Google Analytics

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie
Midnight’s Children (5*)

Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was judged the best of the Bookers both in 1993 and 2008. I anticipated something outstanding. It certainly seemed so in the early pages:

       “One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never to kiss the earth again for any god or man.”

Yet, several times as I read through (and it is long), I began to think of it as a four star book rather than five.   

It tells the story of Saleem Sinai and his family, and the way that story intertwines with the bloody conflicts of the Indian subcontinent. We learn about the horror of the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 when the British Army opened fire upon a crowd of unarmed civilians killing 379 and injuring over 1,200, Indian independence and the partition of Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladeshi wars of 1971-72, and the bulldozing of the Delhi slums and forced sterilization programme of 1976. Country and family are intricately interconnected: Saleem believes he shapes history and that history destroys his family. This, though, is the fictional Saleem’s fictionalised version of history: “... in autobiography... what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe...” (p270)

It assaults the senses with all the terrible noise, dirt, heat and stench of India, and its awful, heaving inequalities. There are wailing widows, midgets, giants, army officers, magicians, film stars, black burqas, poverty, illness, deformity, addiction and disability. Old men crouch in the dust beside the road chewing betel nuts, expectorating streams of red liquid into a spittoon placed further and further away, while street urchins dodge past, playing chicken. Saleem Sinai has an enormous nose which is congested with mucus and constantly drips snot.

The central conceit is that the thousand and one children born during the hour after midnight on the 15th August, 1947, the moment of Indian independence, have magical powers. One can change sex at will, another can eat metal, one can travel through time and yet another can perform real magic. Those born closest to midnight have the greatest powers: Saleem, born on the stroke of the hour, is telepathic and can read minds. All of the Midnight’s Children are able to communicate through him. He hopes that they will work together towards the good of India, but they disagree, and their powers are seen as a threat. Later, Saleem loses his telepathy but gains a hyper-sensitive sense of smell.

Saleem portrays politicians as ridiculous and corrupt. Prime Minister Morarji Desai drinks his own urine for its health benefits (absolutely true, “the water of life”; and if you think that’s disgusting you might prefer bottled cow urine instead, available from at least one London shop on the shelf underneath the naan bread; Desai, by the way, lived to the age of ninety-nine; one wonders what he would have reached had he not drunk so much of his own pee).

The Nehru-Gandhi clan comes off worst. Indira Gandhi perpetrates electoral fraud, economic corruption, wars, genocide, and the destruction of the Midnight’s Children. With them she destroys all promise and hope for a better India. She is “The Widow”, portrayed as a wicked witch with centre-parted hair “snow-white on one side, blackasnight on the other, so that, depending on which profile she presented, she resembled either a stoat or an ermine”, an analogue of her economy. Her 1975 State of Emergency brought about the suspension of civil rights, the jailing of political opponents, slum clearances and the compulsory sterilization of over six million lower class men. The sterilization programme was overseen by her eldest son, Sanjay Gandhi, who has “lips like a woman’s labia” (you will never look at photographs of him in the same way again). 

During the 1982 Festival of India in London, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had clearly not read the book, invited Salman Rushdie to lunch with Mrs. Gandhi. Rushdie declined. The lunch went ahead without him, during which Mrs. Thatcher said that she thought Midnight’s Children “a fine contribution to the Anglo-Indian cultural bond”. Indira Gandhi sat impassive and stony-faced.

The passage Mrs. Gandhi found most offensive was an accusation that she caused her husband’s death by cruelly neglecting him. She sued for libel at the High Court in London, and won. The passage was removed from all future editions. Libel by a fictional character is still libel.  

Why did I doubt the brilliance of the book? The problem lies in its length and complexity, the frequent digression, the unfamiliar cultural, religious and geographical references, and the enormous cast of characters. It is like a Victorian or Russian novel. I think Rushdie must have done this deliberately to reflect the disorder of crowded, intermingling lives. Despite him giving them distinctive names such as Hairoil, Nussie the Duck and The Brass Monkey (names which sometimes change), I found it hard to remember how they all fitted in, or to care.

I did find myself thinking about the story a lot after reading (always the sign of a good book), and writing this has helped clarify things. Having now found lists of characters and vocabulary, I would get more out of it a second time, perhaps in a year or so. 


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

42 comments:

  1. I haven't read the book. I always think he likes to court controversy in a rather naive sort of way. I have never felt inclined to read any of his books and anything that wins the Booker Prize is an immediate turn off for me in any case.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've read several short-listed or winning Booker novels over the past couple of years, having never bothered before, and have usually enjoyed them and appreciate how good they are. You have to be in the right frame of mind, though. They're rarely a quick read.

      Delete
    2. I took Howard Jacobson's the Finkler for my reading on the Trans Siberian which gave me plenty of reading time to go through it twice, and I enjoyed it. I agree they are rarely a quick read. Some I have attempted and not enjoyed at all and tend to think of all Booker prize novels as a no no, and when American authors were allowed, I was put off even more.

      Delete
  2. Again like Rachel never read the book, and all I can say thank goodness. Your in depth analysis is brilliant. I once thought I saw him in Bath when he was in hiding from the Fatwah imposed and seeing what he did actually write makes me think perhaps they had a point.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I wouldn't want to read that particular one and will probably stick with this.

      Delete
  3. I remember starting it and giving up about a third of the way through. I do always try with the Booker (this year's is brilliant) but the trouble with Rushdie I find is that his work is so dense it is heavy going I agree with Thelma - your analysis is brilliant - so much so that I really feel I have no need to read it now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought it more digressive than dense. However, it makes me think of Lord of the Rings, of which many years ago I managed a third before giving up bored.

      Delete
  4. I'm afraid that I gave up a third of the way into your critique and would so never start the book ! Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You missed the bits I enjoyred writing most about people who drink their own urine, and Margaret Thatcher.

      Delete
  5. Thanks for this honest and thoughtful review. There are many books I would like to read before "Midnight's Children". I am a little surprised that you made no reference to the medieval fatwa placed upon Rushdie because of this book by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't mention the fatwa because it was issued for The Satanic Verses and not Midnight's Children. The Ayatollah Khomeini was a shiite.

      Delete
    2. Silly me! I hope that a fatwa is not put on me for that error.

      Delete
  6. Salmon Rushdie writes some amazingly detailed books that truly capture the era they are written for. The Ground Beneath Her Feet really captured me. I couldn't understand what was happening until I realized that Rushdie was, in effect, giving us a literary 'earthquake'. Midway through the book, everything began to shapeshift and change. The downside of his books is that they are so complex and long, and the unfamiliar names require me to write them down to keep them all straight. I've never finished one and felt that I'd wasted my time, but oh what an amount of time they take!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't feel up to attempting any more of his for now, if ever, but it seems most or all of his books are like this. He is an astonishing writer but needs a better filter.

      Delete
  7. I understand that this book is almost as big as 'War and Peace' so I won't be reading it in the near future. I don't have a lot of patience with thick books unless they really hold me. But saying this I feel as though I have almost read it with your great description. thankyou,
    Briony
    x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I write these reviews partly to help remember the books and partly to help understand them. I'm more than happy if it helps others decide whether or not they'd like to read them too.

      Delete
  8. I've never read anything by Rushdie. I just can't bring myself to try. And I've read plenty of Tolstoy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rushdie's rather arrogant public image does tend to put people off.

      Delete
  9. I've always meant to read something, anything, by Salman Rushdie but never have, at least not yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was the first (and possible last) of his I've read and it is very good, but needs to be approached in the right frame of mind.

      Delete
  10. I'm so put off by his self presentation that I haven't wanted to get more into his mind and thought. But I appreciated your careful analysis, for all that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. As commented above, his public image does tend to put people off (although I wouldn't mind an image like that if it gave a chance to meet Padma Lakshmi).

      Delete
  11. The opening lines of your post alone convinced me I want to read the book. I have never read any Rushdie and given the Booker recognition he has received I feel I should. I'll start with this one. Thank you for the summary, the critique, and the recommendation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I feel quite a responsibility there Tigger. Phoebe didn't like it because it caused me to ignore her for long periods.

      Delete
  12. Thank you for your review as I have not read it and this gave me some understanding of the book. It does not sound like one I would choose to read but I did enjoy your review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Bonnie, and thanks for reading the review.

      Delete
  13. In a completely different view, the opening paragraph to the Satanic Verses was probably the most astonishing opening paragraph to a novel that I've ever read. Specifically, this line: "Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As mentioned above, I've no plans to read it but it is an astonishing opening. Like him or not, there's no denying that Rushdie is a skilled and powerful writer. I understand that the two men survive and then one becomes the archangel Gabriel and the other the Devil. The plots of both MC and SV have been described as 'magical realism'.

      Delete
  14. Like many of the others, I have not read Midnight’s Children but enjoyed and appreciated your review. It is gratifying that I knew something Yorkshire Pudding didn’t.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. An easy error to make, but none the less surprising from an ex- Head of English.

      Delete
  15. A good review. Have read quite a few of his books, including Satanic Verses. For me his is a novelist who peaked early as I find his later books less interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Traveller. We see to be in a clear minority in liking his writing.

      Delete
  16. I read Midnight's Children ages ago and liked it, but found finishing the last third or so tough going. The Moor's Last Sigh is my favorite book by Rushdie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting. In places I did find the last part of the book disturbing and felt quite angry, especially where it dealt with the forced sterilization programme. I haven't read an of his others.

      Delete
  17. Demanding readers want demanding novels rather as some travellers need a gruelling journey - down the Indian subcontinent say.
    Rushdie would be gratified to learn that you are still thinking about his book.

    Attentive readers go on thinking about The Recognitions (William Gaddis) Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon) The Last Samurai (Helen DeWitt)
    Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) The Runaway Soul (Harold Brodkey) and Underworld (Don DeLillo).
    All these writers are American and maybe that explains the ambition of Rushdie, Amis, McEwan: America is where the novel is at.
    It's troubling to learn the problems Helen DeWitt had with her editors (YouTube) who couldn't see they had a masterpiece on their hands.

    In metafiction language is as much a character as any of the actual characters; think what fun Dickens had with David Copperfield narrating the story of his birth and reporting on household conversations. How could David in utero know these things? Readers of Dickens didn't care.

    Obscurity is the garnish for demanding readers. Think of the annotated edition of Joyce's Ulysses by Don Gifford and Robert J Seidman which runs to over 630 pages plus the index: and this is a LARGE book.
    You are going to need it just to get Joyce's references, and a copy of the Critical Essays edited by Clive Hart and David Hayman is handy too.

    You might enjoy *The Burgess Variations* and *Anthony Burgess Speaks 1985: the Rage of DH Lawrence*, both YouTube.
    Also YouTube, *The Mystery Behind Thomas Pynchon* by a man who may have captured the reclusive novelist on video.

    OEigeartaigh Hamel(d) Haggerty by another name.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the suggestions. I think I can say with some confidence that I will not be following many of them up, if any.

      Delete
  18. I failed to distinguish between demanding fiction and difficult fiction.

    Toni Morrison's novel *Beloved* and Leslie Marmon Silko's *Ceremony* are demanding novels, but not difficult; one dealing with black experience after Emancipation, the other with life on a Native American reservation after World War II.
    These books enjoyed a wide readership because the writing is fairly transparent and the characters memorable.

    A lot of original American fiction is like that; I'm thinking about Christina Stead's *The Man Who Loved Children* or Carson McCuller's
    *The Heart is a Lonely Hunter* or Anne Tyler's *Digging to America*.

    Kazuo Ishiguro is not difficult yet his novels demand our attention to such a degree that we remember them long after. He deserved the Nobel, but so did Graham Greene and Amos Oz who were passed over.
    Haggerty

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a useful distinction I've never considered - difficult/demanding - and probably applies to all books, not only novels. Midnight's Children is demanding not difficult. That's OK. But difficult not demanding? - maybe The White Hotel which I read many years ago, maybe Rites of Passage which I read last year - both difficult because they are unpleasant.

      Delete
    2. Difficult/ Demanding applies to many good books with the exception of wonderful Wodehouse and thick-eared thrillers.
      *The Europeans* by Orlando Figes is a pleasure to read at the day's end, but academic history read late at night sends me to sleep.
      The novels you cited are too unpleasant to be read at night.

      As for magical realism, it has its roots in Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Shakespeare, Spencer, Dante as much as it does in Machado de Assis, Gunter Grass, Marquez and Carlos Fuentes.

      Jorge Luis Borges, under the influence of hermeticism as well as Poe and RL Stevenson, reviewed books which had never been written.
      Hermes Trismegistus would have appreciated such a magical quest.
      A statue of Hermes, the Divine Pymander, once stood in a high alcove in a building in John Street, Glasgow.
      I wonder if it is still there?

      OEigeartaigh Trismegistus

      Delete
  19. I had a quick look at your review page and it seems we have similar tastes. Our star rating seemed off, though...only 2 stars for Chariots of the Gods? I can remember loving that when it came out. I read your review and I won’t be revisiting the book as I suspect it would now annoy me as much as it annoyed you.

    Moon tiger was a delight.

    If you are up for another visit to India I would recommend A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Not sure where it would sit on the demanding/difficult scales but it was, for me, a mighty fine read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for looking down my review list. I write them mainly to remind myself of what I've read and it also helps make better sense of there books. As a teenager I would have given both Chariots of the Gods and Stranger Than Science five stars for sure. Education has spoilt them for me, definitely a good thing. I haven't heard of Rohinton Mistry, but it sounds as if A Fine Balance covers some of the same ground as MC. Probably a better future read than The Satanic Verses.

      Delete

I welcome comments and usually respond the same day (unless it looks like you are trying to advertise something).