Rushdie’s classic is a grand and ambitious novel spanning many centuries and many, many characters. It is narrated by Saleem Sinai, one of ‘midnight’s children’, who is born on the stroke of midnight as India becomes independent from British rule. Saleem’s fate seems to be intertwined with that of his mother country from his infancy, and his often fantastical adventures lead him all over India and into the presence of both major and minor characters in India’s history as well as those of the author’s invention.
There is much to admire in this ambitious and far-reaching book. I really enjoy magical-realism, and there is plenty of that in this book:
“My aunt Alia had begun to send us an unending stream of children’s clothes, into whose seams she had sewn her old maid’s bile… wearing at first the baby-things of bitterness, then the rompers of resentment.”
I don’t think I have ever been struck by a phrase as much as “rompers of resentment”, and these turns of phrase are scattered liberally through the book making it a novel to be linguistically savoured (although there are also many references to mucus, bile and such-like which have the opposite effect). The way that the events of the narrator’s life echo the history of India is breathtaking, and nicely encapsulated in this beautiful line:
“To understand just one life you have to swallow the world.”
I did feel as though I had swallowed a history book after reading this novel, as before reading this I knew very little about India’s history. The imagery in this book was particularly strong, and Rushdie conjures on every page the sounds, smells, sights and tastes of Saleem’s world.
So to sum up so far, Midnight’s Children is an epic and exquisitely written book. Yet, I found it very difficult to engage with. To begin with, the narrator irritated me beyond belief. Saleem is a character with little to recommend him, and as a narrator I found him almost intolerable at times. He admits very early on that he is taking liberties with the truth – beginning his narration with his grandfather’s childhood of which a lot of the events are conjectured from the briefest of facts, but even within his own story Saleem admits that the truth has been forgotten:
“‘I told you the truth’, I say yet again, ‘memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also… and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.'”
This method of pointing out within a story that it is, in fact, a story and not true is something I have come to loath wherever I encounter it – I pick up a work of fiction to lose myself in a story and not to be reminded that is all it is.
As well as elaborating on the ‘truth’ of his story, Saleem often repeats himself or digresses on a path which seems to have little relevance. This I felt distanced me further from the story as every time I felt myself engaging with the plot it was broken off with a digression. And, to put it bluntly, by the end of the novel I thought that Saleem was a pretty vile character – self-pitying, self-serving, full of his own self -importance… I know that not all heroes are likable, but I think in a novel this size it would certainly have helped.
In short, although Midnight’s Children is in many ways a great work of literature it is a book which I could only admire rather than enjoy.
(Image from Goodreads)