Saturday, January 30, 2010

J.D. Salinger (1919 - 2010)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.” [from The Catcher in the Rye]

I will never stop thanking my humanities teacher back at high school. He made us read The Catcher in the Rye (renamed Il Giovane Holden in Italian) and it was one of the books that prompted me to read more literature. He invented for us a well-planned “trail” through a few things he probably adored himself: Fabrizio De Andrè who sang many songs adapted from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River’s Anthology, Fernanda Pivano who translated it and who made Italy aware of writers like J.D. Salinger and his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Fernanda Pivano’s teacher at high school was Cesare Pavese, so he made us read some of his poems about adolescence and then one by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet about the same topic. And so on in a never-ending thread of connections between poets and song-writers, freedom fighters and “rebel authors”.

Ho trovato questa vecchia fotocopia sul Giovane Holden, probabilmente scritto dal mio professore di lettere per invogliarci ed entusiasmarci nella lettura del libro, forse anche per formarci, perché crescessimo con delle idee e uno spirito critico pari a quello del protagonista del libro di Salinger.

“Indicazioni per un viaggio in compagnia del giovane Holden

Un adolescente cerca la propria identità ed autonomia rifiutando i codici di comportamento e il conformismo borghese: i suoi condizionamenti, regole, limiti, convenzioni… condannando e smitizzando tutto e tutti senza appello, togliendo il velo all’ipocrisia e il perbenismo, evidenziando il comico e il grottesco della vita, soprattutto di quella “seria” ed “ufficiale”, irridendo a mode, valori , miti… combattendo il sentimentalismo…

Holden, ecco un motivo in più per leggerlo a 16 anni, esprime continuamente il proprio punto di vista sul mondo, sugli adulti, sulle istituzioni (la famiglia, il college, la scuola, i giornali, l’esercito, l’industria, la religione…), su i coetanei e su sé stesso con distacco e sincerità, a volte anche cruda (“dissi che l’amavo tanto, ma naturalmente non era vero”), irriverente, brutale, (“non mi interessava niente quando uno moriva”), con ironia ed anche autonomia, (è un invito ad imitarlo), con umorismo e sarcasmo.

David Jerome Salinger cerca di esprimere l’animo ribelle ed anticonformista del sedicenne Holden ricorrendo ad una vera e propria rivoluzione formale. La sua scrittura ricostruisce infatti l’orizzonte linguistico adolescenziale fatto di frasi gergali (“Il gergo ha una funzione coesiva con gli amici, ai coetanei ed oppositiva con gli adulti” E. Capriolo), di formule ripetute e di tic verbali (“che so io”, “e compagnia bella”, “eccetera, eccetera”), di figure retoriche (iperboli, ironia, sarcasmo, similitudini, antitesi…), di espressioni tipiche del parlato…Quello di Holden è un monologo continuo e non lineare (= a ruota libera), espresso in prima persona e rivolto ad un pubblico che sembra essergli a fianco e a cui strizza l’occhio, chiedendo partecipazione e complicità. Per quanto riguarda il ritmo della narrazione è veloce ed avvincente, sia per il susseguirsi di una miriade di persone, fatti, incontri, esperienze… sia per l’assenza quasi totale di descrizioni (“nel Giovane Holden mancano gli indugi narrativi” E. Capriolo).”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

42. “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

Year of first publication: 1813
Genre: novel, novel of manners, romantic comedy, realist novel
Country: United Kingdom

In italiano: “Orgoglio e Pregiudizio” di Jane Austen, edito (per esempio) da Garzanti (2009), € 7,50

Plot: Mrs Bennet has five daughters and they are all in need of a husband. Mr Bingley, a wealthy young gentleman, rents an estate near the Bennets, thus presenting the perfect occasion to find a good match for the girls. While Mr Bingley is immediately attracted to Jane, the most beautiful of the Bennets, his good friend Mr Darcy is haughty and cold, particularly towards Elizabeth, the most intelligent and outspoken of the girls. Elizabeth makes the acquaintance of Mr Wickham, an officer in the militia stationed nearby, who has been mistreated by Darcy in the past. She then starts to hate Darcy for what she has been told about him. In the meantime, Jane and Bingley grow closer, despite the opposition of his sisters who consider her socially inferior. Things become more complicated when Mr Bingley inexplicably leaves the estate breaking the hopes of a marriage with Jane and Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth who continues to scorn him.

Some thoughts: After having studied the book at school and having seen two adaptations, but never having ventured after page 50 of the book itself, I finally decided to pluck up the courage and read this novel from the beginning to the end. I was never attracted to Jane Austen’s novels, but maybe it was just a bias against romantic comedies.
I appreciated Austen’s ability to detail the inner life of people, especially young women. The psychology of the characters is astonishing: I loved Elizabeth Bennett and I was fascinated with Mr Darcy. He’s one of those characters, like Rashkolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who despite being unpleasant and unsociable for most of the novel, has an undeniable charm. There is also comic intent in some of the characters, for instance the unbelievably ridiculous Mr Collins or the equally hilarious Mrs Bennett with all her frivolity and obsession for the marriage of her daughters. They’re not round characters, but they add a “comic relief” to an otherwise very serious novel. Some people suggested that Pride and Prejudice is also a feminist novel ante litteram, because Elizabeth Bennett has a strong spirit of independence. Honestly, I think it’s a stretch. What is unusual and remarkable for a novel of that time is Elizabeth’s attitude towards conventions. With this novel, a new kind of hero (and heroine) is born: one that has some faults (pride and prejudice, indeed) as well as many virtues.
In spite of all this, I’m still not a proper “Janeite”, simply because I’m not a big fan of novels of manners, where characters have to respect a social code that, for instance, encourages them to marry for money when they would like to follow their passions and have love marriages, instead. It all feels very distant from my life. In the society I live in, women no longer need to marry to have economic stability and the main aspiration of a man “in possession of a good fortune” is no longer marriage. Nonetheless I understand why in other cultures, where women have considerably less freedom and marriage is still an important value, writers still think of Jane Austen as an important inspiration (remember that I mentioned that Rushdie thanks Austen in the preface of Midnight’s Children?).
Also, western women in no want of a career might feel very attracted to the aspirations of Jane and Elizabeth. I’m not saying that I despised the novel, because I’m very conscious of its literary and historical value. Moreover, I enjoyed it overall. It’s just that, as the English would say, it’s not my cup of tea.

By the way, a book has come out recently: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, a sort of rewriting of the book in horror-style. Anybody wants to comment on that?

About the author: Jane Austen (1775-1817) was an English novelist, still among the most widely read in the country. She was born in rural Hampshire into a family belonging to the lower fringes of English gentry and was educated at home by his father and older brothers. She never married and lived all her uneventful life within the bounds of her immediate family. Her lifelong companion was her sister Cassandra, also unmarried. She began to experiment with writing and between 1795 and 1796 she began to write what would be published in 1811 with the title Sense and Sensibility. The novel was quite successful. In 1813 she published Pride and Prejudice, a revision of a novel previously written with the title First Impressions, and Mansfield Park appeared one year after that. All of her novels were published anonymously but they were very fashionable among opinion-makers, also giving Austen some financial independence. Her last novel, Emma, was published in 1815, only two years before her death in 1817. She has been very influential for many writers who came after her, for example E.M. Forster.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Italia e Corno d’Africa: “Madre Piccola” di Cristina Ali Farah

Ubax Cristina Ali Farah è nata a Verona nel 1973 da padre somalo e madre italiana. Le piace dire che è suo padre l'africano, mentre sua madre è italiana, ribaltando la consuetudine che vuole siano le spesso bellissime donne africane a sposare gli uomini bianchi, e non viceversa. Cristina è vissuta a Mogadiscio dal 1976 al 1991, quando è stata costretta a fuggire a causa della guerra civile scoppiata nel paese. Ora vive a Roma, dove organizza eventi letterari e si occupa di educazione interculturale, con percorsi rivolti a studenti, insegnanti e donne migranti. E’ anche co-fondatrice della rivista di letteratura della migrazione El-Ghibli. Poetessa ed autrice di diversi racconti, nel 2007 è uscito il suo primo romanzo, Madre Piccola.

Barni e Domenica Axad sono due cugine, cresciute insieme a Mogadisco e legate da un filo sottile ma resistentissimo. Vengono separate contro il loro volere quando Domenica parte, insieme alla madre, alla volta di un paese a lei sconosciuto, ma che in realtà è quello della madre: l’Italia. Quando le due cugine finalmente si rincontrano a Roma dopo molti anni, la Somalia è ormai “persa” perché in preda alla guerra civile, ma ancora viva nei loro ricordi di bambine. Barni decide di essere la habaryar, la madre piccola, del figlio che Domenica porta in grembo. “Madre piccola” è infatti il modo in cui i somali si riferiscono alla zia materna.

Attraverso questo libro Cristina Ali Farah ci parla della Somalia dove la colonizzazione italiana ha lasciato tracce evidenti e anche ferite non meno profonde, ha stretto forti legami tra Mogadiscio e Roma, legami che però ora che la Somalia è in preda alla guerra civile l’Italia sembra aver dimenticato. In Italia non si ricorda mai questa brutta parte della nostra storia nazionale, quando ci siamo macchiati di crimini di cui spesso accusiamo le altre nazioni – Inghilterra, Francia o Spagna. Questa parte della nostra storia non si studia a scuola e i giornalisti non ne parlano spesso. Cristina Ali Farah parla dei somali della diaspora, sparsi nelle città di mezzo mondo, ma anche dei “meticci” italo-somali, poco accetti in entrambe le culture. Quegli stessi discorsi che sembrano banali se riferiti ad uno scrittore algerino di lingua francese o ad uno scrittore guyanese di lingua inglese, non sono banali per la poco conosciuta “letteratura postcoloniale italiana”, definizione alquanto dubbia quanto quella di “letteratura italofona”. Cristina, cresciuta a Mogadiscio, ha studiato in una scuola italiana su libri italiani, è di madrelingua italiana e quando le si domanda se si sente italiana (domanda che le è stata posta da un anziano signore alla presentazione del libro a cui sono andata lo scorso anno), rimane un po’ sorpresa. E come potrebbe non sentirsi italiana? Eppure si sente anche somala ed è una cosa che si percepisce molto nel libro, impreziosito da espressioni e parole somale. Non sono due cose che non possono convivere, l’essere italiani e l’essere somali, giacchè l’autrice, così come la Domenica Axad del libro, lo fa nei suoi due nomi di battesimo, Ubax, un nome somalo, e Cristina, un nome italiano.

Di questo primo libro di Cristina mi ha colpito molto il modo di scrivere, la sintassi proprio, rotta, discontinua, discorsiva, bellissima. Non so come spiegarvelo, ma l’ho interpretato un po’ come un modo per dimostrare a quel signore che le ha posto quella domanda che sì, lei è proprio di madrelingua italiana, che usa l’italiano con tutte le sue sfaccettature e le sue complessità. Non posso far altro che riportarvi un piccolo assaggio del libro:

" Soomaali baan ahay*, come la mia metà che è intera. Sono il filo sottile, così sottile che si infila e si tende, prolungandosi. Così sottile che non si spezza. E il groviglio di fili si allarga e mostra, chiari e ben stretti, i nodi, pur distanti l'uno dall'altro, che non si sciolgono.
Sono una traccia in quel groviglio e il mio principio appartiene a quello multiplo.
Il mio principio è Barni mentre mangiamo insieme dal piatto comune. Siamo sedute per terra l'una accanto all'altra e i maschi ridono per come tengo le gambe. Sulla stuoia le ginocchia si toccano, una gamba di qua e una gamba di là. Non ti si spezzano dalbooley*? Vedessi quando corre quanto fa ridere, i polpacci che vanno a destra e a sinistra.
Barni, persino i maschi hanno paura di lei. Si alza e li prende per il collo, graffia, dovresti vedere come graffia. Nessuno si azzardi a scherzare. Il piatto quasi pieno si rovescia ed eccola, la mia Barni con la sua voglia a cuore proprio in mezzo alla fronte, che corre a protestare, mai un giorno che si possa mangiare senza dover fare a botte con questi prepotenti. Ve lo faccio vedere io chi è più forte. Io ci ho provato una volta, volevo essere come lei, ma di Barni ce n'è una sola.
Il mio principio è noi due che ci infiliamo in cucina, vediamo la papaia tutta aperta con i suoi semini tondi tondi ed ecco, un po’ a te e un po’ a me, poi corriamo in cortile e facciamo una buca profonda nella sabbia rossa, domani torniamo e magari, chissà, è spuntato qualcosa. Barni che mi dice coraggio, quel giorno che hanno messo la trappola per il gatto, quello che rubava sempre la carne dal cesto della spesa, e ora che l’hanno beccato le danno tante di quelle bastonate che non riesco neanche a guardare. L’hanno buttato per strada, ma quello è tornato, ora non ruba più la carne, ha un occhio raggrinzito. Forse è tornato per ricordare che il nostro profeta Maometto amava i gatti, dicono che una volta un gatto gli si è addormentato sul braccio e il profeta, per non svegliarlo, ha deciso di tagliarsi la manica.
Il mio principio è Barni quando tocca a me raccontare le storie, mi chiede quelle dei libri che leggo e traduce le parole che non so, come quella volta che volevo dire la storia della sirenetta e io raccontavo, una donna metà pesce e metà donna, come si dice, gabareymaanyo dice Barni, ecco come di dice. Vorrei anch’io essere una gabareymaanyo, ma non so nuotare, al mare volevo raggiungerla nell’acqua, ma c’era una buca, meno male che Barni è più alta di me, è venuta subito a tirarmi fuori, mamma mia che paura, ho ancora il sapore dell’acqua salata.
Il mio principio sembra spezzarsi quel giorno, mentre Barni mi sta pettinando i capelli per la partenza, così tua nonna vedrà come sei diventata bella!, spalma l’olio e separa le ciocche e io dico, Barni non vedo niente, mi sembra come una nuvola nera davanti agli occhi. Poi mi manca il respiro e sento solo l’acqua fredda che mi scende dalla fronte al petto, ha perso conoscenza, dicono. Domenica, domenica! e mentre mi chiamano io ricomincio a vedere gli occhi di Barni che mi fissano così vicini. Allora io le dico, abbaayo* io non voglio più chiamarmi con questo nome che fa ridere tutti e lei dice, non ti preoccupare d’ora in avanti ti chiamerai Axad, come il principio.”

* Soomaali baan ahay: “Somalo io sono”, poesia composta nel 1977 da Cabdulqaadir Xirsi Siyaad “Yamyam”
Dalbooley: persona dalle gambe valghe
Abbaayo: sorella (anche in senso affettivo)

La prossima volta, Gabriella Ghermandi e il suo libro Regina di Fiori e di Perle

Monday, January 18, 2010

41. “The Marriage Bureau for Rich People” by Farahad Zama

Year of first publication: 2008
Genre: novel
Country: India

In italiano: “Agenzia Matrimoniale per Ricchi” di Farahad Zama, edito da Sonzogno Editore (2009), € 18,00

Plot: Having recently retired, Mr Ali decides to open a marriage bureau in his home city of Vizag. With the help of his wife and Aruna, his beautiful assistant, the business is going on very well: a lot of people are willing to find the right match through the services of Mr Ali. When Aruna falls in love with Ramanujam, a young, handsome and rich doctor whose female relatives are determined to find the perfect wife for, things become more complicated. Despite the fact that Aruna is from a respectable Brahmin family, she is in fact poor and cannot afford the marriage Ramanujam’s family is expecting.

Some thoughts: This is a nice, easy-to-read and lighthearted book about marriage customs in India. It reminds me a lot of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a series of books about investigations led by Mme Precious Ramotswe in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana. They have much more in common than the fact that they are both about an agency. This excellent article from The Financial Times illustrates very well what the similarities are. According to Adrian Turpin, McCall Smith’s “imitators” have “cartoonishly bright ethnic covers”, they share “an aesthetic of simplicity” with linear stories and short sentences and they are set in the developing world but are aimed at the western market, causing them to have long descriptions of local customs that seem to be taken from guide books*. Even though The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is not a detective story (but neither McCall Smith’s series could be ascribed to that genre without hesitations), the cover certainly has bright colours and it’s ethnic in its pointed arch, arabesques and woman in sari. Moreover, there is no doubt that the language is simple and straightforward, plus the plot doesn’t involve nasty surprises or too much unpleasantness in the depiction of a developing country. It is clear that the book is aimed at the western reader, to the point that at the end of the book the author inserts a sort of appendix of a few passages (camouflaged as Mrs Ali’s English compositions) describing the city of Vizag, Indian cuisine, Hindi and Urdu words for family members and the caste system. All elements that help the western reader, who knows little about India, to better understand the novel. Personally, I prefer to be thrown into the complexity of another culture and gather the information I need from the context or the plot, imagining or researching the rest by myself, but other people might find the compositions helpful.
With this said, The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is not a bad book: it’s enjoyable, like a Bollywood movie. The book is not devout of insights into Indian culture, in particular regarding marriage customs. It is also a book about love marriages and arranged marriages, their pros and cons, especially. Mrs Ali says that in marriage you should be content with what you have, because the perfect wife might never come. To learn what the criteria to choose a good wife are in India is a bit shocking for a westerner: height, fair skin, education, cooking skills, caste and sub-caste, financial situation of the family, religion and of course the dowry. In no case the tastes of the two newlyweds, their interests or the physical attraction between them are considered. You might consider Indian culture to be materialistic with regards to this practises, but after all it used to be exactly like this just a few centuries ago here in Europe. Think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for instance: Mrs Bennett has the same urgency to find a good husband for her daughters that every parent in Zama’s book has. And think of the opening sentence of that book: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. As a matter of fact, Farahad Zama puts a citation from Pride and Prejudice as an epitaph for his book, but this doesn’t mean, as some readers suggested in their reviews, that Zama is trying to write a masala-style Pride and Prejudice (this has already been done at the cinema, didn’t you know?)*2.
In the book, extreme poverty or nasty things are featured, but they come and go very quickly, they always have a happy ending and are treated a bit superficially, because it’s not the aim of the book to make you think about the problems of India. Mr Ali and Mrs Ali, who are Muslims in a predominantly Hindu town, are concerned with their son, who’s a political activist for the rights of poor people and has no intention of getting married and find a good, well-paid job like his parents want. From what I’ve learned through my recent “Indian reads”, in Indian culture it is very important to please your parents and it feels like the author himself does think so. However, Mrs Ali learns to accept his son for what he is, which means that she learns to be content, just like she advises that you'd do with marriage.
In a nutshell, this is a pleasant book to read where you can sniff some curry (among the food cooked by Mrs Ali) or have a trip to the store to buy a sari with Aruna and her sister Vani.

About the author: Farahad Zama was born in Vizag, on the eastern coast of India, but has been living in London since 1990. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is his first novel.

*The rest of the similarities are aimed at detective stories that came out in the wake of McCall Smith’s series (Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant or Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, for instance).
*2 Speaking of works that could be prefect if turned Indian-style, I keep thinking of a comedy by Goldoni called Sior Todero Brontolon (“son el pare del pare, e son paron dei fioi, e son paron de la nezza, e de la dota, e de la casa, e de tutto quelo che voggio mi” – “I’m the father of the father, I’m the master of my children, and the master of my grand-daughter, and of the dowry, and of the house, and of everything I want”).

Monday, January 11, 2010

40. “The Thing Around Your Neck” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Year of first publication: 2009
Genre: collection of short stories
Country: Nigeria (but some stories are set in the USA and one in South Africa)

What it’s all about: This is a collection of twelve short stories, set in Nigeria and in the USA. The protagonists are all Nigerians, but their backgrounds and lives s are very different, ranging from experiences of war and riots in the author’s home country to the immigrant experience in America. Adichie’s stories often feature young women and their everyday epiphanies, tackling themes such as the brutality of war, colonialism, family relationships, the immigrant experience and the miscomprehensions between husband and wife.

Some thoughts: Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I’m not particularly fond of short stories. There is not much time to develop the characters in a story, consequently only good writers are able to say something really clever in just a few pages. Adichie is one of them: the stories are cleverly constructed, involving and offer a wide range of complex characters. Without any doubts, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most talented young African writers around. However, my favourite works by Adichie remain her two novels, Half of a Yellow Sun especially.
In “A Private Experience” an Igbo girl is sheltering from a riot among her people and Hausa people in a shop. She befriends a Hausa woman, demonstrating the inconsistency of ethnic conflicts at the personal level. The one described in the story is an episode of religious and ethnic friction that seems to be quite common in Nigeria but also scary and dangerous. In “Ghosts” the setting is the beloved university campus of Nsukka where Adichie grew up. The main character is a retired university professor of mathematics enquiring about his pension that never comes in, just like “el coronel” Buendía in García Márquez’s El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel). Floating in the darkness there is not only the ghosts of people he believed to be dead, but also the ghost of the Biafra war, which features prominently in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. There are also stories concerning the experiences of Nigerian immigrants in America, such as “The Shivering”, about a young Nigerian woman in an American college and her gay friend Chinedu who is also very religious. As my blogger friend Nana wrote in his blog, homosexuality is sort of a taboo subject in Africa, but Adichie touches on it in two stories (the other one being “Jumping Monkey Hill” about a creative writing workshop in South Africa, but I would also suggest a strain of it in “On Monday of Last Week”). By doing this, she shows her “open-mindedness” and her sensibility on the matter. Other important themes are the relationship of Nigerian wives with their husbands, especially relating to distance and immigration (“The Arrangers of Marriage”), and family relationships (“Tomorrow is Too Far”, “The American Embassy”). The last story, “The Headstrong Historian”, can be considered a follow-up of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because it relates the colonisation of a village in three generations’ time. The traditions of the village and their animistic religion are swept awat by Christianity and the white man in a bitter way. This story demonstrates that Adichie can deal with traditional Nigerian lifestyles just as well, but it’s also a sort of reminder that Adichie takes on from Chinua Achebe in order to continue a tradition of excellent story-telling. Some people argued that it was pretentious for Adichie to write such a story, but I don’t think so. Adichie shows her admiration for Achebe without boasting about a comparison between her and the most prestigious of Nigerian writers.

About the author: see this post

Read my reviews of other works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie here and here.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

39. “Il Gattopardo” di Tomasi di Lampedusa

Anno di prima pubblicazione: 1957
Genere: romanzo storico
Paese: Italia

In English: The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa

La recensione di questo classico della letteratura italiana è apparsa sulla rivista on-line Paper Street (disponibile a questo link).

Tratto dal film che ne ha fatto Luchino Visconti, "La Sicilia non vuole cambiare":

Friday, January 1, 2010

38. “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie

Year of first publication: 1981
Genre: novel, family saga, postmodernist novel, postcolonial novel, magical realism, satirical novel, farce
Country: India / UK

In italiano: I Figli della Mezzanotte di Salman Rushdie, edito da Mondadori (2008), € 9,40

Plot: Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on the day India became independent from Britain. For this reason Saleem has some special powers, like all the children born on that particular hour of that memorable day. For example, he can communicate telepathically with all the other “midnight’s children” and has an extraordinary (and prominent) nose that can smell danger. The book tells the story of India through the life of Saleem, whose story is inextricably linked to that of the subcontinent. The novel follows India (and Saleem) from independence and partition through the numerous wars and the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, to the so-called Emergency, when Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties producing one of the most horrible pages of the history of India.

Some thoughts: I can’t believe I waited so long to read Midnight’s Children. I had already read two of Rushdie’s novels (The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Satanic Verses) and I liked them only mildly, because they are both quite complicated (the latter, especially). This book is not simple either, but it’s multi-layered, so you don’t need to catch every single reference to enjoy it. However, the more references you catch the more you enjoy the book. I now understand why this novel influenced an entire generation of postcolonial and Indian writers (the so-called “midnght’s grandchildren”): it is rich in characters and themes, beautifully-written, humorous and engaging. Moreover, it is the story of modern India, but also the story of the encounter between the East and the West. The author, being an Indian educated in England and coming from Bombay (a city founded by the British), is the perfect example of this cultural mix. I have a lot of things to say about this book, maybe too many for a single post. I am not ashamed to say that Midnight’s Children is going to have a place in the list of my “All-Time Favourites”.
First of all, I was surprised that in the introduction of my Vintage Books edition Rushdie thanks Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, describing them as “Indian writers”, the former because of her female characters entrapped in the conventions of society, like many Indian women he knows, and the latter because of his “great, rotting, Bombay-like city and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyper-realistic background”. It’s not a coincidence that the novel begins in the style of Dickens, with the introduction of the ancestors of Saleem, in particular with his grandfather Aadam Aziz. The name is an obvious blink at the main character of A Passage to India, Dr Aziz. They’re both Kashmiri doctors with a western education and they both encourage their wives to come out of the purdah. Names are very important in the book: Aadam is of course a reference to the first man for both Christianity and Islam, who lived in the Garden of Eden (and Kashmir was a heaven on earth before war came). In the novel, like in the book of Genesis, Aadam is forced to leave, thus giving birth to the whole tale of the Bible. Rushdie incorporates different traditions into his narrative. For example, Saleem’s story is told by himself to his soon-to-be wife Padma in a frame that recalls the Arabian Nights of the Islamic tradition, but also the Mahabharata. The famous Hindu epic is in fact told by Vyasa, who’s part of the story like Saleem is, and written down by Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. In Midnight’s Children the part of Ganesh is played by Padma, the listener and commentator of Saleem’s story. Ironically, Rushdie would marry a woman called Padma (Lakshmi, a super-model) some years after writing the book.
Saleem’s story is partly autobiographical because it’s also a book about Rushdie’s childhood in Bombay and a great ode to the city. Saleem’s friends are probably the same friends that the author had in his childhood (Evie Burns for instance) and his relationship with his family might have been similar to that portrayed in the book. And don’t forget that Saleem has a big nose (“there are dynasties waiting in it, like snot” says Tai, the old boatman) and Rushdie also has sort of a prominent nose, maybe not magic but certainly important! Saleem’s existence is nonetheless special: because he was born at the same moment that his nation came into existence, he is linked to the history of India (or rather he comes to believe that his life is a metaphor for the state of his country!). In the book, Indian politics often resonate in the life of the characters to an improbable degree (for example when a sneeze saves Aadam Aziz from being shot in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of Amritsar), but it’s rightly so, because the book has no aim to be realistic.
There are tons of allegories that enrich the tale: for example when, just after partition, the Sinai family moves to the former house of an Englishman who is leaving the country, at first they are annoyed by the furniture and the commodities of the British officer, but then they start adjusting to them and even take on an Oxford drawl. This of course represents modern India, shaped and created by the British: the country has gained its independence but it’s now dealing with the postcolonial experience. Another important allegory is the obvious correspondence between the children that make up the Midnight’s Children Conference, possible only through Saleem’s telepathic powers, and the nation of India. Both of them are made of diverse people (concerning gender, religion, caste, upbringing and character) who develop biases and prejudices, starting thus to fall apart (like India in many ways after partition).
I loved this novel also for its historical sweep. I was astounded by the amount of political criticism that Rushdie puts into the novel, especially against Indira Gandhi (“of the multi-partitioned hair”). I have experienced an incredible journey through the contemporary history of India while I was reading this novel, but without losing the joy of pure storytelling. Despite this “historical sweep”, Rushdie’s novel has a peculiar idea of history. Saleem’s memories are not always historically accurate, but right from the beginning of the novel he claims that the truth of facts and figures is not the only way of understanding history. The narrative coming from a person’s consciousness, with alterations and self-obsessions, forms another, equally legitimate, kind of reality. This is something difficult to understand for us pragmatic westerners who don’t believe in the supernatural. That is why, while the book is usually labelled as magical realism in the West, it is usually considered to be quite realistic in India.

About the author: Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay in 1947 to Muslim parents and was educated in India and England. Despite his religious background, Rushdie is now a self-described atheist. His first novel, Grimus, was published in 1975, but it was generally ignored by public and critics. His second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), was instead a bestseller and it was awarded the Booker Prize. It is considered his masterpiece and a key novel in Indian Writing in English. His most famous book is nonetheless The Satanic Verses (1988), because of the controversy it aroused. The book fictionalizes a part of Mohammed’s life in a way that was considered offensive for devout Muslims. Therefore Rushdie was accused of blasphemy against Islam and ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a sentence of death) against him. The book tells the story of two Indian actors, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha: their rivalry and their experience as immigrants in the UK. They are both trapped in a hijacked plane that is flying over the English Channel. In his works Rushdie uses magical realism, juxtaposing symbols of different myth systems and religions, interweaving them in order to display the cultural exchange brought by the British Empire in India. Other famous works are The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). The former is the story of Moraes Zogoiby who descends from a Sultan, whereas the latter is an alternative history of modern pop music. His latest novel is The Enchantress of Florence (2008) (link to a conference I attended where Salman Rushdie talked about it).

2009 - Books I read

These are the books I read in 2009. At the end of 2008 I wrote that I wanted to read more classics and Italian authors and I've managed to do so. I have also reached no. 50 books read in 2009, which is a good thing. The only thing I want to do in 2010 is to keep it at this pace!

I've linked each book to my thoughts. I'm sorry if lately I'm very slow in writing the reviews (I'm like three months behind!), I'll try to be quicker.

PS: Every title is in the language in which I've read the book. Hope it won't be a problem. Oh, and of course the thoughts are sometimes in English and sometimes in Italian.

1. 54 – Wu Ming
2. The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith
3. Animal Farm – George Orwell
4. Chicken with Plums – Marjane Satrapi
5. The Nature of Blood – Caryl Phillips
6. Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

7. The Zigzag Way – Anita Desai
8. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
9. Londonstani – Gautam Malkani

10. Une si longue lettre – Mariama Bâ
11. The Shadow of the Sun – Ryszard Kapuscinski
12. A Case of Exploding Mangoes – Mohammed Hanif

13. Sorry – Gail Jones
14. Poemi di Alberto Caeiro – Fernando Pessoa
15. Gabriella garofano e cannella – Jorge Amado
16. July’s People – Nadine Gordimer

17. A Passage to India – E.M. Forster
18. Small Island – Andrea Levy
19. Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi
20. La morte a Venezia – Thomas Mann

21. Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh
22. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
23. Fasting, Feasting – Anita Desai
24. 1984 – George Orwell
25. Il Signore delle Mosche – William Golding

26. La Fiesta del Chivo – Mario Vargas Llosa
27. Gli arancini di Montalbano – Andrea Camilleri
28. Maximum City – Suketu Mehta
29. La collezionista di storie – Randa Jarrar

30. Neve – Orhan Pamuk
31. La zia Julia e lo scribacchino – Mario Vargas Llosa
32. Journal d’Hirondelle – Amélie Nothomb
33. The Garden Party and Other Stories – Katherine Mansfield

34. Due Vite – Jadelin Mabiala Gangbo
35. Pecore Nere. Racconti – I. Scego, G. Kuruvilla, L.Wadia, I. Mubiayi
36. Il Palazzo degli Specchi – Amitav Ghosh
37. Sostiene Pereira – Antonio Tabucchi
38. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

39. Il Gattopardo – Tomasi di Lampedusa
40. The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
41. Agenzia Matrimoniale per Ricchi – Farahad Zama
42. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

43. Sacred Games – Vikram Chandra
44. Maschere Nude (Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore – Ciascuno a suo modo – Questa sera si recita a soggetto) – Luigi Pirandello
45. Racconti Fantastici – E.T.A. Hoffmann
46. Il Nipote di Rameau – Denis Diderot

47. Miramar – Nagib Mahfuz (English version here)
48. Guida all’impero per gente comune – Arundhati Roy
49. Blonde Roots – Bernardine Evaristo
50. Memorie di Adriano – Marguerite Yourcenar