Friday, 23 September 2011

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

“I told you the truth,” I say yet again, “Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent versions of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

While B and I were in Vietnam, I read Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie.

(Given that we were flying Royal Brunei Airlines, which is a Muslim airline, and we had a layover in a Muslim country, this was possibly an ill-advised choice. I didn't think it through until I was already on the plane, though, and no-one seemed to notice, anyway...)

I've had this book in my collection for ages; I've loved several of Rushdie's other books, and I was sure I'd like this one. It was great to finally get around to reading it. It's won a heap of prizes - including the Booker of the Bookers - and in my opinion, deserves all of them.

As so often happens with Rushdie, summing up the plot is difficult, and I feel like I could never encapsulate the depth and richness of the story. To give it a shot, though, Midnight's Children is about Saleem Sinai, a man who was born at the moment of India's independence. It's also about his family, friends and loved ones; it's also about India, Pakistan, Kashmir, China, and the ties between them. It's a satire, an allegory, a bildungsroman, and most of all a tragedy. It's about Saleem's rise and his devastating fall.

Narrated in a colloquial, eloquent fashion by Saleem, Midnight's Children begins with him at 31, telling the story of his life because he believes he is dying. To begin, he delves into the history of his family, tracing the lives of his grandparents, his parents, and detailing their interactions, passions and mistakes. The history and politics of the country we now call India are woven in, inextricable from Saleem's family's lives. Then he is born, at the stroke of midnight, and he is heralded as a prophetic, significant child, a symbol of India as a new-born nation.

Saleem grows into a self-acknowledged "ugly kid" though - skinny, huge nose, missing some hair and part of one finger. Then, a series of accidents opens his mind to those around him; he discovers he is telepathic. He's not the only one, though, and through his telepathy he discovers the other midnight children, the children born in the first hour of India's independence. He discovers that they're all gifted like him; one girl is a witch, one boy is an avatar for war. Another child can switch gender at will, another was born so beautiful she blinded her parents and the midwife. Saleem tries to work out what their collective destiny is, but these children are still children; they argue, gossip, and cannot agree on anything, and their conference is fairly ineffective. There is also the problem of Shiva, the child born at the same moment as Saleem, who not only challenges his ideas for unity and growth, but represents a bigger, more complicated threat to Saleem's whole family.

Saleem grows, his family grows and changes. Eventually, though, at the insistence of his parents, he undergoes a sinus operation and when he wakes, his ability to connect to other minds is lost - the midnight children are lost to him. As he reaches into adolescence, his family also decamps from India to Pakistan, raising another barrier between Saleem and the other children. He has developed a new ability, though, a preternatural sense of smell that even allows him to smell emotions, and he explores this ability with mixed results in the neighbourhoods of Karachi. The move to Pakistan has other consequences for the family, disastrous ones, and the third act finds Saleem amnesiac, stripped of everything, and lost in the war between India and Pakistan.

The story continues to its fairly horrifying climax, and Saleem remains a strong, unique character throughout. While he has elements of archetype about him - while aspects of the book are defintely an allegory for India's early years of independence, or for the politics, history and social conditions of the people - Saleem's narration is so expressive and idiosyncratic, and his story so emotionally resonant and full of his own mistakes, that the allegory somehow becomes deeply, deeply personal. It's a testament to Rushdie's abilities as a storyteller; this book draws an amazingly clear picture of the time, of the culture and society of India and the people Saleem belongs to, without ever losing its emotional core.

The narration features a constant interweaving of past-Saleem and narrating-Saleem, as narrating-Saleem butts into the story to comment or foreshadow. He openly mentions the bleak ending, his belief that the destiny of the midnight children was not to save the world or run the country, but to be extinguished. And any time past-Saleem's situation even vaguely approaches a point of fulfillment, an end-of-movie tidiness, the veneer of completion is dismantled by narrating-Saleem, warning of what's to come. Rushdie, throughout the story, also dismantles other absolutes, other false veneers of perfection. He doesn't hesitate to crack apart the pillars humans tend to cling to - faith, religion, government, even family or romantic love - exposing and exploring the human fallibility and hypocrisy beneath. Despite the tragedies of Saleem's life, though, the story is also full of humour and forgiveness.

Aside from the rich layers to be found in the story itself, the other awesome thing about a book by Salman Rushdie is the style, the language he uses. Complex, unique, and, as I mentioned, full of idiosyncrasies, Rushdie is one of those authors whose sentences take a left turn you weren't expecting, who chooses words you wouldn't think would work at all, but nevertheless you know exactly what he means. It's a bit denser than your average novel, and the style can take a few pages to get used to, but I always think his books are worth the effort.

Summary/TL;DR: Midnight's Children is a great read. It's a rich, detailed story, with a satisfying, occasionally grotesque plot, and deeply human characters. Rushdie's language is amazingly vivid and full of colour, and he makes you want to go to India but worry you'll be disappointed when you get there.

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