Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Books in 2013: #7 - Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

For years, I was an English lit student, and I spent my weeks reading, reading, and reading some more. The Victorian classes were the real killers, with these massive books you had to fit into your reading weeks (each survey course put on usually a book a week, plus extra reading, which, being the brown-nosed keener I am, I did). I will never forget reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and absolutely loving it, flying through the pages one by one and dying to find out what was going to happen until... I hit the page that basically said, "And here Mrs. Gaskell died suddenly, and the book remained unfinished." OMGWTF you have GOT to be kidding me?!

Hated the prof for putting that on there and not warning me.

But anyway, on to other books.

In all of my classes, only one Salman Rushdie book was ever on the course list as required reading, and it's not the one you'd think: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as part of my beloved children's lit class. I revisited that book once again when it popped up in season 6 of Lost and I had to devote a chapter to it in that Finding Lost book. But even before that book, I was a book reviewer at the student newspaper at my university and I reviewed a book of short stories called East/West that was absolutely superb. And so, I began reading everything that he wrote, and along the way — probably 20 years ago now (gulp) — I bought Midnight's Children. His first book. What many consider still his best book. The one that won the 1981 Booker Prize. And then again, on the prize's 25th anniversary, was awarded the "Booker of Bookers" in 1993 for being the best of the prize winners.

But I never read it.

I read The Moor's Last Sigh and The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury (still haven't read The Satanic Verses but I heard the hype was more interesting than the book) and while there were times when I found his writing a little poppy and irritating, most of the time I just sat there taking in a particular phrase or sentence and thinking, "I will never write like this. Ever." I went to see him do a reading when I was taking my Masters in English, and it was the only time I had to walk through a metal detector and be frisked when entering an author reading. The fatwa was still out on him at the time, and it was rather stressful, but he was delightful and brilliant.

But every year I look at my shelf and think, "This year. I just know I'll finally read that book this year." And at the end of the year I look at it and think, "Dammit, NEXT year. Next year I will read that book."

My friend Sue finally bought the book, and we have this thing where when we both have a copy of a book that neither of us has read, we add it to a list and then read it together. And back in November we bit the bullet and dived in. We were going to read Midnight's Children.

And, on March 2 at approximately 11:30am (I logged it within minutes of closing the book), I finished it.

Now, I was reading other books at the same time. And Christmas was in there, and I believe an entire month went by when it was on my shelf, being neglected. But it's not an easy book to read. It's very heavy, full of satire and history and symbolism, and most of it is spectacularly written, but it's not one of those books you can pick up and put down and get back into easily. So whenever I'd pick it up again, I'd have to figure out where I'd left off (even if it was just the day before) and re-orient myself. Since most of my reading is done in the 20 minutes before I fall asleep, this wasn't a light read for that purpose.

Through the main character of Saleem (who tells the story) you get the history of India from its independence in August 1947, up to where the story ends in the early 1980s. The split between India and Pakistan, the discontent between the Hindus and Muslims, the civil wars, the caste system, the movement back and forth across the borders, is all mirrored in Saleem's life, and his doppelgänger, Silva, who comes in and out of the pages like a dark shadow threatening to break down Saleem's world.

I think most people know the big twist at the beginning of the book (it happens about 100 pages in, actually, but if you've seen the trailer of the film version, they lay it out right away) but at midnight the day of India's independence, 1001 children are born, and two of them in particular — Saleem and Silva, the ones closest to the actual stroke of midnight — are switched at birth by a woman who knows what she's doing, and believes she's testing the entire system upon which the country is based. And how their paths change based on where they end up — one family is rich, one is practically penniless — is what the book is all about, and parallels India's growth, Pakistan's birth, and the connection between the two.

As with all Rushdie books, it has moments of fabulous magic realism (the children of midnight have special powers), surrealist events, and laugh-out-loud dialogue. His characters are over-the-top, yet human, and while it did take a long time to read, I'm SO happy to have read it. It's like that moment when I finally got Ulysses out of the way (though it never felt like I was getting this one out of the way, per se).

So, this is probably sounding like a very mixed review, but I'm just being honest. This is one of those books for those who like heavy literature. Sue and I were hanging out with a group of people in January and one person asked what we were reading at the time, and she said, "Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children." The woman made a face and said, "Are you... taking a course or something?" "No." "Then... why are you reading it?" It was a question that took me by surprise, but I guess there are a lot of people who leave university and think, "Oh god, never again," and I understand that feeling. But I love reading literature and non-fiction and things that actually teach me something, mixed in with some light reading, of course. And wow, did this book ever open my eyes to a massive moment in history I knew very little about.


Suzanne said...


This review was delightful and as a former English major and English grad student myself, I could totally relight. Your experience with Glaskell reminds me of when a prof assigned my class to read the Mystery of Edwin Drood! I remember my friends and I agonizing over the fact that we would never know the answer to the mystery.

Midnight's Children had also been on my to-read list for over a decade. Maybe I will finally tackle it this summer now that you have inspired me. You have to stop writing such great reviews and books about t.v., though, to leave me more time to read fiction. ;)

Colleen/redeem147 said...

This is one that I should pick up, now that I've seen the film. I'm already interested in the history.

I think it's sad that people think books are something to give up when you leave school and don't HAVE to read them anymore.

Then again, I'm sad that so much of television is made up of reality shows.

Fred said...

Nikki, to fully understand Rushdie's novels, you have to begin with his first, Grimus, which while not he best, outlines in its plot the basic influences that appear in the rest of Rushdie, especially his debt to Dante's Paradisio.

A lot of people feel Rushdie's trilogy, Midnight's Children , Fury, and Satanic Verses represent his personal movement from India, through Pakistan to England as a (post)-colonial writer.

Unknown said...

I've just finished reading the book a few days ago and I must confess I only read it because I'm reading through a list of the 100 best books in world literature and this book is on that list. If you'd like to read my review here's the link to it: The Book Affair.