on June 12, 2006
This is, in every way, a perfect novel. Both humorous and heartbreaking. I found myself deeply moved and very suprised that I enjoyed this novel as much as I did. I have never been very interested in Indian history, and knew close to nothing about it. But upon reading this novel, I found myself drawn into the rich fictional history of the Aziz family, as well as the equally rich history of India. Rushdie may have ruined reading for me, as every book I read will now have much higher standards! Not for light reading, though. I imagine this is a book that you could read over and over and still find something new each time. This is a tough novel, and it takes a lot of work to truly "get it". The only reason I stuck with it is because I had to for class. But it was very rewarding in the end. The novel reveals itself in layers, with recurring themes and motifs that grow in extremely deep and powerful meanings. The character of Saleem, self-described savior of India, is one of the most memorable characters to have graced the pages of a novel. I have heard some people say that this book is a let down in the end, as though it never comes to a full climax. In answer to that: I felt that was the whole point. Saleems dreams are always dreams, they are never completely realized. The language is beautiful and lyrical, and the plot is highly detailed, as though each sentence was carefully planned. Rushdie may be the ultimate architect of this century when it comes to plot building. As a writer myself, I was both green with envy and speechless with awe over this novel. I have never read anything else by Rushdie, but now I definitly plan to!
A couple of tips:
1. There are many different characters, so you may want to make a family tree to keep track.
2. Pay close attention to Rushdie's use of color in the novel, particularly green, saffron and blue, as well as numbers.
3. The narrator, Saleem, breaks away from linear storytelling in a big way. Often, the story jumps around and he gives a lot of foreshadowing. It helps to let go of our western idea of time (i.e. events happening in a timeline) and just let the story unfold. Trust me, once you can let go of your confusion and just let it be, the reading becomes much easier! Also, it's interesting to consider what he chooses to tell us ahead of time, and what he doesn't.
And finally, you will definitly want to brush up on your Indian history! I'm not talking a whole lot, just an Encarta article or something so you know what's going on. Also, when historical figures are mentioned in the book, you should do a little research and find out more about them. This is especially true for the political figures, such as Indira Ghandi.
Like I said, this book is A LOT of work, but worth all the effort.
Towards the beginning of this book, there is a minor character who is an artist whose paintings have grown huge because he keeps trying to fit life into them. He mourns because he'd wanted to be a miniaturist, but instead has elephantiasis. Even though the character never recurs, I thought about him through the huge landscape of this book.
Rushdie has the eye for detail of a miniaturist, but writes in epic sweeps, fitting in countless lives and actions. If done badly, this would have been nearly impossible to read, but the execution is brilliant and instead gives the impression of a huge rich tapestry running by like film.
The book is about the Midnight's Children (children born in the first hour after the birth of India as a nation) and their erstwhile leader Saleem Sinai. It traces him (and them) through childhood, the creation of Pakistan, and beyond. Even though the events are crucial, to have an understanding of the plot won't give you any help with the book.
My advice to people attempting Midnight's Children is to not worry too much about catching and understanding every detail. Yes, knowing more about Indian history will make certain things clear (although it may obscure others), but there's so much here that it isn't really necessary. I already know that this is a book I'm going to re-read, and that will be the chance to pick up missing pieces.
One of the highest of recommends.
on April 14, 2004
Midnight's Children is considered to be Rushdie's masterpiece; it won the Booker Prize, and then, in 1993, it won the 'Booker of Bookers', ie the best book to have won the Booker Prize in the first 25 years of the award. In addition to this, Rushdie's reputation is not built upon his literary merits so much as the surrounding controversy of another book, The Satanic Verses, which all but condemned him to years of hiding and constant moving about in an effort to escape fundamentalist Muslim assassination-attempts.
The premise for this novel is amazing. At the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947, India achieved independence and became a valid country, free from the shackles of Britain. One thousand and one children were born in the hour from midnight to 1am, one thousand and one children with magical powers, the potency of which increases the closer the child was born to midnight.
The narrator, Saleem Sinai, was one of two children born on the exact stroke of midnight, and throughout the novel various allusions to yin and yang, good and evil, up and down, et cetera are made between Saleem and Shiva, the other child, but unfortunately nothing really comes from this. Although mentioned often and with great vehemence on the part of the narrator, Shiva never really came across as a 'bad guy', or even someone that should be worried about at all.
The story meanders through thirty odd years of life before Saleem's birth, detailing the lives and idiosyncracies of his parent's and grandparent's adventures, which, admittedly, are described with great sweeping motions and tantalizing literary strokes. Sentences marvel, paragraphs sing with wit or beauty, but...what was the point? After Saleem is born, events take an incredibly epic turn, as the implications of the children of midnight are revealed, but then, the narrator just sort of forgets about it and rambles on about things that, given the immensely intruiging concept of the children, just doesn't spark any interest.
The narrator is an interesting writer. He repeats reiterates recapitulates words in threes, often, and that works. He used parentheses artfully, and well. But the narrator foreshadows everything and anything, so that we are always reading about events that will come to pass, soon or otherwise, and in cryptic ways, 'He kept himself in the background of our lives, always, except twice...once when he left us; once when he returned to destroy the world by accident'. It is an exceptionally annoying literary technique, serving only to make the reader wish that events would hurry up so that the portentous-sounding episodes will occur, but...even they are marred by fore-shadowing and never really live up to the promises, anyway.
The last one hundred and fifty pages drag, seemingly without cohesion, in an effort to combine the plot-threads, to actually make the children a part of the story - and, disappointingly, they really aren't very predominant - but it doesn't work. Then, in a whirlwind twenty pages, everything is tied up neatly, the children are dealt with, and the book ends. The fantastic premise never really lived up to its promise, and the book suffers.
Is Midnight's Children a failure? No. As a story, it is enjoyable, written well, and at times, beautiful. Certain passages are crafted with amazing skill, and the narrator is a pleasant enough fellow. But the concept of the midnight's children should have been ditched - the story would have worked well enough without them because they never really played a part - and the book would have been greater as the spectre of great things to come would not have existed.
on December 21, 2000
Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" appears to be an allegory, spiced with satirical commentary, on the political course of modern India and the in-fighting of its various social and religious factions. It is an endlessly inventive book with a cheeky sense of humor and wild, exotic imagery, but it does not eschew somber moments. Rushdie presents this novel as the autobiography of Saleem Sinai, writing from his current residence at a Bombay pickle factory under the critical eye of his frequently interruptive lover/fiance Padma.
Saleem was born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the precise moment of India's independence from Great Britain and Pakistan's formation. He and one thousand other babies (the Midnight's Children) born in India throughout the hour each has some supernatural power such as witchcraft, time travel, gender alteration, etc., or otherwise is simply a mutant. Kind of like the X-Men, except they're too self-serving to band together and fight crime (and too bad, as there is a lot of narrative potential in this idea).
Saleem routinely hides in a washing-chest in his house to find inner peace away from neighborhood kids who taunt him for his large misshapen nose and other odd facial features. One day in the chest, he has a strange accident -- he sniffs a pajama cord up his nose, triggering an effect which causes him to hear voices in his head and realize he has telepathic powers. By telepathy, he establishes communication with the (heretofore unknown to him) other Midnight's Children, but they prove unwilling to unite. An operation performed on his nose to stop his severe dripping snot problem clears his nasal passages to reveal an uncanny olfactory ability, enabling him to sniff out emotions and ideas as well as smells.
Saleem also gives an extensive background on his family, beginning with how his maternal grandparents met, up to his pyromaniac-turned-singing-star younger sister. After his (Muslim) family relocates to Pakistan, almost all of them are killed in the 1965 India-Pakistan war, and in the 1971 war for the independence of Bangladesh, Saleem is conscripted in the Pakistani Army as a human bloodhound.
Eventually, Saleem marries Parvati, one of the Midnight's Children, the witch, who bears a child fathered by his arch enemy Shiva, another of the Midnight's Children, whose special attribute is his ability to crush people with his overdeveloped knees. Shiva works as an agent for the government of India, who demand to know the indentities and whereabouts of all the Midnight's Children, and Saleem is the only one who can tell them...
Like E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," "Midnight's Children" blurs the line between historical fact and fiction, weaving fantastic events against a realistic backdrop of a land in turmoil. Saleem is an extraordinary character, not a hero in the traditional sense but a deformed symbol, a vessel for carrying and displaying the problems and hopes of the people of India.
on April 21, 1999
"Midnight's Children" is the first Rushdie book I've read, and only the second one by an 'exile Indian'. I'd heard so much about Rushdie's literary talent that I went off and bought it.
At first I was a little disappointed, I must say. Rushdie's prose at the beginning of the book is clever, intelligent, witty - but it didn't touch me emotionally. I very much enjoyed reading it, but I wasn't too interested in what was going on.
Then, before I'd noticed it, I was hooked. From the moment the narrator actually became a protagonist, I was involved in the plot. Driven on by the dozens of hints and foreshadowings, I simply had to know what would happen, and I began to care about most of the characters.
More than that, Rushdie's novel is a rich tapestry of politics, magic, metaphor; there's so much imagination in this book, but it doesn't become overladen as other novels sometimes do. The author juggles his multiple plot lines, characters and his version of history and India deftly, and for me reading this novel was a real joy.
P.S.: Some readers - and critics - have complained that Rushdie's India is not really India. So what? I believe that "Midnight's Children" can be enjoyed tremendously as an imaginative, clever, involving and intelligent novel. Why look for the 'truth' in it? While some readers with a limited knowledge of the country might take this novel's geography and history as 'the real thing', I don't think you should judge literature by its readers.
on February 8, 2000
Previously, during a scandal with 'The Satanic Verses' and Salmon Rushdie's death sentence, I tried to read his 'Shame' but was absolutely disappointed and stopped reading after first 100-150 pages. Now I discern at least two of my mistakes: I read Rushdie in Russian translation and not up to the end. 'Midnight's Children' was my second attempt to understand Rushdie, I was attracted by its Booker and Booker of Bookers. The book consists of three parts: at first I was tired with author's derisive style, then I became interested in the fate of its protagonist, only at the end I appraised author's intention and mastery of its realization.
An undeniable strong point of the novel is its excellent language, a wonderful gallimaufry of indigenous words and such an amazing gamut of English that can do credit to every unabridged dictionary. Rushdie masterly wields his skillful pen, a reading of his phrases is a pure pleasure for a literary gourmet. His style is influenced by the Arabian tales of 1001 nights and - among modern writers- by famous 'magical realism' of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The novel is an expression of author's genuine love to his native India. Rushdie weaves into the intricate lace of his story all important events in political, social and spiritual life of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh since the beginning of the century. But some of his interpretations are rather disputable (the reviews of readers from Eastern countries confirm this). In depiction of Indira Gandhi author's sharp mockery turns into blind hate, and the Prime Minister of India transforms into a real devil incarnate, a fiend that sterelizes midnight's children depriving them not only of their magical gifts but the hope itself. It is hard to understand such undisguised selective rage. The third part of the novel is the best one. Relating about the innumarable sufferings of his people in Indo-Pakistan conflicts and during formation of Bangladesh, Salman Rushdie reaches the highest and culminating point of his story.
The novel is full of interesting images such as 'the perforated sheet', 'snakes and ladders' and - first and foremost - 'midnight's children'. All countries, that had passed through social disturbances and collisions, have known their midnight's children, a quixotic generation bestowed with their wonderful gifts but deprived of any possibility of their realization. Midnight's children dream that they are inseparably linked with the future of their beloved country, that they are its part and parcel with all its misfortunes and joys. They will be overcome by the persons without illusions but with hard elbows (or knees?) and jaws longing for power and money.
The last chapter of the book gives the joyless and distressing picture of 'new' India after defeat of midnight children (one more image - "Abracadabra'). But the protagonist, ending his story, leaves one empty pickle jar - a symbol of hope: the children of the vanquished are alive, they differ from their parents but nevertheless they ARE their children.
Claims of "Masterpiece! Bravo! C'est manifique!" and multitudes of roses gloriously wafting down from the expensive seats in the balcony are justified. This book made Rushdie a star. Rushdie who? Isn't he the guy who wrote that bizarre quasi-sci-fi novel about some birdguy? Yes, he is. And five years following that dabble (entitled "Grimus" which, to steal Hume's thunder, "fell deadborn from the press") Rushdie sprung some new fantastic oil reserve of novel writing and produced this utter gem. What a difference a mere five years can make!
This is a thick book. It's a very thick book. Thick with meaning. Thick with stories. Is it about time? Sure. Is it about family? Yup. Is it a political book? Well, sorta. Is it about the vicissitudes of memory and history? Probably, yes, that sounds good. Is it about India? Oh, yup. A lot of India in it, sure sure. Its bulk is impossible to summarize to any degree of fairness. Its bulk in meaning is nearly incomprehensible. Still, it all comes down to the narrator: Saleem Sinai, who, equipped with numerous nicknames and adoptive parents, is pummelled and dragged and drained through India's independence. Having been born at the very stroke of midnight (or was that his rival, born in the same room, who was the real son of Saleem's unsuspecting first set of "parents") on the cusp and lip of India's independence, Saleem later finds himself, and 1001 other children (you guessed it, the "Children of Midnight"), imbued with magical powers beyond belief. The magic of India's independence from Britain shoots forth wonders. Of course the government under Indira Gandhi isn't too happy about this, and Saleem finds himself in a very bad sort of pickle later on. These scenes make up some of the more disturbing and violent chapters (and Rushdie was accused by some of being too hard on the Indira régime). Cover your eyes! Plug your ears!
This is historical fiction at its best. There's much to learn about the history of India in these pages of pulp. Some familiar names will pounce out from the ink: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi (no blood relation to the Mahatma; she was assassinated in 1984, four years after this book was published), Morarji Desai, Lord Viceroy Mountbatten, etc., etc., the names and history they encompass pile up page after page. Saleem and his family are also victims (very unfortunate ones) of the partition of India (into India, Pakistan, and soon after Bangladesh). This event still holds the record for most people moved from one place to another at one time: 14 million people (with about 1 million dead). Then war war war, more war war, and a state of Emergency, war war. Saleem is buffetted through it all, as countless millions were. The novel brings out the complexity and bulk of modern independent India through the voice of Saleem. Make some room in your brain for Rushdie's "many headed monsters".
One of the best scenes is "the perforated sheet" in which a doctor, Saleem's Grandfather, is only allowed to examine a Muslim woman through a hole in a large sheet. One part at a time, no more, no less. One day he looks through the hole and sees a...
Book three is a wild ride which will likely evoke the response "how did Saleem get here?" This book is Saleem's "rebirth" ending with the "Abracadabra" that changes everything; as book two is about Saleem's birth and childhood, and book one attempts to sum up the events leading up to Saleem's birth (the perforated sheet will haunt).
Is Saleem an honest narrator, though? Or does he lie through his big teeth (and much bigger and talented nose)? This is one of the many tensions that rips through the novel, and questions and examines biography as well as history. Saleem only admits to lying once.
The novel has some debts also. It owes a big one to "Tristram Shandy" written by Lawrence Sterne in the 18th century, in which an autobiographer attempts to write his life and keeps getting mired in digressions. Rushdie takes the best elements of this brilliantly bizarre book and meshes it into his own story of Saleem. Rushdie himself has acknowledged the influence of Sterne. Also, some have called this novel "India's 'Tim Drum'" with its parallel stories of nations with growing pains siphoned through single characters. Regardless of influence, "Midnight's Children" is an amazing novel rich with meaning, detail, humor, love, tragedy, childhood, family, philosophy, religion, sibling rivarly, and people people people people people people burgeoning out through the lines of text like on a crowded Mumbai street. There are, in short, people everywhere.
This book is worth the effort. It may take a little more effort than expected. It's huge, it's complex, it's part history part fantasy. What it attempts to do, in a very human way, is posit meaning to events and lives and their very multifarious interpretations. It can all be found in cleverly labeled pickle jars. C'est manifique!
on August 30, 2007
Much has been written about the unique writing style of Salman Rushdie and Midnight's Children. It is hip to like it and thus call oneself a literary, and not unusual to dislike it as an uninitiated reader who cannot possibly know what to expect a priori. For what it's worth, here is my attempt to characterize the style. The book is written as a "stream of consciousness", long long long sentences, side-by-side repetition of adjectives for emphasis (hint hint hint!), use of synonyms similes parellels without punctuation or separators (again for emphasis), revealing the plot's end-game in advance yet (or thus) engaging the reader in the path to getting there, repeated summaries each to make an overarching point than to simply recollect the story so far, admitted insecurity and intermittent defense of the story's believability, and did I mention rechristening of events and characters with metaphoric names. If you could read and follow the last sentence in one shot, you are ready to read and enjoy Midnight's Children. The story-telling is hallucinatory on the surface, but enlightened underneath; deliriously exaggerated on the surface, but scrupulously balanced underneath; grossly fatalistic on the surface, but hopelessly optimistic underneath; carelessly raw on the surface, but meticulous genius underneath.
Never judge a book by its cover, judge it by its metaphors. Besides being one intense allegory, the book is a collection of the richest metaphors I've ever read in a piece of literature. Metaphors, mind you, and not its evil cousin, Analogies. Every event and character is first rechristened with its metaphoric name. In the process of writing the book, Rushdie has created a new vocabulary of words that become the best way (if not the only way) to describe those characters and events.
Spoiler alert: To pick from this new vocabulary, one way of characterizing the life of Saleem Sinai, and therefore the book, is Sperectomy: the draining-out of hope. To quote the last sentence of the book that sums it up "...because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace."
Midnight's Children is a great way to live vicariously through post-colonial India. If A Fine Balance is a bus-ride through India with a good commentator, Midnight's Children is your dark roller-coaster with ghosts popping out at you at every turn. If A Fine Balance is real in a touchy-and-feely way that you wish it was unreal, Midnight's Children is unreal in a mystical way that you will hate to, and yet force yourself to believe it is real; just like a post-traumatic nightmare, only it was a re-enactment.
on August 21, 2001
I had this book around the house for years, and, frankly, was afraid to read it. For some reason, I thought that Salman Rushdie was one of those "literary" writers that could only be appreciated by English majors. I was fascinated by his life of exile and respected him, but could never bring myself to reading him.
Then, my son David and my wife Mary both read the book, along with some of David's friends. They all raved about it. Since my family knows my literary tastes better than anyone and were so insistent I would like the book, I had no choice but to give it a try.
Once, again, they were right. The book was a joy to read, and far more accessible, interesting, and funny than I had would have expected. The narration by Saleem Sinai is priceless. The story is told mostly chronologically with just enough tangential stream of consciousness ramblings and foretellings to stay interesting. The premise (the tale of those 1001 children born within the first hour of India's independence) was a stroke of genius. The fact that I learned a lot about Indian and Pakistani history was a bonus.
The only downside was that the story began to slow down a bit at the end, but since it was essentially the story of the birth of a nation (two, actually), the author couldn't possibly be expected to keep up the fever pitch he began at. All in all, it was a great read and a great story and I, for one, will be sure to read more of Mr. Rushdie's work!!
on March 31, 2006
This book is a tome, and for its kaleidescope of impressions, one to be savored. There are some books where after a point, the length is wearying, and the last hundred pages are half read, half skimmed, the right hand fingers feeling the slimming of the pages in anticipation. Not this book.
The story is justifiably grand, the partitioning of India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the second world war and the emotional analog in the minds of the two countries' citizens. But what keeps ones interest is not the heavy politics, which for the most part remain the background as in most great historical fiction (Tolstoy notwithstanding).
Rather, it is the bridging of individuals and events with achingly tender descriptions that are burned in the reader's mind. Take, for example, two lovers who communicate only with their hands, like moths that hover over a flame--impelled by some force toward the fire, just close enough to stay warm but always in danger of being consumed. The symbolism, like self-immolation, that India is represented to outsiders and in some ways it disingenuously is to itself, that surprises and rewards the reader.
You probably won't be able to finish the novel in one sitting, but that is a blessing, in that with each sitting and turn of the page, you are refreshed with the power of language and how the unforgettable images appear vividly in the mind.