Neil White's Reviews > Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
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Jun 23, 11

Read in June, 2011

After closing this daunting tome for the last time, I felt less like I had read a book, and more like I had climbed a mountain. A very dense and heavy mountain, with thick fog surrounding it. Still, the view looks great from the top, once you stop to take it all in.

But perhaps a mountain isn't the best analogy. Some authors are painters, creating a world with rich, colorful brushstrokes. Others are sculptors, bringing their work into being with impeccable precision. Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, is a dancer, bobbing, weaving, darting in and out, moving left and right, constantly in motion, with varying degrees of being anywhere near his subject matter. This novel is by no means direct, it is barely linear, and VERY wordy. But like a dance, it's not solely about going from point A to point B, it's about the motions in-between, and in this case, the stories told during.

This style of writing is nowadays common in Indian literature, and I've read works by the likes of Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri that employ the same style of lush, thick prose and misdirection to eventually tell a story, and it works to varying degrees of success. More often than not it's simply frustrating, in my opinion. Rushdie does it better than anyone, though, and his use of a style that I don't particularly care for won me over with his sheer mastery of it. That's not to say any of this made it easier going. This is one of the most dense and difficult novels I've ever read - Ulysses is the only one I can think of off the top of my head that eclipses it in not just difficulty, but magnitude of scope.

If someone were to ask me what this book was about, I would be forced to simply answer "India." Because although on the surface this is about one man, Saleem Sinai, and his adventures and midadventures, this is unmistakably a story of India, and its adventures and misadventures, since becoming a free nation. Saleem is simply a vehicle, a character whose fate is inextricably linked to that of India. He was born at midnight at the precise moment of India's independence from Great Britain, and the ties continue through his entire life, in both good and bad. The horrors of partition, the war with Pakistan, the mistakes of Indira Gandhi, the awful State of Emergency, all of these directly involve Saleem on a very personal level. (Or at least, according to him.)

So, I could go on about everything in this novel, but there are about as many themes and allusions as there are people in India. I could talk about how the narrative style and the magical realism throughout is a parallel to the oral traditions dating back to '1001 Arabian Nights' and the like, with both the first person narrative, and this being in many ways roughly 30 chapters, or separate stories, within a larger frame of an older narrator looking back and recounting his life. I could talk about the allegorical nature of the entire cast of characters, and about the major themes of the smaller story such as mistaken/swapped identity, amnesia, exile, and sterility are inescapable metaphors for the conditions of post-colonial India, as are the many ‘gifts’ of the Midnight’s Children, which are so horrifically squandered, crushed, and defeated by the two main candidates for Villain of the Piece, Siva (named for the Hindu god of creation and destruction), and Indira Gandhi herself.

But I won’t go into detail of everything Rushdie is attempting here, because that’s easily another book in and of itself. Also, much like dissecting and explaining every move of a dance, it would hardly do justice to the experience of the Thing As A Whole, which is quite an experience. It’s a magnificent achievement, and based solely on literary merit, I would easily give this a 5-star rating. Whenever I was in sync with Rushdie’s rhythm and flow, this was a beautiful and wonderful book. But it was also so long, and dense, and difficult, it was hard not to feel like it was going on a little too long for my tastes. Although to think back on it, if you asked me what I would cut, I certainly couldn’t tell you.

The praise heaped on this book is plentiful, and practically all of it deserved. It’s an epic on par with Ulysses, The Tin Drum, or The Magic Mountain. It’s been called by too many critics to name one of the best books to come out of the English-speaking world over the last few decades. In my own humble opinion, it may not be the most enjoyable book, but it is without question one of the most important.
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