[N]ow, seated hunched over paper in a pool of Anglepoised light, I no longer want to answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I”, every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world. (457-458)By saying this, Saleem Sinai mistakes himself for a tautology, and a flatly banal one at that.
Saleem's mistake, of course, is the novel: it is the account of Saleem's increasingly extravagant tale of rampant solipsism—a pluralist solipsism, to be sure— Every man is his own multitude! Every man the sum of his experiences… and more! but then again, perhaps no other form of solipsism is possible after Whitman, Proust, and Joyce.
Saleem's repeated assertion that "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world" carries within it the novel's central problem: it assumes that you, the reader want to understand this one life, Saleem's life, but it also assumes that you will recognize that the price of admission to this life and this understanding is your credulity: you've gotta swallow everything—the world and all its bullshit. This isn't just your run-of-the-mill "my way is to conjure you,""can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France?," metafictional "this is a fiction" self-referentiality, but a more substantial demand that the reader not just suspend their disbelief, but understand that doing so constitutes a joke on Saleem. Acceding to Saleem's solipsism merely completes it, and by going along for the ride, we're allowing Saleem to string himself along.
Consider the following passage:
Sensing Padma’s unscientific bewilderment, I revert to the inexactitudes of common speech: By the combination of “active” and “literal” I mean, of course, all actions of mine which directly—literally—affected, or altered the course of, seminal historical events, for instance the manner in which I provided the language marchers with their battle-cry. The union of “passive” and “metaphorical” encompasses all socio-political trends and events which, merely by existing, affected me metaphorically—for example, by reading between the lines of the episode entitled “The Fisherman’s Pointing Finger”, you will perceive the unavoidable connection between the infant state’s attempts at rushing towards full-sized adulthood and my own early, explosive efforts at growth… Next, “passive” and “literal”, when hyphenated, cover all moments at which national events had a direct bearing upon the lives of myself and my family—under this heading you should file the freezing of my father’s assets, and also the explosion at Walkeshwar Reservoir, which unleashed the great cat invasion. And finally there is the “mode” of the “active-metaphorical”, which groups together those occasions on which things done by or to me were mirrored in the macrocosm of public affairs, and my private existence was shown to be symbolically at one with history. The mutilation of my middle finger was a case in point, because when I was detached from my fingertip and blood (neither Alpha nor Omega) rushed out in fountains, a similar thing happened to history, and all sorts of everywhichthing began pouring out all over us; but because history operates on a grander scale than any individual, it took a good deal longer to stitch it back together and mop up the mess.Rushdie wants us to be in on the joke: Saleem's distinctions are in a real sense merely verbal, fanciful, imaginary (because they are equally and only part of the encompassing fiction of the novel)—as distinctions for us, the readers, they don't matter. Every event in the narrative is equally fictitious to us, even (especially) those which touch upon actual historical events. But Rushdie also wants us to recognize and to affirm that these distinctions matter a whole lot to Saleem, that the way Saleem has been written requires that we pretend to want to "understand one life," and especially the divisions that structure it. Otherwise, there is literally nothing to read for.
The problem is that far too frequently these two desires cross each other up—the moments when Rushdie is poking the reader hardest in the ribs—"did you forget you have to pretend to be suspending your disbelief? Don't forget the joke's on Saleem!"—are the moments when the reader most wants to reassess why Saleem persists in his solipsism, when Saleem's difficulty in understanding what's real and what's imagined become most obtrusive and most challenging to the reader. Whenever Saleem loses his (more imagined than actual) ability to keep his careful divisions separate and passive and active and metaphorical and literal shade into and over each other, the reader is thrust back onto an actual desire to understand the life that has become very confused, but the metafictional joke ("remember, you're swallowing the world!") stands in the way. By insisting that Saleem's divisions of reality are equally fictitious, Rushdie chains himself to a monochromaticism of his own—he can never fully separate his fictions either, cannot give them distinct textures or weights. And in a book that is ostensibly about the difference between the fictions an individual makes to explain his actions and the fictions a nation makes to explain its actions, this is a grave problem. Rushdie has knocked out any supports for his own efforts to play the microcosm off the macrocosm, or vice versa.
For instance, late in the book Saleem finds himself participating in the Pakistani military effort to prevent Bangladesh's secession from the state. The suppression of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was brutal, and a few of the book's passages describe horrific events.
Shaheed and I saw many things which were not true, which were not possible, because our boys would not could not have behaved so badly; we saw men in spectacles with heads like eggs being shot in side-streets, we saw the intelligentsia of the city being massacred by the hundred, but it was not true because it could not have been true, the Tiger was a decent chap, after all, and our jawans were worth ten babus, we moved through the impossible hallucination of the night, hiding in doorways while fires blossomed like flowers, reminding me of the way the Brass Monkey used to set fire to shoes to attract a little attention, there were slit throats being buried in unmarked graves, and Shaheed began his, “No, buddha—what a thing, Allah, you can’t believe your eyes—no, not true, how can it—buddha, tell, what’s got into my eyes?” And at last the Buddha spoke, knowing Shaheed could not hear: “O, Shaheeda,” he said, revealing the depths of his fastidiousness, “a person must sometimes choose what he will see and what he will not; look away from there now.” But Shaheed was staring at a maidan in which lady doctors were being bayoneted before they were raped, and raped again before they were shot. Above them and behind them, the cool white minaret of a mosque stared blindly down upon the scene. (449)The gap between what Shaheed and Saleem (who's being called buddha here) see and what they can process or accept is here merely asserted; there is no actual gap between the way the rapes are described and the way the Brass Monkey's tiny arsons are described: both are written about, it seems, "to attract a little attention." We are supposed to provide the gap that Rushdie's prose cannot; we're supposed to assume that Saleem's narration is under a strain that does not actually show itself. Saleem calls this scene imaginary or hallucinatory, but in doing so betrays that naming it so is a purely verbal construct—how is this entirely fictional scene more "hallucinated" than any other, equally fictional scene that has come before it? In fact the "choice" between seeing and not seeing is not so much illusory as irrelevant to the reader, as the only possible perspective on all these equally fictitious, equally imagined events is that of the minaret staring blindly down upon the scene, both seeing and not seeing.
This is the experience of reading Midnight's Children: reading the single-textured fictionality of it all is both seeing and not-seeing, and we can only blindly stare at the parades of events as they pass by.