Friday, August 22, 2014

Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

Reading Midnight's Children took me nine years after my son recommended it to me (finally got through it on the third try--but listening rather than reading). It has also taken me several days to sit down to write about it because I feel like I have little sensible to say. Even summarizing major plot points is difficult. But here's an attempt.

Midnight's Children covers 60 years in India's history, with independence--and the birth of the book's protagonist/narrator--as the fulcrum point. The 30 years prior to Saleem Sinai's birth just as the nation became independent are examined primarily from the perspective of his mother's family, a Muslim family with a share of dysfunctions equal to those of any modern American family. Eventually we reach the point at which 1001 babies are born in the first hour of India's independence; two--Saleem and a boy named Shiva--are exchanged by a nurse seeking approval from her revolutionary beloved (she believes that giving the poor Hindu child born to a street entertainer's wife the life of the wealthy Muslim boy will please him). After a misadventure at 9 years old that involves breathing the drawstring of a pair of pajama pants into his sinuses, Saleem believes that he can convene the surviving "Children of Midnight," who have a variety of supernatural powers, in his mind, which he does every night. While Saleem and Shiva quickly become rivals, Saleem believes these children will be the salvation of India. He is bereft when his parents trick him into having sinus surgery, which causes the loss of his ESP.

Saleem's family eventually emigrates to Pakistan, where his sister becomes a famous singer and he falls in love with her, assuming that, because they are not biologically related, she may agree to a relationship. Alas, he is wrong about this, and his life takes a turn for the worse. Not only is he pulled into every major event in Indo-Pakistani history, he concludes that the purpose of each event was to harm someone important to Saleem--his family is wiped out in the war of 1965, and the surviving Children of Midnight are sterilized and sperectomized (suffered the removal of hope) during the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi ("The Widow").  As he approaches his 31st birthday, Saleem is running a chutney factory started by the woman who exchanged him with Shiva as a baby. Although he plans to marry the woman, Padma, to whom he has been narrating the story of his life on his birthday, he also believes he will die that day (he sees his body cracking--though doctors deny this--and believes he will fall apart into dust).

Saleem is the ultimate unreliable narrator--he refers to himself in both the first and third persons and even admits that he is misremembering some events. He is so unreliable that I took the aspects of the book that many reviewers have described as magical realism or myth-making to be evidence that he is insane. His insanity was then, I thought, symbolic of the insanity of colonialism, post-colonial politics, and religious division on the Indian subcontinent. This is not the reading of scholars of either literature or Indian/Pakistani history, but it's what seemed to make sense to me.

Midnight's Children has won many prizes, including twice being named the best book in the history of the Booker prize (at the 25th and 40th anniversaries of that prize). It's certainly a book of great imagination and humor with a serious purpose. I feel a sense of achievement in having gotten through it--but I don't feel changed by the reading. Nor would it be likely to win the Singleton Prize if there were such a thing.

Favorite passages:
Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems--but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible. . . Am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I'm prepared to distort everything--to rewrite the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role? Today, in my confusion, I can't judge. I'll have to leave it to others.  For me, there can be no going back; I must finish what I started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began . . .

The process of revision [Laurel's note: in making chutney--and in writing autobiography] should be constant and endless; don't think I'm satisfied with what I've done! Among my unhappinesses: an overly-harsh taste from those jars containing memories of my father; a certain ambiguity in the love-flavor of "Jamila Singer" (Special Formula No. 22), which might lead the unperceptive to conclude that I've invented the whole story of the baby-swap to justify an incestuous love . . . yes, I should revise and revise, improve and improve, but there is neither the time nor the energy. I am obliged to offer no more than this stubborn sentence: It happened that way because that's how it happened. . . .

One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth . . that they are, despite everything, acts of love.

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