This is Salman Rushdie’s third novel (after Grimus and Midnight’s Children) and this novel takes place in a city called Q in a country that seems an awful lot like Pakistan (and is definitely Pakistan) but which we’re repeatedly told is not Pakistan. The affectation in making these claims is to pose some distance both politically and historically, but also in the storytelling. Because this novel is not historical fiction, and in fact is a confabulation of events and people (however much they seem like real people and events) it’s important to keep this distance. It’s a novelistic emphasis on the role and purpose of fiction foremost, but also of the ways in which fiction is a real force that has limits and roles.
So the story involves three sisters of a slightly fallen family. One of the sisters gets pregnant, and both the sisters and our narrator will not tell us which, and give birth to a boy they name Omar Khayyam (after the poet and scientist) who in turn grows up to marry the daughter of a military leader of the country.
The novel splits its time with Omar’s life, as well as with the life of the narrator, especially acting in this novel as a guide around the fictional country, and the history of the country itself in the opening decades of its existence. The novel uses a lot of different storytelling techniques that borrow heavily from the Arabian Nights, the Baburnama, various histories of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, some Shakespeares, lots of myths and tales, and modern society. It’s a lot of book, especially given that it’s not especially long as a novel. It’s also just magnificently rich.