In autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe.
My only knowledge of Salman Rushdie prior to beginning his much-lauded novel Midnight’s Children was that he was the subject of a fatwa for The Satanic Verses and that somehow he’d managed to bag, even temporarily, Padma Lakshmi. His public image and the controversy over the latter novel gave me the impression that he was a dour, serious writer, and I was only reading this work because it appears on the TIME, Modern Library, and Radcliffe top 100s through which I’m gradually working my way. (It also won the Man Booker Prize in 1981, and in 1993 won the Booker of Bookers, given to the best winner from the first 25 years of the award.)
As it turns out – unsurprisingly to me, and probably to you as well – I’d sold Rushdie short. Midnight’s Children is inventive, sprawling, witty, satirical, acerbic, gross, and, in many ways, important. I wouldn’t say I loved the novel, for a few reasons I’ll get into, but I don’t think I have to love reading a book to recognize it as great literature. It is, in many ways, the Indian One Hundred Years of Solitude, not quite as compact or as immersing, but with the same combination of wide and narrow scopes while using magical realism to tell its story.
The narrator of Midnight’s Children is Saleem, born at the stroke of midnight at the precise moment that India earned her independence from Great Britain, a date that has symbolic significance as well as plot significance within the novel. The symbolic significance is obvious, as Saleem’s story parallels and intertwines with the history of India, not just as a country but as a people struggling to figure out the whole independence thing, while the plot significance derives from the fact that each of the 1,001 children born in India within the hour after independence develops some particular magical skill or power, with Saleem eventually – in rather crude fashion – discovering that he has the ability to read or even enter other peoples’ minds.
The story of the novel spans three generations, going back to his grandfather and his peculiar courtship of his wife – originally his patient, as he was the town’s one doctor, sent to Germany for his education – through his own parents’ unusual union, with each marriage, courtship, or broken heart sowing the seeds of future calamities. As Saleem’s mother gives birth, a Christian nurse with anarchist leanings switches his tag with that of another baby born simultaneously, altering not just their fates but, in Saleem’s story, at least, that of India as a whole. Saleem leaves India for Pakistan and returns after two separate exiles, leads a mental conference of the thousand and one children of midnight, becomes an ascetic with a preternatural sense of smell, falls in love with an illusionist, becomes a father and a widower, and ends up with a strange wasting disease that leads him to write down the story of his life, one that cannot be untangled from the story of India from its independence through the novel’s present day. His dabblings with various forms of extremism all lead to disaster, not just for him but for anyone who comes near him – he is convinced that he is the cause of the misery – standing in for India’s own unfortunate swings toward communism or religious hatred.
Rushdie’s prose is at once maddening and magical, maddening because of stylistic quirks like strings of three adjectives without interruption of comma or conjunction, magical in passages like this one, where he introduces one aspect of the novel’s altered reality where the emotions of a cook enter her food and the bodies of those who consume it:
And, now restored to the status of daughter in her own home, Amina began to feel the emotions of other people’s food seeping into her – because Reverend Mother doled out the curries and meatballs of intransigence, dishes umbued with the personality of their creator; Amina ate the fish salans of stubbornness and the birianis of determination.
(The meatballs of intransigence. I worked for someone once who ate too many of those.)
I’m only superficially familiar with Indian history, although I hit Wikipedia many times to check and see if events described in the novel were taken from real life. (Unfortunately, most of them were.) But it’s clear that Rushdie intended to satirize many aspects of Indian culture, society, and especially its government; his comments on Indira Gandhi led the despot to sue him for libel when the book was published. Saleem and his family – included a number of cousins, uncles, and aunts who are various shades of wacko – seemed to me to stand in for various problems or crises of India as a whole, writ smaller and often with comic effects.
I could even see this book used in a class on comic novels – I took such a class in college, where I first encountered The Master and Margarita and If on a winter’s night a traveler – because of Rushdie’s use of farce and dry, sidelong wit, including this almost throwaway line where he pokes fun at Saleem’s innocence as the character walks through a dirty city street:
…and Japanese tourists who all (on this occasion) wore surgical face-masks out of politeness, so as not to infect us with their exhaled germs;
There were a few plot twists that didn’t sit right with me, generally characters making decisions that made little or no sense to me. There’s also a passage where a magician who specializes in making things or people disappear is presumed killed, but it’s not clear why she wouldn’t have used her power to save herself; I imagine it was necessary to have her killed or removed from the story, but the manner in which Rushdie did so felt incomplete, and I was half-expecting her to resurface.
Finally, I found the meandering story of the plot, especially its jumps back and forth in time, to be very distracting, since the transitions often weren’t clear and much of the present-day content was completely ancillary to the main storyline. I thought Rushdie may have even acknowledged the nonlinear, tangential nature of the book through the voice of his main character:
This is not what I had planned; but perhaps the story you finish is never the one you begin.
But I may be erring by putting words in the author’s mouth when they only emanated from that of one of his creations. It was a tough read – not Tolstoy tough, but maybe Faulkner tough – but the creativity, the humor, and the borderline insanity of the book was remarkable, and as a window into a country and culture with which I wasn’t that familiar, it was an educational read as well.
It’s worth a mention that the witch with whom Saleem falls in love is named Parvati, while his second wife, who appears as audience and muse when he steps back from writing/telling his life story, is named Padma. So perhaps J.K. Rowling, in addition to reading A Dance to the Music of Time and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, read Midnight’s Children and threw in a reference via the names of two of her characters.
Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s frustrating, dreamlike novel The Unconsoled.