This is one of the books that you kindly voted for me to read in the ‘What Shall Helen Read?’ game. I remember buying my copy from a charity shop in Dovercourt, a town I’ve only ever visited once, so I must have had it a good twelve years or so. There’s a photograph on the back jacket flap of Salman Rushdie looking young and handsome, and tucked inside is the strip of paper which was once wrapped around it: ‘Winner of the 1981 £10,000 BOOKER McCONNELL PRIZE for FICTION’. Time to read it!
(Salman Rushdie in 1981; from here)
Midnight’s Children is a big, brash, noisy book. It chronicles three generations of an Indian family, beginning in 1915, with the narrator’s grandparents in Kashmir, and ending in 1978 in Bombay. The narrator, Saleem Sinai, was born on the stroke of midnight 1947, as India achieved independence; like all 1001 Indian children born within that first hour of freedom, he has a special power. These special Children include a boy who can increase and reduce his size at will; twin sisters who are able to make any man who sees them fall passionately in love with them; a girl whose sharp words inflict physical wounds; a child who changes sex whenever immersed in water. Saleem’s ability is to hear people’s thoughts as if he’s listening to a radio; he can rummage around and find memories from quite long ago, if he cares to, and he discovers that he can act as a sort of parliament for the other Children: in his head, they can all come together and talk.
Of course, this gives lots of scope for allegory; and the career of the Children closely follows that of the new nation state. Saleem, whose head is even shaped like India, plays a (often inadvertent) rôle in major political events; in the Children’s parliament, philosophy is discussed while social and religious backgrounds are unimportant. Gradually, however, things fall apart for the Children as well as their country, riven by individualism, fear and guilt.
Despite the allegory and although magical realism is sprinkled throughout the book, Midnight’s Children remains obstinately earthy; even Saleem’s telepathy is inextricably linked to the stream of snot which pours unceasingly from his enormous nose. There’s plenty of dung, urine, verrucas and blood. The city of Bombay in particular is fizzing with life.
Midnight’s Children is very different from all the other Indian novels and novels set in India I’ve read which preceded it: Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster, Paul Scott, Anita Desai. (M.M. Kaye!) (True, that’s not a lot, and not a lot of Indians.) It’s much messier, more insistent on the physical realities of life and more entwined with the mythologies and even superstitions of the nation. Along with the South American magic realist novelists – Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende – it’s influenced a lot of later English-language novels. Omniscient narrator with a knowing tone? Meta-narrative? Multiple generations? Supernatural powers? All there in Midnight’s Children. It’s like the later A Suitable Boy but on coke.
The trouble is that while I can see its strengths, and I admired Rushdie’s prose, I didn’t enjoy it very much after the first 150 pages. I’m still thinking about why that is, but in the main I just became fatigued. This is a book which really batters you, and it batters you for hundreds of pages. I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for ever more characters and more bodily fluids after a bit, and I found the narrator’s present-day interpolations increasingly annoying. Some of the characters lack a dimension or two; some of the incidents seem to be just there to serve the allegory. There’s a lot of foreshadowing, which also began to irritate me, and as Saleem himself points out, pretty much everyone he meets dies violently. I’m not a fan of Saul Bellow et al., either; this sort of writing is just not to my taste. And actually, it’s an angry novel, filled with frustration and sorrow at how Indian independence had played out by the late 1970s.
From what other people have said, it’s a Marmite sort of book and you either love it or hate it, no half measures. But without doubt it’s an important book in terms of its place in the development of English literature and so worth anyone’s time. I’m glad to have read it!