Midnight’s Children

I had the privilege this weekend of visiting Leighton House, the erstwhile home of the Victorian painter Lord Leighton. While the house contained a few interesting paintings from Millais (an oddly ‘realistic’ piece of a lady shelling peas) and Waterhouse, it would probably be fair to say that the best pieces were sold following Leighton’s death. The main interest is the house itself, which contains an intricate Arab hall with fountain at its centre. Based around Iznik ceramic tiles created by William De Morgan, the hall and opulent fittings rest rather oddly when compared to the redbrick exterior.

I also visited the Wellington Museum, which had a rather inferior art collection (though it did have some paintings by Goya and Velasquez) enlivened by a number of William Heath Caricatures. The regency decoration and architecture were rather less to my taste than that of Leighton house.

Visiting the V & A, I couldn’t help but observe that the building itself is perhaps rather more pleasing on the outside (redbrick gothic with gold friezes, not unlike many of the buildings in Amsterdam) than on the inside (neo-classical built in austere marble). The inner courtyard is especially worth looking at. With that in mind the elaborate glass sculpture hung in the atrium seemed rather incongruous, not unlike some strange growth that had got out of hand (though it should be said that the sculpture is less impressive up close).Amongst other incongruities were two halls filled entirely with rather poor plaster cast replicas of tombs and columns, the rationale for which eluded me. Other horrors to be shunned included an exhibition of Bollywood film (the only cinema in the world to have produced films more inane than even Hollywood).

Thinking of Leighton’s house, I was rather pleased to note extensive displays
of Iznik tiles in the Islamic art section (as well as some of William De Morgan’s work in the arts and crafts section). The Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese sections were perhaps the most impressive (my interest was largely in the aesthetics of the exhibits rather than historical value per se; the history of ceramics does not seem to me to be the most edifying of discourses, though it does start to appear fascinating after one has been confronted with an entire hall full of drab eighteenth century busts and statues), with a large red throne removed from China at the time of the Boxer rebellion and a collection of Japanese netsuke being especially memorable. The European exibits suffered from a combination of excessive familiarity (though my curiousity was aroused by the presence of some exhibits first displayed in the Great Exhbition) and my distaste for neo-classical and rococco styles; the main
interest came from the sections on the gothic revival and arts and crafts. The latter displayed furniture and wallpaper from Voysney and Morris (including his only painting). The former had some exhibits from Pugin, as well as some of the items from Fonthill Abbey (amongst them a chest that Beckford thought had been made by Holbein but wasn’t) and a complete room from Walpole’s Strawberry Hill (albeit one rendered noteworthy by virtue of its provenance more than its intrinsic merits). Also included in these sections was a rather odd screen by Alma Tadema; an interesting combination of Japanese lettering and social realism. This is one of the great strengths of the Museum; it really does do an excellent job of showing how art and design evolve under influences from other cultures, though overall the V & A does seem a rather poor cousin to most of the other London galleries and museums.

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children represents a somewhat odd hybrid of The Chrysalids and A Suitable Boy. Like One Hundred Years of Solitude the novel is often cited as an example of magical realism. The narrator notes that "later perhaps analysts will say why and wherefore, will aduce underlying economic trends and political developments, but right now… only subjective judgements are possible," a comment that does not seem entirely unlike that of the narrator of One Hundred Years of Solitude wherein "it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the
wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments." Magical realism in the context of post-colonial literature seems to apply best where history has yet to solidify into tradition; "Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible."

Nonetheless, one of the problems for the text is that the role of fantastic seems a devalued signifier. The narrator is invariably best by events largely beyond his control so that we are told that "he was mysteriously handcuffed to history… a time which damaged reality so badly that nobody ever put it together again." Yet we are also told that "we.. rushed into wildly and too fast into our future,” whereas their own children will be more cautious*. The novel posits the children as both a disruptive force that must be contained, yet the novel never realises this and the children emerge as being largely passive in the narrative; "Am I so far gone in my search for meaning that I am prepared to distort everything – to re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in the central role."

As a further example, the text asserts that "Reality can have metaphorical
content; that does not makes it less real… Midnight’s children can be made to represent many things, acording to your point of view; they can be seen as the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive… or as the last true hope of freedom." In fact they are neither, since the children are never depicted as having any differing connection to reality as any of the other characters. The conclusion derives its impact from precisely the fact that the children had been largely diffident as to their powers. Rather than providing a contesting narrative, there is something almost redundant about the fantastic componenets to the narrative, as with Saleem’s Uncle writing realist film scripts no-one is interested in. *A claim also later contradicted when the narrator states "they will trample me underfoot….they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who is not his."

Jeanette Winterson has also long maintained that reality has metaphorical content, and The Powerbook remains devoted to that theme. In this case, the transformative potential of cyberspace is envisaged as creating a liminal space between reality, myth and culture. Nonetheless, this is a well established formula for Winterson (as she has herself acknowledged) and the grafting of cyberspace into this set seems to owe more to neophilia than to inspiration, especially as the
narrative appears not dissimilar to that of the Arabian Nights or The Decameron. As often with Winterson, the sense of a surface continually in flux leaves the novel open to a more than a certain sense of superficiality.