Friday, May 7, 2010
Book Review - Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
It took me a long time to get around to reading this book, though I’ve read other books by Salman Rushdie and enjoyed most of them, in particular, The Moor’s Last Sigh. I knew, however, that I’d have to read Midnight’s Children some day, and I’m certainly glad I did.
Midnight’s Children is a book that outwardly, deals with 1001 children born on. August 15, 1947, the first day of India's independence from Britain. The book deals more specifically with two of those children, however, both born in a Bombay nursing home and switched at birth. One of them belongs to a wealthy Muslim family with roots in Kashmir, the Sinais, while the other belongs to a Hindu street singer and an Englishman she happened to meet. The aristocrat, who grows up believing he's poor, is named Shiva; the poor half Hindu, half English boy, who is taken home by the aristocratic Muslim family is named Saleem, and it is Saleem who is the narrator of this book. Midnight’s Children, however, is far from being a conventional story of "switched babies." If you're at all familiar with the writing of Salman Rushdie, then you'll know "conventional" stories are not what he writes.
Saleem, of course, is given every luxury, but even luxuries can't prevent accidents, and one day, when Saleem suffers a bump on the head, he discovers that he has a gift for telepathy. It is through this gift for telepathy that Saleem "learns" the secret of his own parentage and that all of the 1001 "midnight's children" possess special gifts no "ordinary" person ever could hope to achieve. Some have been gifted with the ability to travel through time, while others can change their sex at will. Only one, however, is telepathic...Saleem.
Saleem is the "leader" of the "midnight's children" and they await his call to meet and pool their supernatural resources for the good of India. There is a problem, however. Saleem fears Shiva, the child whose life he’s stolen, the child who grew up on the streets of Bombay and should have grown up with every luxury. Although Saleem uses his powers to bring about death, destruction and evil rather than good, the 581 surviving "midnight's children" do eventually meet, but under very different circumstances than those originally ordained, and their fate is a fate to be feared rather than envied.
Midnight’s Children is a complex, complicated book and one that contains a very convoluted plot, the centerpiece of which is always Saleem. Although Midnight’s Children contains about twelve narrative strands, Rushdie does manage to bring them together and integrate them beautifully in the end.
Midnight’s Children is, of course, a "big book," encompassing many characters, subplots, metaphors and even several themes. It's also a book that is quintessentially "big city" Indian. Midnight’s Children is no lush, dreamy romance, embodying an India that never was. It's coarse, slangy and very aggressive...just like India can be. Rushdie exposes, rather than hides, all that's wrong in India, and thus, Midnight’s Children paints an extraordinarily rich and evocative, though really a rather vulgar, picture of Bombay.
Midnight’s Children begins on a rather contrived note, but as the book progresses, the story takes on a much darker quality, especially as it becomes more and more clear that the character of Saleem is a metaphor for post-colonial India. The political backdrop of Midnight’s Children, together with its mix of the magical and the fantastic are reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude and Gunter Grass in The Tin Drum, though I think both Garcia Marquez and Grass probably had an easier time of mythologizing their characters. Rushdie also employs a far more intense prose style than does the melancholy Garcia Marquez and one that's far more angry than is Grass's. This book is a veritable "whirling dervish" of language.
Midnight’s Children is definitely a masterpiece. The blend of the historical and the fantastic is perfectly balanced, the prose is brilliant (though wild and angry), there is humor, there is pathos and there is bitter irony in the book.
It should definitely be pointed out that Midnight’s Children won the "Booker of Booker's," meaning it was the one book among all the Booker Prize winners judged to be the very best. I can't decide if I agree with this or not (not that it matters). I sometimes think Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a "cleaner," "purer," more perfect book, though Midnight’s Children is certainly more complex and convoluted, and it expresses a far wider range of emotional experience. While The Remains of the Day was brilliantly understated and almost claustrophobic, Midnight’s Children is practically epic in scope. Both books are brilliantly written, so I guess it just comes down to a matter of personal taste. I love both.
Recommend: To anyone who loves great literature.