Famous, witty, challenging… and brilliant in the way some works of genius are, but Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie pleases and displeases at the same time. It certainly strikes the reader as a fascinating work of art, technically and stylistically; one follows the life and pranks of its main protagonist, Saleem Sinai, while wanting to know where all of it will take us, and there are some crunchy bits which reward the faithful reader. But I’m afraid there is also a lot of quirky narrative during which one wonders: “What’s this leading to?” Perhaps you know that the reason for the story is the parallel between the hero’s career in life and the birth and evolution of India. The two start existing at midnight, August 15, 1947 and Rushdie intends to tell the story of his country through the prism of Saleem’s life and deeds. But I found the construction sorely lacking in actual storytelling, and if I carried on it was because I know certain rare authors can create something original outside of classic formats. I’d say Rushdie partly succeeds, but partly only. Perhaps because his chequered story follows the ups and downs of history too closely, and because fiction needs a logic which plays on another level (dictated by desire or morality?) which history cannot quite replace. The rationale of history only exists in ready-made narratives such the Marxist or the Communist visions, but precisely these are visions, not reality. Following reality and its haphazard events makes Saleem’s life become a mixture of reality and fiction which doesn’t quite correspond to either.
There are nevertheless some very interesting ideas, the first being that of the Midnight’s children themselves (all the children who like Saleem, were born at the same time as India), who are all gifted with special powers, and the stories which derive from this fictional idea, if underexploited, witness to Rushdie’s powerful creativity. Children... the generational promises which can be made to derive fom them is often a good idea, because it taps life's own force. Then there’s the mingling of the two levels of story-telling: the narrator turns out to be an older Saleem who’s telling his life-story to Padma, his future wife, and of course because of this artifice readers have connected the book to the famous Arabian Nights (there are 1001 Midnight’s Children). Still, as far as I’m concerned, even I see the trick mainly as a welcome resource that provides the story with the contrapuntal relief between (and sometimes in the middle of) the episodes, I have to admit it's very well mastered. Another good part is the opening narrative in Kashmir which centres on Saleem’s grandfather, whose influence will be felt throughout the book. There’s a powerful humour and a sense for realistic detail in this section which certainly makes it memorable (viz the hole in the sheet that becomes a symbol later for all types of discovery and observation).
I suppose if you are an Indian and know your history more intimately than I do, the allegory packs more fun and interest than there was for me. I could discover a number of references, such as the Jalianwalla gardens massacre and Indira Gandhi’s state of Emergency, but I ended up wondering all along if the cryptic nature of the references weren’t too hidden for me to understand, and on what level I ought to be reading, pure fiction or historical allegory. If Saleem’s life mirrored India’s, how much of what happened to him was a description of Indian history? And what about his relatives? What was I supposed to read in them? Same interrogation for the events happening to Saleem in his interaction with others. If you go here, you will be able to read Sparknote’s interpretations of the correlations between fiction and history, a lot of which escaped me. For example, I read (here) that Saleem stands for Brahma, God of creation whereas his “dark” brother Shiva represents destruction: well, OK for Shiva, but it doesn’t appear to me so clearly that Saleem was that creative…
In fact, if Saleem represents anything, it is a passive and suffering India. Saleem’s nose and cut finger might well signal this. The two organs, symbols of thwarted olfactory development and powerlessness (Saleem’s nose is continuously blocked by snot, and he gets his little finger cut off – Padma complains of his sexual impotence) would indicate that India herself, then, has been wronged and maimed in her development. But I’m not sure this is a very new or original historical comment! There are other attempts at sensory allegorical association, but to me they smack a little too much of forced symbol-searching. So all in all, what should be admired, I suppose (I’m saying this because of respect for the sheer feat of writing such a dense novel) is Rushdie’s skill for maintaining interest throughout. I was only rarely tempted to put the book down. One really wonders what on Earth is going to happen next, how this phoenix of a man is going to survive, in spite of all his shortcomings and the numberless events that befall him. Then there’s this mixture of fact and magic, or reality and fiction, which makes you want to try to solve the mystery… Don’t hesitate, if you’ve read it, to tell me what you thought!
PS: I haven’t seen the movie, I’ve only heard that it is sort of okay, and the criticism on IMDB are on the whole in that lukewarm direction, but perhaps because people had read the book and were, as usual in such cases, disappointed by the film. Here's a photo of Rushdie with Deepa Mehta who was brave enough to pick up the gauntlet!