Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children - India's different (real) face

My first (and only until now) encounter with the magic of magical realism was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude. I was much younger (and naive) back then and I quickly deemed the book "unreadable" and left it alone in the list of "Books I just couldn't finish no matter how hard I tried". Ever since then I agreed with myself that magical realism was not a bite for my mouth.

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children stayed on my bookshelf for almost a month after I picked it up for a friend and promised vigorously to read it and give my opinion. However, its time didn't come until my friend called me and said she would be leaving and thus needs the book in 3 days. 3 days to read a 650 pages book when you have exams and interviews is not an easy task but I somehow felt I must read it before I return it. So i committed myself to sleepless nights, reading exactly 220 pages per day. And trust me, one page of Midnight's Children is not as easily read as one page of The Hunger Games, for example.

The book is set in India encompassing the years before its independence from the British Empire until its partition into India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In these turbulent times, Saleem Sinai is born and raised. To be exact, he is born on midnight the same day that India wins its long-awaited independence. To make this day even more rememberable, the Indian government announces that the children born on that day will be special and strongly connected to Indian history. However, Saleem along with 1,000 other midnight's children are more special and dangerous than India intended or wanted them to be.

Even though the title is Midnight's Children, the novel rather focuses on the life of one of them, Saleem, who was the first child of the new independent state. Despite that, Saleem is hardly a lucky child. As a midnight child, he has special telepathic powers, who enable him to connect to the other special kids. In addition, he possesses an extraordinary smell, able to detect feelings of hatred, love, fear, and despair. Through his telepathic communication with the rest of the special children, Saleem discovers a variety of skills, which if put to the right purpose can be beneficial for his country. Thus, Saleem starts to believe that he was born for a purpose, and this purpose is to unite the midnight's children and to become a sort of an army for the sake of India. Unfortunately, he altruistic (and rather naive) plans are set to failure as most of his peers are unwilling or unable to grasp his idea. Saleem, on the other hand, is faced with the daily problems of his drunk father, his mother in-love with another man, his mischievous sister, and his own issues of growing up and falling in love. Moreover, his unique gift is more often a curse, rather than a blessing. Despite that he never fully abandons the idea that his birth must somehow be connected and important to the future of India.

And indeed it is. The ups and downs, the successes and failures of the huge continent are mirrored in Saleem's life. Reversely, some of his actions have visible and changing effects on India. Thus, one of the midnight's children involuntarily fulfilled the government's prophecy - his life was to be inevitably connected to the life of his country. Midnight's Children is not merely a novel about a bunch of kids with special powers. Along with the life story of Saleem, Salman Rushdie manages to provide a thorough and understandable picture of India's complicated and turbulent history. Apologies to my Indian friends, but before that book I was completely ignorant about that part of the world and the wars and clashes that shaped its contemporary outlook. However, while reading Rushdie's epic, I constantly found myself searching through Wikipedia to make sense of the historical mess, to research names of leaders and battles, and to distinguish between fiction and reality. In fact, Rushdie produces a literary masterpiece which both grasps the main aspects of Indian history and provides a comprehensible picture of this distant continent with its culture, beliefs, and morals. Rushdie's magical realism is so uniquely presented that I, as a reader, almost believed the connections between Saleem and India. Rushdie carefully balances between reality and fiction, between the everyday and the magical, between the boy and the country and the result is a masterpiece, which tells you a different story about India, a story you are more likely to believe and understand than any other historical narrative.

What makes the novel difficult to read is the language and the amount of details. Rushdie is not an easy read, even for me (as I am used to reading in English for a couple of years now). In addition, the author indeed did his research job and sometimes history becomes too overwhelming and burdensome to bear. It takes time (which unfortunately I didn't have) to fully grasp the magician Rushdie and his extraordinary talent. I will be rereading this, for sure.

Salman Rushdie's novel was well appraised by readers, having won the Booker Prize and the Best of the Booker prize but also much criticized, especially from political leaders. One of them, the famous Indira Gandhi actually sued Rushdie for one sentence, which depicted her as guilty for her husband's death. The political leader won and the sentence was removed. However, I believe Rushdie is not an author easily sanctioned or criticized. His other novels (which I will definitely be looking to read) are banned in some Asian countries. However, when you are willing to tell the truth, you must be prepared that others might not be prepared to hear it.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Mockingjay - the final book of the amazing trilogy The Hunger Games

Revolutions are usually initiated to improve the quality of life of people. Otherwise, how would you motivate them to abandon their secure but unhappy and deprived life and to fight for some long-awaited ideal. Unfortunately, revolutions rarely change the world for the bette, or lets say, rarely bring the benefits that people expected them to. The communist rule in Russia came to free the Russian people from the tyranny of the Tsar and from constant hunger and oppression. Instead, it brought the tyranny of Stalin and his tyranny and oppression. Capitalism substitute communism in Bulgaria more than 20 years ago but instead of making people better off, it just increased the gap between the rich and the poor, clearly distinguishing the equal from the more equal, opened the door to mafia, prostitution, crime, and corruption, and made Bulgaria the poorest country in the EU. Yes, revolutions have this amazing threat - they are good as an idea but somehow in practice they almost always fail.

Katniss Everdeen is the mockingjay face of the revolution in Panem. The Capitol artificially created a mutant jay to spy on people unhappy with the regime and report back. Unfortunately, the joke turned against them when the jay mated with the mockingbird to create a mockingjay, a bird that sings amazingly and is able to repeat any sound it hears. Katniss bears a lot of similarities with the mockingjay, the symbol of her famous rebellion against the Hunger Games in the first book and subsequently the symbol of the whole rebellion. She also has been created to serve and obey the Capitol. However, through various encounters and life changing events, Katniss has mutated to a rebel opposing the regime and its restrictions and a fighter willing to do anything to protect her family. Her unintentional opposition at the end of the first games to save Peeta and herself became the first tone of the mockingjay song, a song that Katniss is to spread to the population and drive them to fight.

At the end of the second book, Catching Fire, Katniss successfully survives yet another hunger games edition and is amazed to understand that her survival has been the sole mission for some of the participants. In a shaky health state, she is taken to the famous District 13 to be trained as the face of the uprising. Nothing, however, seems so different in District 13 than in the Capitol. People are similarly controlled, forced to wear the same clothes, to eat calories that exactly match their daily needs, and to participate in various activities. Freedom is no more obvious here than it was in Panem. Katniss feels like a prisoner once again, trapped between her feeling of guilt for all the people that lost their lives because of her and her assumed duty to be the leader of the rebellion. On top of that, Peeta is caught by president Snow and his mind is carefully manipulated to hate and kill Katniss.

President Alma Coin is the District 13 equivalent of President Snow. Brutal, unscrupulous, and manipulative, she wants to use Katniss in a much similar way that President Snow used her before. Katniss is to undergo the same beauty procedures as she did before the Hunger Games in order to look like a proper rebellion leader. Her personality and physical appearance again have to be changed to fit a certain propaganda and the posters and videos prepared to be distributed to the rest of the districts strikingly remind of the media propaganda used by the Capitol. Katniss is soon to realize that District 13 is not going to bring anything different to the people of Panem and that its leaders are much or less using and oppressing the population in a similar way to reach their own personal goals. The dilemma in front of Katniss is whether to stay and avoid the deaths of hundreds of other people or fight the Capitol and attempt to get back the real Peeta.

Yes, the real Peeta. The thing I really disliked about the third book was the new Peeta personality. I have been used to the nice, romantic and brave boy willing to do anything to protect and guard Katniss. Instead, President Snow has transformed him into a bitter, suspicious, and vindictive mutant. His old love and admiration for Katniss are fighting to overcome his implied belief that she is set to kill him. The absence of Peeta's calmness, stability, and reassurance certainly affect Katniss and her ability to make the right decisions and to fight her battles.

Of course I will not tell you the end. I will just say that Mockingjay is the darkest, the bloodiest, the most depressing of the three novels. The whole trilogy follows the birth of a dream (The Hunger Games), the development of its means (Catching Fire) and the disappointing outcome (Mockingjay). In the last novel Katniss is to face her biggest fear, to experience her biggest pains, and to learn to live with the responsibility of initiating the rebellion and its outcome. Despite some criticisms I have read for the last book, I am convinced Suzanne Collins did an amazing job in closing a trilogy that will be long remembered and will stay in the anali of world literature as a prominent example of a dystopian young adult book. In addition, The Hunger Games trilogy will remain one of the most enjoyable experiences I have head as a reader, making me stay all night to finish reading.