Salman Rushdie, “Midnight’s Children” (1981) – “And good luck with ‘Midnight’s Children,’ heaven knows no one’s ever finished it,” Mark tells another character on one episode of “Peep Show.” Well, I did finish it, though it took a while. What did I get out of it? That, perhaps, is the sort of question that a Rushdie novel seeks to subvert the basis of (conveniently enough, the cynical part of me adds). Should literature be the kind of thing one “gets something out of” or should it be an experience in and of itself? “Midnight’s Children” belongs to the latter category, which is to say that the novel itself is an interesting experience, and also a way of saying that the ending is not noteworthy.
“Midnight’s Children” is the story of Saleem Sinai… or IS it? Is it not the story of post-independence India? Because, you see, Saleem and independent India are born at the very same time, the stroke of midnight on that fateful night in 1947 (also the year Rushdie was born, but not the date). Baby Saleem gets a letter from Nehru marking the occasion and everything. But Saleem (the narrator along with being the main character) doesn’t tell the story beginning with himself. He talks about his grandparents, how they met, his parents, assorted symbolisms and portents in his background, a family habit for being there at key moments in India’s history. The stories are told from the point of view of an older Saleem writing his memoirs and reading them to a paramour, with a lot of asides, glimpses forward and back, etc.
Saleem is very much a literary figure of his or, rather, Rushdie’s time, resembling viewpoint characters found in other magical realist novels like those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as quasi-fantastic literary recent-historical novels like those of Saul Bellow and E.L. Doctorow. He’s precocious, opinionated, destiny-crossed, bodily-marked (he has a big nose), voyeuristic, and horny. I guess in most of these respects he’s a reflection of the author and the anticipated reader- it’d hardly do to have an incurious unopinionated viewpoint character, unless you were trying something unusual.
He also has a super-power, though it seems to come and go somewhat arbitrarily. He can read minds and have others read his. Through his super-power, he comes to find out that hundreds of children all around India have super-powers, too, and all were born in the midnight hour of India’s birth, just as he was (hence the title of the book). He summons them all to nightly congresses in his mind (which now seem like nothing so much as so many meetings on Zoom, but of course Rushdie couldn’t have known about Zoom or the pandemic which forced its use back then). They don’t come to much — too many kids, too many ideas, too poorly organized — though Saleem does meet his archnemesis, the violent boy Shiva, born at the same time as him, whose super-power is to kill people with his oversized knees? Honestly, not the best or scariest power out there.
Saleem and Shiva share a secret, Saleem wittingly and Shiva unwillingly, related to their respective births and the families they belong to. There’s a lot of switching in this book, family-switching, name-changing, conversions, and Saleem goes back and forth between India and Pakistan as well. Relatedly, you get a lot about the malleability of identity and identifiers like family, religion, nationality. In one of those have-it-both-ways-and-neither-way things you get with a certain kind of literature, Rushdie both plays to the mystification of India in the western mind and critiques it- westerners are both wrong to see India as mystical and ineffable and also wrong to try to understand it rationally on their own terms. Well, it’s a big, old country. Who’s to say there’s a right way to approach it?
One way in which Rushdie is pretty conventional is in his treatment of women. Saleem claims to have been made and unmade by women every step of the way, from before his birth to his finding his super-power to falling in love with his (sort-of-not-really) sister to his misadventure in the Bangladesh War of Independence and on and on. Horniness and sentimentality combine to make seemingly all women alluring mysteries to Saleem. Is this how Rushdie sees things, or just his viewpoint character/avatar for exploring India’s identity? In the end, Saleem is nearly completely undone by the scariest Indian woman of all, Indira Gandhi. Rushdie abandons most of his literary ambiguity here and seems just shit-scared of that particular woman.
I’m probably not selling anyone on this book, but my tone is such in part because I’ve been sleep-deprived for a little while due to what appear to be medical issues, so I’m having trouble mustering up enthusiasm. But I kept reading the nearly 650 pages not out of stubbornness but out of genuine interest. Rushdie is a capable enough prose stylist, even when winking to assorted now somewhat played-out theoretical concerns, that he carries the reader along. It’s a lively book, which is in interesting contrast to the way it’s sort of a monument of world literature, something to be name-checked rather than really engaged with- “lively” isn’t the word you’d usually ascribe to monuments. Another contradiction for the road, I guess. ****’