by Salman Rushdie
Wow. I have struggled for three weeks with this book and there were times I hated it, times I wondered why I was punishing myself, but now that I am finished I find myself captivated by it, stunned by the world it created and almost, possibly, missing it.
This is no ordinary book. If the mass of prizes it has won – Booker Prize 1981, James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1993, Best of the Booker 2008 – do not convince you of that, then let me. I read a lot and I assure you that this is a very different book. It most definitely stands out. I am reasonably certain, though, that I will never call it a favourite. It’s just too hard a slog.
Rushdie is not known for being an easy or accessible writer but I have read three other of his books and this was by far the hardest for me. The style is complex, rambling almost, repetitive and yet secretive, at pains to point out patterns and symbolism, to explain history and myth, at the expense of making ordinary lives hard to follow. Although, if we’re to believe the narrator (a tricky one, as I’ll explain), no life is ordinary: “How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility…To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.”
The story is told by Saleem Sinai, a 30-year old Indian man, speaking both to us (in the form of writing his autobiography) and to his lover Padma. The book is split into three sections – his family history leading up to his own birth, his childhood, and his adulthood. Unusually for me, I found the adulthood section easiest to read, perhaps that’s because I was finally fully engrossed in the book by that point. Saleem was born at midnight on 15 August 1947 – the exact moment of India’s independence. Thanks to rich parents and a media campaign he is hailed as a symbol of the new nation, and indeed as a narrator he takes great pains to draw parallels between every incident in his life, large or small, and the fate of the nation.
Which is a big story to tell. The first 30 years of independent India were turbulent, to say the least, and Saleem does not move quickly. He lingers on details, gets sidetracked by memories or lost memories, resists telling what is difficult to tell, lies even. He is quite possibly the most unreliable narrator I have come across. He admits this multiple times, accusing his memory of failing him, though he has other excuses on some occasions: “I told you the truth…Memory’s truth…It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality…and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”
And then there’s the magical realism. I have come across this before, but perhaps never quite so fully as in this book. The magical is central to the book and yet, just possibly, could be explained away as not magical at all. I will try not to give away too much, but it relates to how Saleem discovers that he is just one of 1001 children born in India during the first hour of India’s independence, and his attempts to create a community of “Midnight’s Children” and to follow all their fates. They are not all, thankfully, introduced as characters, but a handful of them in addition to Saleem’s own family and neighbours gives this book a large enough cast of characters to confuse me at times. Generally, though, Saleem spends plenty of words on reminding you of who someone is, with a string of nicknames related to characteristics or incidents in their pasts.
There is a lot of humour to balance out the necessarily harsh details of a country that suffered riots, war, police brutality and much else in this time period. Padma, our fellow listener, quite often interjects with disbelief or frustration or even contradiction to Saleem’s narrative. Many characters are described with far-from-subtle abnormalities, bordering on the grotesque, like a cast of circus freaks. Saleem’s view of the world is immensely narcissistic (he does, after all, believe his life to be inextricably linked with that of his great mother country) and yet his cruellest words are often aimed at himself.
Mostly, Saleem is a vessel through which the early story of India and Pakistan can be told. His family is ostensibly Muslim (though not devout) so that though he is born and initially raised in Bombay (as it was then called), other family members go to Pakistan shortly after its creation. The action moves throughout the two countries (three countries, after Bangladesh comes into being), with Saleem somehow being wherever the news is being created, where the eyes of the world are focused (or perhaps should be focused, but aren’t). It’s a stretch, certainly, but the whole is told in such a style that you either have to believe he is making it all up to make his point, or you have to suspend disbelief and accept it all, magic included.
As a story of India it is fascinating and I learned a lot. I was particularly struck by the resistance, almost cynical, to considering India a great nation: “A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulted into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history…was nevertheless quite imaginary…a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will.” And yet it made me want to learn more, want to go there and see the great festivals where paint is thrown over people in joyous celebration of life, where Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and numerous other religions have existed side-by-side for centuries, thousands of years even (not always peacefully, admittedly), where smell is a hugely important part of daily life (so often left out of descriptions in books, in this one it plays a central role).
But I can’t deny that I struggled, I found it hard to read. Not because of subject matter or lack of interest – the style itself is tough-going. And because of that, those times I have been asked, while reading it, if I would recommend it to others…I honestly didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer.
See also: review by The Girl.
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1981.