by Salman Rushdie
Originally published 1981, I read 2013
647 pages, fantasy, history
A boy and his destiny
Saleem Sinai was born at the exact moment when India gained independence on August 15, 1947. This coincidence, he believes, binds his life and fate with that of the nation. It also gave him, and all of the other children born in that first hour of independence, special powers. Will these special children become the saviors of the new nation? Or will the nation turn against them?
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It's a great classic - but why?
Midnight's Children has received mostly positive reviews, and won the 1981 Man Booker Prize, the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, the Booker of Bookers Prize in 1993, and the Best of the Bookers Prize in 2008. I therefore started reading it with very high expectations. What I found, instead of a brilliant work of fantasy, was a tedious, plodding history narrated by a victim of abuse with severe narcissism. While I found some of the psychological aspects of the book compelling and the writing style generally very fluid, the majority of the work was boring, overly detailed, and sometimes quite offensive. The fantastic aspects of the story were overshadowed by the narrator's attempt to make every detail of his life fit into the history surrounding it. In fact, nothing ever comes of the magical powers that the children have; in the end, the magical powers seem like a plot device to connect the character to the nation, rather than having any role on their own. I would even hesitate to designate this novel as a fantasy, since the disturbing psychological problems of the narrator seem to be the main focus - and there is, in fact, no way of determining whether the magical powers were real or another example of psychosis. While you may argue that this is indeed the point of the book, I ask you to consider the following points.
Not everyone has to be connected
A fault that is common in historical fiction is the desire to make everything connected to everything else. If you are writing a novel about the crusades, your main character must meet Richard the Lionheart and perhaps also Robin Hood. In real life, not everyone meets everyone and not everything is connected to everything else (unless you want to look at it from an Actor Network Theory perspective). Saleem's insistence that he was somehow connected to every major political event during the first 30 years of India's independence quickly became hollow and failed to retain my attention.
More than that, Saleem's insistence on the importance of his or his family's presence in these events struck me as offensive and psychologically disturbed. For example, Saleem claims that the India-Pakistan war happened for the sole purpose of killing his entire family and leaving him with brain damage and no memory. This is maybe how people in this situation would be inclined to view it, but it completely marginalizes the experiences and suffering of the innumerable people who were actually affected by the war. At this point in the book, I finally became convinced of Saleem's narcissism and the fact that the events most likely did not occur as he recounts.
I was even more offended by the idea that the genocide that took place during the Bangladeshi Liberation War occurred solely for the purpose of helping heal Saleem's mental injuries. Again, the idea that Saleem would be involved in the Liberation War on the Pakistani side - in the role of a tracking dog, no less - struck me as completely contrived.
Perhaps Rushdie does not want the reader to believe anything that his narrator says? It reminded me of the ending of Life of Pi, in which suddenly the narrator's experiences are presented as false for psychological reasons. In that case, why write such a long and detailed book that tests the reader's patience and stamina? Reading through 647 pages of narcissistic historical drivel is not my idea of a good time.
What about Parvati the Witch?
The other major problem that I had with Rushdie's narrative is how Saleem continually hints toward the future, a future that, in the end, turns out to not be so important. Or, if it is important, it is downplayed. For example, Parvati the Witch is mentioned and hinted at many times over the course of the book. But when she actually appears, it is as a relatively unimportant character, overshadowed by Saleem's sister. Saleem compares her with all the other women in his life, and states that he has been continually hurt, poked, and prodded by women. Parvati the Witch has the potential to be a strong, fully-fleshed, and interesting character. But instead she is mostly used as a plot device to return Saleem to India, to provide Saleem with a son, and to betray Saleem to his worst enemy. Instead of having a life of her own, she, like everyone else in this story, only exists to move Saleem's story along.
Psychology and Psychosis
The one thing that I thought Rushdie excelled at in this novel was in creating a mostly sympathetic mentally ill first-person narrator. The depiction of abuse (in all its forms) is compelling and mostly realistic. It is probable that Saleem's psychological problems were caused by the abuse. This again reminds me of Life of Pi, in which the fantastic story is perhaps created as an alternative to real abuse.
However, he falls into another trap that many authors make: there are no good characters in this book; everyone is disturbed or damaged in one way or another. While some may say that this is like real life, I prefer to read about people who show some human decency to each other, despite (or because of) any flaws they may have. This was the main reason I was unable to enjoy the book.
Why so many prizes?
I have noticed that books that contain descriptions of abuse are often considered to be "edgy" and therefore well-liked by commentators, reviewers, and prize committees. This, and a colonial bent to the judging, may explain why this book has been so highly regarded.
On the back of my copy (the 2013 movie tie-in from Vintage), a quote from the New York Times states, "The literary map of India has to be redrawn... Midnight's Children sounds like a continent finding its voice."
The Indian Subcontinent, home to over 1 billion people, cannot have just one voice. And even if it did, Midnight's Children, in all of its tedious historical rambling and psychological trauma, would be a very poor choice for it.
If you are interested in looking at more positive reviews for this book, check out the following links:
A more positive review from Tor
Another positive review
The original New York Times review
What did you think about this book? Leave a comment below.