27 January 2012

Book Review: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

   
At last.

Midnight's Children has been in my TBR pile for about a hundred years. Back as far as 1999 I owned a mass market edition that I tried to start but I didn't really make it past the first page. In one of my many moves since then I got rid of that unread copy thinking I probably wouldn't go near it again. But then sometime in the last year or so I found a cheap used trade paperback edition and thought that I really should give it another try. And I did, and maybe got to page three. I almost got rid of the book for a second time, but something made me keep it around and then I made the really bold move of putting it into my TBR Dare pile.

I have said it before and I will say it again, CB James' annual TBR Dare is one of the most brilliant book-blogger creations around. I know there are other "reading from my TBR pile" kind of memes, and challenges, and personal goals all over the blogosphere but I think he has found the perfect balance. One, it only runs for 3 months. No one has to face the daunting prospect of a whole year. Two, it starts at midnight on December 31st so one gets to capitalize on the whole new year, start fresh, get it done, resolution angle. Three, there are no prohibitions against buying or otherwise acquiring books during that period. One can shop shop shop (to use a Rushdian construction) and still participate. And four, it really is quite effective for focusing one's attention on books (good and bad) that deserve to be brought to the floor for an up or down vote rather than languishing in committee. (No idea why that metaphor popped into my head. I guess I have been in DC too long.)

And so here I am, having finally picked up and finished Midnight's Children. You know how sometimes long ignored (or dreaded) books finally just pop into your head and say "now is the time to read me"? One can try a book over and over and not get into it, and then one day, you just know that the time has come. And so it was with Salbass...er...Salman Rushdie (hat tip to Seinfeld).

This is no easy read at times. Not only is the book chock-a-block with Indian names, place names, and cultural references that aren't exactly a part of my lexicon or frame of reference (think of all the names in War and Peace), but then add to it Rushdie's writing style and large curry-scented gobs of magical realism.
Between the walls the children green the walls are green the Widow's arm comes snaking down the snake is green the children scream the fingernails are black they scratch the Widow's arm is hunting see the children run and scream the Widow's hand curls round them green and black. [sic--the whole damn, run-on sentence--sic, sic, sic]
Granted this passage is a fever-induced-dream sequence, but it isn't so far off from some parts of the narrative that one doesn't know its a dream for about a page and a half. That makes for some tough going. But working through the narrative it is hard not to find the novel fascinating, and compelling and quite enjoyable.

The basis of the plot is that our main character Saleem Sinai is a Muslim from Bombay who was born at the exact moment (midnight, August 15, 1947) that India achieved it's independence. And like the other thousand or so children born in India in that first hour of independence he has a special power, he can read minds and telepathically communicate with others. It is through this telepathy that he discovers at age 10 that there are about 400 other surviving Midnight Children that have other powers. I won't tell you any of the other powers because that is part of the fun of discovery in the book.

Exactly as old as his newly formed country, the events of Saleem's life are not only intrinsically entwined in events of the struggling, newly independent India, but there might also be some cause and effect between his actions and the trajectory of the national chaos. I have a strong desire to learn more about the history of India and Pakistan after reading this book. (Not to mention and overweening desire for a good curry.)

There is plenty of food for thought in this book--a perfect novel for a group read. So many things that bear discussion. It is easy to see why it is on the Modern Library list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th century it is an epic tale told in a fascinating (though challenging) way.
How does this happen?
Rushdie and his now ex-wife Padma Lakshmi.

 

6 comments:

  1. Good to read what you thought since it is on all the lists. Might give it a try soon. Did not know that he and Padma were once married. Good question. Did you start out with a conscious or subconscious ode to Etta?

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  2. I had similar false starts with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And then I just loved it when I finally got going and read it. I also liked Midnight’s Children. I read it along with a reader’s guide, however, which I found really helpful in pointing out the historical parallels. I know what you mean about hankering after a good curry. Reading Rohan Mistry’s A Fine Balance also made me yearn for good Indian food.

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  3. Really well done to you for finally tackling this. It still has pride of place in the scarier realms of my own TBR pile. Mind you - visiting India last year and being so utterly mortified that I knew so little about such turbulent history shocked me into placing Rushdie's books a little further to the top of the pile.

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  4. Gosh, gee, thanks....

    I also had to start this book several times before I finally read it for a class in grad schoo. I loved it. It's still in my TBR stack, in fact, because I plan on re-reading it at least once before I go.

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  5. I actually read this with my bookclub and you're right, it became a much better reading experience because of it.

    Is it the first of Rushdie you've read? I've always been curious about The Satanic Verses.

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  6. Denise: It must have been subconscious. That song has been so overplayed over the past decade that I have a hard time liking it.

    Ruthiella: I've read several books by Morrison, but I wasn't able to get into Beloved. I might have to try again. It has been almost 20 years I think since I tried.

    Relish: I think reading this after having been to India would be really fascinating, probably less daunting.

    CBJames: I liked it, but I don't think it will go in any re-read pile.

    Alex: I have never read any other Rushdie and am not sure that I want to even though I enjoyed MC.

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