In India, one thousand and one children are born in the hour following the midnight commemorating the country's independence from British rule. And of those children, none is more entwined with the destiny of that land thatn Saleem Sinai, he of dubious birth and a nose of astounding proportion. Discovering a psychic connection with midnight's other thousand, Saleem recounts a life both reflecting and recreating the modern history of his oft-troubled homeland.
The story is told by Saleem Sinai, who was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the same exact moment that India won her independence from Great Britain. Due to this coincidental birth, throughout the book Saleem is a metaphor for the sprawling land of India. You are forced to continually decipher the symbolism to understand what the author is trying to put forth. Saleem is born with unique magical abilities, and finds that he is able to communicate with all of India’s children born between twelve and one on that date, just by concentrating hard enough to produce the voices in his head.
The family saga narrated by Saleem is interesting enough to have been a good book on it’s own. Combine that with the magic, the symbolism, the imagery, the history and you find yourself confused, baffled and I wish I’d counted the times I thought, “I’m completely lost.” This did not make for a pleasurable read but, rather, a continual paging ahead to see how long until I’m done with that particular section. The landscape of the novel is awash with literary devices, which adds to the confusion.
I will give Salman Rushdie credit for an absolutely beautiful literary style. His smooth, poetic prose made me long for a story that made some kind of sense. Admire the beauty of this quote:
“On my sixteenth birthday, I was given a Lambretta motor-scooter; riding the city streets on my windowless vehicle, I breathed in the fatalistic hopelessness of the slum dwellers and the smug-defensiveness of the rich; I was sucked along the smell trails of dispossession and also fanaticism, lured down a long underworld corridor at whose end was the door to Tai Bibi, the oldest whore in the world….but I’m running away with myself.”
It could’ve been soooo good. But for me, it wasn’t meant to be. This may mean I am not a sophisticated reader. If so, so be it.
Rushdie has done this to me before. Tempted me with such completeness of vision, led me into a labyrinthine tome that then wracked me for a fortnight. It happened in 2001 with "The Ground Beneath her Feet." I thought this would be different. And now, as then, I feel that I am the failure. Why did the genius of this book beat me down?
Perhaps I feel I gave it short shrift, even though it took me more than two weeks to read--a veritable lifetime in my normal reading pace. This book deserves a seminar series, a dissertation, not just a dilletante's shallow perusal. I hammered on my brain trying to put all of the symoblic pieces together, but I know, know, know I have fallen far, far short.
The book's early settings in mountainous Kashmir were evocative and easy-reading enough to lull me into thinking I could deal with the rest of the book. But then: enter the fracas of Bombay, and then politics: my academic Achilles heel (OK, along with biz/economics) and one of the few things in the world that bores me to seizures.
In all, reading this book seemed like an artistic duty. An offering up to the shrine of Rushdie's import and brilliance, but one of guilt, not joy.
I figured perhaps I was missing the point; Midnight's Children would eventually deliver the goods. After all, amongst the needless drudgery there were sporadic moments of poetic clarity in which Rushdie imparts some truly beautiful storytelling.
Third time lucky perhaps things would fall into place?
Unfortunately not. My dislike spiralled with each eye-rollingly pointless chapter. Constantly infuriated by the overblown prose, inconsequential characters and hateful, self-obsessed protagonist, I struggled my way through to the end and it has left me feeling hollow.
What it did achieve was an overbearing atmosphere of disappointment. Every character is lazily introduced in a matter of lines, each new and potentially interesting sub-plot is squanderously concluded in a matter of pages. Even the children at the heart of the book's title are under-utilised and essentially pointless.
Midnight's Children promised much but as far as I'm concerned, did not deliver. While I can't say I hated it, I am at best indifferent.
If you want poignant, relevant Indian fiction then read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, a book that, in my opinion, effortlessly achieves everything this novel does not.
The style is one which I have never encountered before. It is at times incredibly rushed. Our narrator has just days to live (by his account) and in order to encapsulate everything, he states upfront the outlines, the catchphrases of his life. There are premonitions, fortunes, strange feverish dreams that only get explained later. And after the important events, there are endless repercussions, connections to previous and future events. It's like he gives you the web of connections first and only later tells what actually occurred. Even in the sentence structure itself it is Germanic in its haste, creating words if necessary to encompass the right idea. He is "beholden to what's-next-ism" when he returns to the plot after a particularly long tangent. And there are moments of incredibly powerful imagery. When he walks through a field of dead soldiers, I had to stop reading, gape in awe and reread that passage. That is what good writing is: something that hits you so hard you have to stop and catch your breath.
I'll take a cue from the introduction and mention his similarities to authors of his generation such as Garcia Marquez and Gunther Grass. As soon as that was mentioned I could see it myself. He has the same long arc, the same attention to every detail of life, and he does not shy away from the grotesque or impossible. I might have shied away from quite so much wallowing, but I can see what Rushdie was trying to achieve. Here he has a narrator who by self-description has messianic visions of his role in Indian history, and you realize by the end that he is no more than an everyman, delusional, inspired perhaps, but nothing more.
Not every page was easy to get through, but the writing was addictive, the imagery intense. I think I have enough of a sense of Rushdie that I don't need to read more, but I'm certainly glad I spent a week or two on this fine book.
In fact, all over the new India, the dream we all shared, children were being born who were only partially the offspring of their parents - the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream. - from Midnight’s Children, page 132 -
The novel is allegorical, narrated in the first person, and spans more than sixty years from before Saleem is born until he is thirty years old. Saleem’s voice is arrogant, satirical and tangential.
Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately this makes the stories less juicy; so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal. Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted press on. - from Midnight’s Children, page 62 -
Although difficult to follow at times, Rushdie’s sense of humor was one of the aspects of the novel I enjoyed.
Poor Padma. Things are getting her goat. Perhaps even her name: understandably enough, since her mother told her, when she was small, that she had been named after the lotus goddess, whose most common appellation amojngst village folk is “The One Who Possesses Dung.” - from Midnight’s Children, page 20 -
Despite these light moments, Midnight’s Children is not a light read. I really struggled to finish this book - and my feelings about it are mixed. Rushdie’s prose is full of symbolism, analogies, magical realism and the complex history of India. The book has multiple themes (the individual vs. the masses and destruction vs. creation to name two). It is also full of numerous characters - some minor, some major and everything in between. I often found myself scratching my head trying to understand it all.
Important to concentrate on good hard facts. But which facts? One week before my eighteenth birthday, on August 8th, did Pakistani troops in civilian clothing cross the cease-fire line in Kashmir and infiltrate the Indian sector, or did they not? In Delhi, Prime Minister Shastri announced “massive infiltration…to subvert the state”; but here is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, with his riposte: “We categorically deny any involvement in the rising against tyranny by the indigenous people of Kashmir.” - from Midnight’s Children, page 387 -
Rushdie is obviously brilliant. He knows how to tell a story. And yet I did not really enjoy reading this book and there are very few people to whom I could recommend it. If you are a person with some understanding of Indian culture and history and who loves symbolic stories filled with elements of magical realism, you might want to give Midnight’s Children a try. I am told it is one of his more accessible novels. If that is true, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more Rushdie in the near future.
I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clockhands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world.
The only question in my mind from that point was whether Rushdie could sustain that magical voice through over 500 pages. The answer is yes. This is one of the most impressive and immersive books I've read in years. The prose style is as lyrical as a Margaret Atwood but with something I've missed in those books of hers I've read. Something missing in almost all books stamped as literary fiction--a sense of humor. The book has touches of modernist techniques and styles I'd often find off-putting, particularly of the TMI, scatological, Rabelaisian kind that usually makes me wrinkle my nose, along with a protagonist and narrator who, if not exactly unsympathetic, you couldn't by any means call a hero. Rushdie gets away with it because he gave Saleem Sinai a beguiling voice. Rushdie says in the introduction he was trying for a tone "comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous" but with more than a touch of pathos. He succeeded. And in pairing his often hapless comic character with modern independent India Rushdie managed to give me a sense of the country and the forces that pushed and pulled the nation and its individual people.
I've been aware of Rushdie as a celebrated writer for decades, and whenever I've heard him quoted have found I've liked him for what he's said. A guy celebrated by the literati with the ability to admit he's a fan of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and her character Severus Snape? But it made me feel some trepidation about trying him--both the stellar literary reputation and that I liked his persona. What if I was disappointed? All I can say is my one disappointment is that I didn't read him years ago. I have a lot to catch up on now.
I couldn't stand it. An absolute drag to read, an immensely frustrating writing style, and the worst case of a wasted idea I've seen since Philip Jose Farmer's "Riverworld" series (although I wouldn't compare them any further than that; Rushdie may not be to my tastes, but he knows how to write, whereas Farmer had trouble stringing a sentence together).
"Midnight's Children" is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism, following the life of Saleem Sinai, a Muslim child born in Bombay at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 - the exact moment that the nation of India came into being. This coincidence of birth grants Saleem, and 1000 other children born between the hour of midnight and one o'clock, with various supernatural powers. One can teleport through mirrors, one can see through time, one can change his size, one can fly, one is a werewolf, one is a magician, and so on. Saleem himself, the eldest of the children, can read minds and communicate telepathically, and so he sets himself the task of uniting the children into what he calls the "Midnight's Children Conference," to discuss their purpose and destiny, and determine what to do with their powers.
I've never been a fan of superhero stories, but I found this to be unconventional enough to be an awesome idea, partly because it was in India rather than the USA, and partly because their powers were allegorically linked to the existence of the nation itself. I was quite disappointed, then, to find that less than two or three chapters are devoted to Midnight's Children, and other than Saleem, only two other Children are remotely close to being major characters. The vast majority of the book is typical literary fiction: growing up, falling in love, a backdrop of great events, weddings, deaths, family, epiphanies, blah blah blah, all wrapped up in Rushdie's tiresome writing style, which is particularly thick and impenetrable, every sentence dripping with awareness of its presence in a piece of literature.
Towards the end of the book, during India's Emergency, most of Midnight's Children are rounded up and imprisoned by the despotic Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, and surgically robbed of their superpowers and their ability to reproduce. Rushdie's argument is that Indira was filled with a lust for power bordering on godhood, and sought to eliminate the only people who were actually close to godhood, threatening her own ambitions. This would have been more tragic, and made a lot more sense, if Midnight's Children had actually featured in their own novel beyond a couple of chapters. Such a waste! Such a fantastic idea, so irresponsibly squandered! 1001 children with superpowers, growing up alongside India, with conflicting powers and beliefs and agendas - forming factions, some fighting each other and some working together, some offering their services to the state and others trying to bring it down, splinter cells, defections to Pakistan, villains and heroes, betrayals, friendships, rivalries! The classic superhero story, set in the fascinating nation of India, flowing from the pen of a gifted master of literature! Now that would have been a novel!
Instead we get pages and pages about the backstory of Saleem's grandparents, and his schoolboy experiences, and his mother's affair, and dozens of other banal and boring plot threads. And all the while I'm plodding along with that carrot of speculative fiction dangling in front of my face, just out of reach, Salman Rushdie sitting on my back coaxing me along, faithful old donkey, what a delicious carrot it looks, come on now, nearly there, and all of a sudden it's the end of the book and Rushdie snatches the carrot and flings it into the distance, never to be seen again. Not cool.
Saleem tells the tale of his pathetic, turbulent life; a life he needs to tell about before he breaks into pieces as he can already feel the cracks forming. He tells the tale of a half deaf, cucumber snot nosed boy living someone else's life. For almost thirty-one years he rides the waves of India's political ups and downs and those of his family as well.
I can't tell you if I like this book as I still don't know. Too many times I wanted to put it down and walk away completely but then I would think about it again and pick it right back up. It is a difficult read, very dense and written in a way that made me reread sentences before they would make any sense.
It is hard to like Saleem, I found him rather whiny and his childhood nickname "snot nose" suits him in more ways than one, but not hard to want to find out where his life takes him and what the ending will be. There were parts that I laughed at and parts that made me cringe. I guess that's the sign of a good book when you feel strong emotions like wanting to hurl the book across the room but at the same time need to know the ending.
Framed as a lengthy oral history that Saleem relates to Padma, his long-suffering fiancée, Midnight’s Children is nothing short of a masterpiece of modern story-telling. Within its sprawling structure, Salman Rushdie manages to piece together a multi-generational saga of Saleem’s family dating back to his maternal grandparents along with eyewitness histories of the first 30 years of independent countryhood for India, Pakistan, and, eventually, Bangladesh. For someone to even conceive of completing such a massive undertaking in a single volume is impressive, but for the author to have actually succeeded in accomplishing that feat is truly remarkable. This is a novel crammed full with enough erudition, wit, drama, social and political history, pathos, tenderness, cruelty, and, above all, true humanity to fill three ordinary novels. That it won a Booker Prize—as well as “Best of Booker” Prizes on two subsequent occasions—is hardly surprising.
It has been noted elsewhere that Midnight’s Children inherited parts of its narrative style (e.g., the use of magic realism elements and allusion, the creation of dense, multi-layered stories) from writers like James Joyce, Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez, and Thomas Pynchon. That may be true, but it is certainly no detraction because this novel clearly stands on its own as a significant work of fiction. To be sure, it is neither an easy nor a quick reading experience; the author has packed it with so many characters, vignettes, and veiled historical references that I do not presume for a moment to have understood every detailed nuance of what I read on the first pass. (In fact, I found myself referring to an eight-page annotated list of characters that I got from a different source just to help keep track who’s who in the book.) Through it all, though, I found Rushdie’s prose to be well-crafted, engaging, and beautifully rendered. This is a thought-provoking and moving tale that will stay with me for a long time.
For a book filled with symbolism and references to gods and myths unfamiliar to many Western readers, it is surprisingly accessible. Rushdie helpfully interprets much of the symbolism for the reader through Saleem's explanations of the significance of names, numbers, and events to the more literal minded Padma.
I often read reviews of other books where the reviewer observes that the book would have been better if it had been edited to a shorter length. Although Midnight's Children is a long novel, its length seems just right. The novel is carefully constructed, and every part serves a purpose. I read the 25th anniversary edition, and didn't read the author's introduction until I had finished the book. In the introduction, Rushdie gives credit to his editor for advising him to write out a redundant character and for helping him to re-work a complicated part of the story to make it easier for readers to follow. I admire Rushdie for acknowledging his editor's part in shaping the work. This behind-the-scene glimpse gave me an even greater appreciation for the book's structure.
Grounded as it is in the history of India, this would be a good choice for historical fiction readers who want to try something outside their usual genre.
How? It's an alchemy of magical realism, a narrator who carries with him a certain amount of admitted unreliability and a character who serves to remind our narrator that there are interested readers attempting to get through a story. Painted on the canvas of postcolonial India with a brush under the direction of Salman Rushdie, this all comes together and becomes a worth-while endeavor.
Rushdie's writing is actually very funny & endearing. He paints an idiosyncratic picture, the story moving forward by a series of small events, never long passages of descriptive text, building up a vivid image of the setting by inference & suggestion. It's effortless reading in which you suddenly realise you've learnt so much without having to take anything in.
He builds up a picture of India amazingly, diving straight in but never excluding the western reader. He explains just enough of culture & language for you to be a part of his story without feeling like a tourist. Unlike some novels I've read set in foreign parts, you don't strain your inner eye trying to imagine the setting, you are simply there.
I am generally a fan of page turners, I like to be thrown from scene to scene & desperate to read just...one...more...page.... but this is one where you're along for the ride. I find myself reading it really slowly, but in a good way, enjoying every sentence. I was surprised when I realised how little I'd read in a week! It's very thick prose that gives you the impression of having eaten more than you actually had on your plate.
An untrustworthy narrator overly full of himself, a wandering narrative, a story full of bizarre elements that never manage to engage ... Tragedy without pathos, almost unrelieved by comedy. Filled with bald foreshadowing that drains the plot of tension, a novel you can easily substitute with googling the history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Only the loose framing story inspired my interest, though I read all the way to the end. I'll keep reading positive reviews in hopes of feeling it was worth it.
Edit: ... from which I gather the point is that India's politics and culture are too foreign to the Western mind, thus requiring a magic realism approach. Does the fizzling out of those elements represent a discarding of India's mystical past as it embraces a Westernized future, or abandonment of the early promise its independence extolled? It's up to the reader to decide. The individual's contribution to the history of his nation is another theme; whether any one person can affect the course of the whole, in a nation of a billion people. Worthy messages, and I'll allow they are well presented, but it still didn't make for a pleasant reading experience.
I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. At first, I found Rushdie's prose a bit wordy, and I'm not a big fan of magical realism. But once the secret of Midnight's Chidren was revealed, I was hooked and found this book hard to put down. I was also intrigued because Rushdie himself was born in 1947; to what extent did political and economic events shape him? How much of his story is embodied in Midnight's Children?
This book is on the shortlist for this year's "Best of Booker" award, having already been recognized as the "Booker of Bookers" on the 25th anniversary of the prize. It's a a noteworthy book and one I'm glad to say I've read.
Essentially the book is political criticism of the Indian government´s (lack of) statemanship since the country´s independence in 1947 written by a Bombayian muslim who culturally is an anglo-indian. His question is: How can the leaders of a country with such huge amount of resources to draw on fail? Even worse; Of all the gifts to choose from (cultural heritage, natural and human resources) how can they still draw mostly on the Shivanian forces??? Even if the stripping off the corrupted is complete, this is not a depressing book, There is hope; This is India; Even Shiva is double-faced.)
"Politics children; at the best of times a bad dirty business."
" I have been at the mercy of the so called gentler sex. Is not mother India, Bharat Mata, thought of as a female?"
"India is Indira , Indira is India"
"Shiva engaged in political chit-chat, and declared himself a firm admirer of Mrs. Gandhi."
"Was Shiva´s explosion into my life truly syncronous with India´s arrival at the nuclear age?"
"He (Shiva major in Indira´s army) could be in hell or the brothel down the road"
" I smelled the ghost of ancient empires in the air."
"I inhaled once again the sharp aroma of despotism"
But it is so much more. Rushdie´s style could be the offspring produced by a marriage between Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Wodehouse and the authors of 1001 night. The satire is Swiftianly sharply stinging, is certainly carried by fantastic figures, the story is interspersed with Dickensian romance and Wodehousian twisting of simple ordinary language that create new notions that comes so surprisingly you laugh out loudly before you can consciously register what the humor is. Add then the 1001 timeless adventure to the notion of an old nation becoming a new nation, and set a master-pickler to make chutney of the fate of the gifted children born that same independence day at the stroke of midnight. Rushdie´s language can like every other author´s words be reduced to white pages dotted with black, but once you start reading, whether you are interested in politics or not, whether India interests you or not, you will (double)swiftly be carr(y)ied off on a saffron and green-pea-green color (the color of rareness and naivity of Saleem´s voice) into a story that soon casts shadows in all flavours and equally rapidly mounts above both politics and nationality.
"He was a child of a father who was not his father, but also the child of a time which damaged reality so badly that nobody ever managed to put it right again."
Only Rushdie could; "Reality can have metaphorical content: that does not make it less real" Saleem Sinai, the Monkey´s brother´s odyssey through time and space, through a journey where only one object follow him through the whole story; A poet´s (his mother´s lover) spittoon inlaid with lapiz lasuli..... Do not let your "muscles of disbelief" lead you astray if some of the metaphors are lost on you at first encounter. "Saleem Sinai learned that Picture Singh and the magicians hold on reality was absolute; they gripped it so powerfully that they could bend it every which way in the service of their arts, but they never forgot what it was." "Chrishti Khan had permitted the ultimate solecism of permitting his illutionist expertise to unfeet his real life; he was not popular in the ghetto".
"To pickle is to give immortality". Rushdie has followed his own rule well enough and have but "changed the flavour in degree, but not in kind" in his project of embalming. You do not need to have Saleem Sinai´s nose to smell the "authentic taste of truths that despite everything is the acts of love". Do not, like me, put the book off for ages because India or politics or none of them is your first priority right now.....
Midnight's children is regarded as a classic, and deservingly so. I cannot help but contrast it with 'A Fine Balance' which I so recently read. Both are brilliantly written, inspiring books that intricately intertwine with India's tumultuous history. Yet they are as different as night and day. Midnight's children, although similarly passing through some quite dark hours of history, does not have the deflating, depression quality that the other book has. If anything Rushdie's writing shows symptoms of the 'disease of optimism' that his characters and his country so often succumb to in the novel. Despite the flawed narrator Saleem's neverending series of mishaps and his sense of inevitable doom, I couldn't help but feeling upbeat throughout this novel.
Part of what makes this book so interesting is that it combines history with fantasy. Not just in the usual sense of historical fiction, but in a more magical, mystical sense. I won't go into detail but this makes this book a delight to read. The first person narration is quirky, racing forwards and backwards and admittedly suffering from errors of memory and chronology but never too off-beat so as to get confusing (or rarely so).
Yet another book I highly recommend. Look forward to reading more of Salman Rusdhie's work in the future.
The novel begins at the stroke of midnight 15 Aug 1947, we are in Bombay and witness to the birth of one Saleem Sinai which coincides with the exact moment of India's independence from British colonial rule and the creation of the new state, Pakistan. Within that magical hour of midnight a thousand other children were born. Gifted with extrasensory powers, they are midnight's children, and as destined, their fate will be intertwined with that of their country. Sinai's own gift is his oft-ridiculed ugly nose through which he can “smell”his way into other people's thoughts. This is how he learns about many things including certain dark secrets such as the realization that he was not who he thought he was.
Sinai here, is a storyteller and from him, we travel across time, from his grandparents' romance up to his own 31st birthday, and across India and Pakistan during this tumultous and exhilarating infancy phase of the two nations. We are carried away in a hallucinatory and dizzying fashion into the midst of great events and conflicts, into the minute but never boring details of people's lives --- his own family's, his neighbors, into the minds of politicians and millitary leaders, into the enlightened conferences he holds mentally with the other magical children, into his roller-coaster incredible life when he leaves for Pakistan and later, on his return to India. Rushdie's prose is vivid and intensely sensory, with a stark humor that is underlined with sensitivity, and throughout, characterized by rich metaphor and an extreme and superb playfulness with words and expression which only the best of writers dare or are able to do.
This book is a grand celebration, an indictment, a history, a biography, a metaphor, a literary tour de force. Rushdie, in this tale, brings magico-realism, as well as non-linear narration to another level. Either you will love this book or hate it, and intensely either way. I loved this book even better than One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I thought was difficult to top when I read it two decades (!) ago. Why I waited this long to read this book, I honestly don't know.
Once I got to a certain point, a bit before the halfway mark, however, it turned into a completely different kind of story than I was expecting. Magical realism! In India! Once that fact was established, it was a quick read. I really should've known, though. It is, after all, Salman Rushdie. Magical realism is his genre.
There is an incredibly rich, detailed, complicated story at work here. Tons of interesting characters (just try and keep track of them!) and none of them seem transparent or under-developed.
Midnight's Children was well worth the initial time-investment. I highly recommend it. A side-benefit was that my nascent fascination-obsession with India grew by leaps and bounds!