Christina Patterson: We <i>should</i> be celebrating this literary triumph

Sunday 23 October 2011 00:15

From the first stroke of midnight, I was hooked. It wasn't midnight, actually. It was just after lunch in a garden in Italy, and the Italian family I was staying with were shuttered inside, asleep. As a sun-starved teenager from Guildford, I wasn't going to waste a wave of sunshine nor a single moment, because the clock had struck, and a character, and a nation, and a passion had been born.

The character, of course, was Saleem Sinai, the nation was India, and the passion newly burning in my M&S-bikini-ed breast was for a new kind of literary adventure, one that swooped and circled and danced its way through time and cultures with a zest and energy that had you giggling, breathless and at times just silent with sadness. I was, I think, in something of a Thomas Hardy phase, more attuned to lugubrious pronouncements from rain-soaked turnip fields than firework displays of twinkling, sparkling, multicoloured metaphors. I knew next to nothing about India; all my friends and neighbours were white.

I had never read Tristram Shandy and didn't know that that striking clock was an echo of the striking clock that starts Sterne's riotous journey from conception to birth and back again. I didn't know that Rushdie's loquacious, unreliable and wonderfully playful narrator would (like Sterne's) be swiftly appropriated into courses in which words like "postcolonialism" and "postmodernism" would precede any reading of a "text", courses in which metafiction (fiction about the process of writing) was undoubtedly better fiction. I didn't know that British society was on the cusp of a demographic and cultural change as profound, perhaps, as the Industrial Revolution.

Eight years before the word fatwa entered the global English language and 20 years before a bunch of fanatics blew up a couple of skyscrapers, Salman Rushdie exploded on to a near all-white British literary landscape with a book which introduced a world in which politics, history, human frailty, love, Indian gods, Arab myths and Western movie stars jostled joyously alongside each other, a world in which multiculturalism was something other than a social project gone wrong.

At a time when the "babble" of diverse voices in Saleem's head remains more of a subject for discussion within the media than a reality within it, this dazzling jewel in Rushdie's crown is important. And it's a bloody good read.

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