So I finally finished reading it. In truth, I finished the book that launched Rushdie’s career proper (Grimus never really garnered the same attention) a few days ago. I needed to let it pretty much slosh around my head for a little while before I could distil the experience down to a few hundred words.
Yes ladies and gents, Rushdie is hard work.
Not because he isn’t good. Quite the opposite. Rushdie is very, very talented and bright as a button but he’s also incredibly complex; loves detailed, intricate, literary architecture that, as beautiful as it is to read, serves as a distraction from the flow of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us first jump to the inevitable plot synopsis.
Midnight’s Children tells the life story of Saleem Sinai born at midnight on the August 15, 1947 at the moment modern India became an independent state. Saleem’s somewhat timely arrival is not a coincidence; our protagonist’s life destined to follow the ebb and flow of India’s own fortunes. Telepathically linked to the other children born in the first hour of India’s independence, all of whom have their own gifts, we follow Saleem from cradle to fatherhood as he relates his story to his lover Padma.
First released in 1981; this was Rushdie’s second novel and won the Man Booker Prize of that year; in 1993 it was judged the Booker of Bookers (the best novel to have one the prize in the first twenty-five years of the award’s existence).
And it’s good. It really is. It’s a breathtakingly ambitious allegory distilling the story of the subcontinent down to a single character’s story, a fantastic fusion of Indian and Anglo-Western culture. The observations are startlingly, brutally honest, on occasion profoundly dark and more often quite funny, the rendering of postcolonial India nostalgic without being sentimental. I really enjoyed it.
But. There’s always a but isn’t there? I have two major criticisms of the book.
The first is that this book is hauled around as magical realism. A term that is bollocks, meaningless, used by people bereft of the intellectual ability to think outside of marketing categories.
It doesn’t matter if the fantastical elements of the story are used as literary devices, or merely in line with the cultural traditions of oral storytelling in India, or indeed that the author is addressing “big” themes. The fantastic (or fantasy), if done well, does not use its tropes as extraneous dressing there simply to satisfy a fictionally simple audience but as integral elements of the story, they’re the punctuation that emphasises the rhythm, the point of the story.
I repeat: it is a valid technique for telling your story.
By couching the story as magical realism it simply makes the author, the publisher or both as literary snobs and perhaps even downplays the significance of the source material the author has so delightfully woven into the text. At best it’s dishonest.
Given the delicate craft of the story, I don’t really believe Rushdie thinks of it as anything other than a story about India, an India that contains things both familiar and strange. A place where the fantastic lives side by side with the mundane. Indeed, I can well imagine it was when considering marketing the title the positioning was moved to the more literary “magical realism”. It’s a bit like calling comics “graphic novels”; I just think this is a shame. I prefer writers who work in this area to fess up, to state that they see no reason why fantasy should be any less well crafted – no reason it should be any less demanding or less profound – than other genres.
The second is a technique Rushdie uses in the book: he constantly heavy-handedly hints at things to come. To be fair, at six hundred pages, it’s a fairly hefty read and you have to work quite hard to maintain the readers attention. But with a narrator, particularly an unreliable one like Saleem after a while it just gets annoying and for readers well versed in the techniques on display actually spoils some parts of the story. They become to easily guessed. It’s the books only flaw, the only sign that it is a young writer (remember this was Rushdie’s second novel – no one wanted to kill him at this point).
All in all I’m very glad I read it. It’s a great book by a very talented writer whose experience is so far from my own that his insights are genuinely fascinating, the world he describes both familiar yet alien. I recommend it without any reservation. But I do have a warning…or more accurately put…a recommendation on how you read it.
Rushdie’s voice is pervasive, the book the result of deep layers of construction and careful polishing. Do not try to read this book whilst on the train going to and fro from work; do not try to read it on the sofa whilst the radio plays in the background. Take it on holiday, sit in a nice bit of sun or shade – whatever takes your fancy – and just throw yourself into it wholly.
Anything less is a disservice.