Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie [Booker Prize]

Bedazzled; bemused; baffled: reading Salman Rushdie’s 1991 Man Booker Prize wining novel Midnight’s midnights childrenChildren is a roller coaster experience. It’s a novel on a grand scale both physically (weighing in at more than 600 pages) and thematically; covering more than 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan.  It demands a great deal from the reader with its abrupt and extreme changes in narrative flow, its multiple digressions and contradictions,  its 100 or so characters and a style that blends comedy with history;  Christian with Islamic and Hindu references and almost an encylopaedia’s worth of facts.

In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and  olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them. Under Saleem’s instigation the children unite in a Midnight Conference during which they telepathically discuss options for their country’s future governance. Saleem believes his destiny is inextricably linked with that of India or, as he puts it:

I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.

Every twist and turn in India’s history he therefore reads in terms of his the vagaries of his own life and the fortunes and misfortunes of his family.  A bomb raid by Pakistan on Bombay he sees as a deliberate attempt to wipe out his entire family while Indira Gandhi’s repression and round up of undesirables, he re-interpretes as a systematic campaign to  eradicate all the Midnight’s Children who are viewed as de-stablising forces in society.

But there is a huge gulf between the expectations he believes are placed on his shoulders as the first child of a new nation, and the reality of his life. He is acutely aware of this gulf even at a young age.

Already at the age of nearly nine, I knew this much: everybody was waiting for me … had created around me a glowing and inescapable mist of expectancy…… I became afraid that everyone was wrong – that my much-trumpeted existence might turn out to be acutely useless, void and without the shred of a purpose.

As unreliable as Saleem proves to be as a historian,  we still warm to this man labouring with the burden of history on his shoulders as well as multiple nicknames that draw attention to his enormous nose (Snotnose and Sniffer are just two of his sobriquets). Impossible too not to be bemused at the bizarre nature of some sections (an arch enemy who kills people by squeezing them with his knees; a married couple who live secretly in a cellar of a house, entering and exiting through a trapdoor). And equally impossible not to admire Rushdie’s creative imagination or the vividness of his writing.

Despite all of those factors, I still did not enjoy reading Midnight’s Children. The moments of pleasure were sadly too few to outweigh the times when I felt I was ploughing my way through the reading equivalent of treacle. Too much detail (particularly towards the end when Saleem is fighting a war in Pakistan), too many different allusions to keep track of and too many twists and turns. So I admire the ingenuity and appreciate how Rushdie pushed the boundaries of literature but ultimately I was bored.

Why I read this: One of the titles in my Booker Prize project

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on December 27, 2012, in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I loved this one. It was a no-brainer because it’s Rushdie and I like his writing style in general. But I agree at times there was a bit too much information/detail

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  2. Your experience reading this sounds like mine when I read ‘The Satanic Verses’. It was such a hard book to read and I didn’t get half of it. I think Rushdie really demands a lot of his readers – and rewards them, if they know enough to get his books. That said, ‘Shalimar the Clown’ is very accessible and I really liked it. And I’m still looking forward to reading ‘Midnight’s Children’ – it sounds wonderful, although difficult.

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    • Parts of it are certainly brilliant and his imagination is astonishing. I think it could have done with pruning towards the end where it seemed to get really bogged down in historical detail about Mrs Gandhi and the Pakistan/India conflict.

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      • I think he knows so much that it’s sometimes hard for him to only include what’s necessary for the story. But I’m so impressed with him. I follow him on twitter and he is so funny!!

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  3. Yikes so much for Rushdie. I will steer clear of this one; it’s way too much work. 600+ pages and ultimately boredom. Sounds as fun as poking one’s self in the eye. Thanks for the head’s up. cheers http://www.thecuecard.com/

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  4. I have had this book on my TBR list for a long time now… still don’t know if I will ever read it!

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  5. I tried to read this when it first came out and now feel a little less guilty about rejecting the book after reading your comments. Reading was much more lonesome in 1991 compared to today’s opportunity to be part of a wide-spread reading community.

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    • Hi ‘lazycoffees’ – I confess I came close to giving it up on more than one occasion. Just at the point I thought ‘thats it, I’m done’ it would get interesting again. Frustrating novel all round.

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