Rushdie’s Novels as Historiographic Metafiction

Rushdie's Novels as Historiographic Metafiction

Chapter III continued …

Frederic Jameson sees the novel as a child of Western capitalism and he advances the thesis that it was born out of the radical split between private and public. However, in the Third World, the novel has resolved this division necessarily by taking the form of “national allegories,” “where the telling of the individual story and the individual experience cannot but ultimately involve the whole laborious telling of the experience of the collectivity itself” (85). As such, the prime ‘midnight child’ Salim Sinai invokes the metaphor of swallowing as inclusion:

To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. (109)

Among the various literary forms, the novel has bonded and blended with history the most and the closest. However, the nature and scope of the novelistic tradition’s engagement with history has not been static. It has evolved. The novel tells a story; history is a story. Nevertheless, the novel does not use history for or as story or stories. Today, it interrogates the very discourse of history. History and fiction share social, cultural, ideological contexts as well as formal techniques. Through the storyteller’s active involvement with history emerged the historical novel’.

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The novels of Rushdie, however, are not historical novels in the strict sense of the term. They are rather ‘ahistorical’ novels. The narrative, in a way, reverses the path of history. The domain of the story lies not in history but in a zone liberated from history. It is a polished history. Rushdie admits to this in Imaginary Homelands.[iii] We may call it Rushdie’s brand of history. Well then, as we will see in the course of dissertation, all history is branded history. History is more subjective than objective.

Rushdie’s novels are an inquiry into reality and memory. Rushdie writes metafiction and as Patricia Waugh[iv] writes, metafiction explores the theory of writing fiction through the practice of writing fiction. In Rushdie’s novels, history emphasizes the content and representation rather than the shape of the story. Realism and fantasy are co-bounded and fantasy may even subvert the real. History is an artefact in the hands of Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie encapsulates history in the individual human body – Saleem in Midnight’s Children, Omar in Shame and Moraes in The Moor’s Last Sigheach is a world in himself. ‘History pours out of my fissured body,’ Saleem tells us over and over again in the “Midnight’s”. Still, in my view, Rushdie’s novels are not really ‘historical novels’. His narrative reconstructs history imaginatively in the mode of literary traditions.

Know: Structure of the Thesis

Terms have context-specific meanings. What is history? It is a continuous record of public events. It incorporates ruler-specific events as well as movements that belong to religion, law, literature, economics and the masses. Facts are sacred; history is not. Although facts are at the heart of history, it may be made up. Nonetheless, until recently, it was considered as being sacred. Scientific objectivity and empiricism were the talk of the town for the historians. All this changed in the post-modern era and in 1961, E. H. Carr defined history as

a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.[v]

And, what is novel or for that matter, what is the function of the novel? To quote Rushdie, “… literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality…”[vi] Anthropologist Levi-Strauss[vii] argued that it is the historian who ‘constitutes them [facts] by abstraction’. The constitution of historical facts is thus a matter of selection and point of view. More recently, Juliet Gardiner put a question mark upon history.

History is a big question mark which can be answered in multiple ways: political, economic, social, religious, scientific, and feminist. [The past is not] a jigsaw which will one day be complete … … is a dialogue with the present. Historical reality is a special case of fiction, as speech is a special case of writing.[viii]

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The Historical Novel is a book by Georg Lukas. It is about historiography and the representation of history in modern fiction. It discusses the theoretical stance of history writing. A historical novel need not be a textbook in history. However, it should portray the true historical spirits of the period and the participants. Walter Scott has produced some benchmark historical novels. He does not stoop down to the level of private, psychological trivia’. He does not romantically monumentalize the heroes of history either. We may note that very much in the tradition of Scott Lukas, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children also presents a history of the nation with wilful factual errors.

A historical novel should be set in history. Remember, history pervades in the public arena. The private life of a man, how so ever historically high, is a story and not history. A historical novel cannot be just a biography or autobiography. Different genres should maintain the difference. Of course, a historical novel has to have historically ‘real’ persons in it. Otherwise, it would be hard to empathize with the setting and it would be akin to history with the missing link. Obviously, Rushdie writes in the tradition of magic realism. As it is, magic realism is a term where symbiotically co-exist two mutually antagonistic terms, viz. magic and realism.

In the 19th century, Joseph Turner[ix] classified historical novels into the documented, the disguised novel, and the invented categories. Alternatively, historical novels are original, reflective, and philosophical. The names are self-explanatory. An invented historical novel has imaginary characters and events. The primary concern of the novelist of the philosophical-historical genre is analytical. Salman Rushdie’s historical novels are rather complicated. Still, for convenience, we can define them as being philosophically invented.

Get: Critical Reception

It is not that only the novelists borrow from history. The history textbooks also give due space and respect to the literature and the literary traditions. This is because history is barren without politics and politics is sans debate without (political) literature. To cite an instance, John Stuart Mill’s books may find a place in the courseware of English literature, Political Science, and history all. Recently, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has had a perceptible impact on international politics and relations. Thus, we find a close correlation between history and fiction. History does not merely chronicle the events. It selects events and wishes to make us see the causative factors, making it more intelligent and intelligible. The novelist selects events and personalities and tells stories around them. Historical novels attain wider dimensions of universality and at times a state of timelessness.

A historical novelist is none but a historian with a talent for imaginative fiction. Salman Rushdie would as easily have been a historicist in the mode of New Historicism as he is a novelist in the genre of magic realism and historical novels. The postcolonial novels position history as the ‘master narrative.’ Stated thus, power is the chief concern of postcolonial literature.


[iii] We remake the past to suit our present purposes, using memory as our tool. Imaginary Homelands, 24.

[iv] Metafiction: Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. Methuen and Co. Ltd., London, 1984.

[v] What is History, 1961, p 24

[vi] Imaginary Homelands, p 15

[vii] The Savage Mind, 1966

[viii] What is History Today, 1988, p 2

[ix] Turner, Joseph W. “The Kinds of Historical Fiction: An Essay in Definition and Methodology” Genre 12 (Fall 1979): p 333-55.

Chapter III continues …

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