various parts of Naseem’s body, the narrative must always reveal something while concealing everything else’ (Fletcher 72). Saleem can be seen to self-consciously use this technique as a storyteller when he says: ‘[...] I musn’t reveal all my secrets at once’, or when he proclaims that he ‘musn’t get ahead of [himself]’ (MC 10, 233). Thus, we are told that some things cannot be narrated quite yet and need to wait their turn. The effect produced is one of ‘deferment of disclosure’, following a ‘rigid pattern of promise and fulfilment’ (Fletcher 73-74). However, is the narrator here indeed fulfilling his promises, or are we not actually cheated out of this fulfilment by these constant deferments? Meaning is deferred throughout the narrative and in the end, along with Saleem, we have to ask ourselves if we have not been on a futile quest for meaning.
This constant deferment of climaxes, or just even the delaying of events, serves one specific purpose on the metafictional level of Saleem’s narrative: he is forced to preserve his very existence through the continuation of his narrative. As soon as his story is finished, he faces annihilation. Thus, the legitimisation of his existence lies within his narration; while he is narrating, he has ‘the strength to resist the cracks’ (MC 168). In other words, his life is restricted to the narrative space and consequently, he only exists because he his narrating. Telling his story thus becomes his very raison d’être. This is literally true when considering that Saleem is after all only a fictional narrator, created by Rushdie. As a fiction, Saleem can only ever exist within the frame work of the narrative. In his essay ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, Michel Foucault establishes a similar link:
Saleem’s bodily decay is correlated with the progress of his written novel. The faster, and the more he writes, the more rapid his decay. Clearly, when the writing is completed, the end of this process can no longer be deferred.
(Bouchard, Language, 74)
Saleem is thus, paradoxically, racing against himself, assuming a kind of split personality: Saleem the writer, an omniscient god-like narrator in control, versus Saleem the fictional character who fears annihilation.
I think it has become clear by now to what extent Midnight’s Children is preoccupied with the metafictional. It is a piece of fiction that constantly comments on itself and draws attention to its own processes. As Damian Grant points out, Rushdie’s novel is ‘uncompromisingly metafictional’, being a novel about the processes at work within fiction-creation (41). Distinctions between fiction and reality are blurred and questioned, making it an essentially postmodernist work. Rushdie plays with conventional notions of fiction and artificiality. His narrator is persistently trying to convince his readers that he must be believed, no matter how unbelievable his accounts sound. Saleem’s ‘lust for centrality’ can be used as a further example of Rushdie’s interest in the metafictional (Banerjee 171). Again, as a fictional character, Saleem’s wish to be at the centre must be seen as a condition of his being at all, that is of his very existence.
The metafictional dimension gains relevance when related to the novel’s concept of time. Saleem, besides being a fictional character, is a creator of fiction, he is thus in a position of power and hence in control of time. As long as he is re-creating his fictional life story, he masters time and can therefore ignore linearity or chronology, and use time instead as a flexible background to his narrative. In other words, since he invents his narrative, he can also invent any temporal structure he wants to. This explains then why he tries to delay the end of his narrative as long as possible: once the story is told, the fiction is over and reality sets in. As a result, he vanishes along with his re-creations of time and history. This leads towards the conclusion that within Midnight’s Children, ‘meaning is only to be found in the act of telling’ (Banerjee 172).