Mar 20, 2008

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Saleem Sinai, our narrator, was born on August 15th, 1947, just as the clocks stroke midnight. This is the exact moment of India’s arrival to independence, and he, along with all the other children born between midnight and one in the morning that day, has extraordinary powers. Some of the Midnight Children can fly, others can change their sex at will, others have the power of true sorcery, and yet know the secrets of alchemy. Some dazzle others with their superhuman beauty; others can travel in time or multiply fishes. Saleem’s gift is the most powerful of them all: he can see into the hearts and minds of men.

Saleem tells the story of his life – which is also the story of his true-twin, India – to his lover Padma. The story begins thirty years before he is born, when his grandfather returns to India after studying medicine in Germany and meets his grandmother in a very original way. The first section of the book is devoted to the lives of Saleem’s family before his birth. In the second and third sections, Saleem’s childhood and early adulthood are intertwined with the life of the newborn country: the formation of India and Pakistan and his birth, the war between India and China and the marital problems of his parents, the tumultuous relationship between Pakistan and India, which eventually led to war, and his exile, the emergence of Bangladesh and Saleem’s experience with death and loss, Indira Gandhi and the state of Emergency and his downfall.

I really liked the Arabian Nights-esque device of having the story being told by the narrator to his lover. The writing style is very much reminiscent of oral tales, and Padma’s interruptions are interesting and colourful. There aren’t all that many authors that can pull off that sort of rambly storytelling style successfully, but Salman Rushdie is no doubt one of them.

I have to say that I have somewhat mixed feelings about the term "magic realism". It seems to me that sometimes it is used as an attempt to, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, give Fantasy a bath, dress it up in a suit and tie, and take it to a cocktail party to be introduced to Respectable People. Take a look at this wikipedia definition, for example: magic realism (or magical realism) is an artistic genre in which magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even "normal" setting. This is not very helpful as far as definitions go, because the exact same thing could be said of urban fantasy. This definition would only successfully distinguish magic realism and fantasy if we exclusively considered alternative world fantasy, but that would be a very narrow, and thus misleading, definition of fantasy.

But on the other hand, there is a very specific storytelling mode that I find in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Daniel Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer to an extent, and Salman Rushdie, and magic realism is as good a term as any to describe it. As I was reading Midnight’s Children, I asked myself: what is it exactly that makes this storytelling mode so distinctive? The answer that I came up with may not be entirely adequate, but here it goes anyway: for me, in a book like Midnight’s Children, suspension of disbelief works differently. It is a book in which, like in a fantasy, we are told things that go beyond the boundaries of the real. But, unlike in a fantasy, we do not necessarily take them at face value. We do not necessarily trust the teller of the tale (of course that there can also be fantasies in which this is also the case, but bear with me). We go along with the story, yes, but there is a subtle understanding that, in the world of the story itself, the extraordinary events are perhaps metaphorical, are maybe a way to convey a mood or a feeling that could not otherwise be conveyed. Saleem is a narrator that constantly challenges the reader’s faith in his accuracy. For example:
…But now Padma says, mildly, ‘What date was it?’ And, without thinking, I answer: ‘Some time in the Spring.’ And then it occurs to me that I have made another error – that the election of 1957 took place before, and not after, my tenth birthday; but although I have racked my brains, my memory refuses, stubbornly, to alter the sequence of events. This is worrying. I don’t know what’s gone wrong.
She says, trying uselessly to console me: ‘What are you so long for in your face? Everybody forgets some small things, all the time!’
But if small things go, will large things be close behind?
There are many other instances in which he tells Padma (and the reader) that even though what he is about to tell is unbelievable, they must believe him, and interestingly enough this plea tends to have the opposite effect. It’s not that it boycotts the story, it’s not that it makes it any less engaging, it’s just that it changes the way in which it works. We become more aware that we are witnessing a process that is akin to mythmaking.

Other things I liked about this book: the many references to Hindu mythology even though Saleem’s background is Muslim, the points that were made about freedom and oppression, poverty and inequality, and the dangers of religious extremism, the colourful portray of Bombay and of Indian culture (or cultures) in general. I also loved the way the second part of the book in particular recreated the world of a child so successfully. Saleem grows up in a villa in Bombay, and his description of his own experiences and of the way he, as a child, understands the lives of the adults who surrounded him, plus his discovery of his telepathic powers and his description of his first crush on a girl named Evie Burns, were my favourite parts of the book.

In the third section of the book, the story becomes very overly political, and I saw that Rushie’s harsh portrait of Indira Gandhi and her policies caused some controversy. Some of the things described in the book are pretty horrific, but I have to say that I simply don’t know enough history to judge whether or not Rushie was being too harsh. This book made me want to learn more, though, and that can only be a good thing.

There is much, much more to the book, and I fear that I am not making it justice. It’s just one of those books that encompass innumerable different things. If you got ten people who all agreed that it was a great book in a room and asked them to tell you why, I’m sure they would come up with ten different reasons why they loved it. To sum it up: I found Midnight’s Children an original, engaging and stimulating book, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history, different cultures, myths or simply good stories.

Other Opinions:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books


  1. I'm glad this was "one of those books" for you. I actually noticed this morning that you had crossed this off and thought--how could I have missed the review. :) Too early I guess.

    I loved this book. I read it in a post-colonial lit course a few years ago and we certainly had plenty to talk about in 3 weeks (3 hours a week). We talked a lot about whether or not this book even qualifies as magic realism and what the term means and a lot about the historical symbolism and the repression (and of course the post-colonial influences). I have been meaning to read more Rushdie, but I'm afraid that what ever else I read won't live up to my expectations.

  2. Wow. What a profound, engaging review! I agree that magical realism is difficult to define especially if books have so much to express through words alone. Ah, this is a book that I cannot miss. You have convinced me, Nymeth, to once again add another book to my increasing list of future reads. Thank you.

  3. I've long wanted to read Rushdie, but something happens and I get intimidated or life gets in the way. You've made this one sound FANTASTIC. I think I'll make a more concerted effort to get to The Satanic Verses. It's been on my shelves for years. And come to think of it, I might have Midnight's Children in TX. Maybe my mom can send it to me. :)

  4. Ahhh...yet another one that I HAVE to add to the reading list. This one sounds like something that I need to add to the Once Upon a Time list. Totally agree with you on your magical realism discussion. It's something that's really hard to define and clarify...but it's something that you sort of know when you see...sometimes. :p I'll be reading (hopefully) Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude later in the year. I've heard that's a good example of magical realism.

  5. Trish: I can imagine how interesting those discussions must have been! There's certainly lots to talk about in this book. I've read one other Rushie book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which is directed at younger readers. It is of course very different from this one, but I thought it was very very good. It would be perfect for Once Upon a Time, actually!

    Orchidus: Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.

    Andi: I think you would enjoy Rushdie's writing. I want to read The Satanic Verses next, or maybe The Ground Beneath Her Feet (a rock and roll retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice - How can it be anything but great?)

    Chris: This would be good for the challenge, yes. Magic realism is tricky, especially because it's not seldom that you see people using the word to describe a book because they want to make it sound "respectable" and can't bring themselves to say that dirty, dirty word, "fantasy". For example, I have seen people call American Gods and Neverwhere magic realism. I think Neil would be the first to unashamedly say that they are good old fantasy. I hope you enjoy A Hundred Years of Solitude! I know that some people have trouble with it, but I loved it. And it's definitely a good example of that way of telling stories that I was trying to define.

  6. That is wonderful what Pratchett said about magical realism.
    I need to give Rushdie another try. I read Shalimar the Clown which I enjoyed but then I tried The Satanic Verses and could barely get through the first thirty pages (put that away). From what you've said about this book, I think I'd like it a lot. So it's going on my list :)

  7. Magical Realism always seems to me a pretty way of saying "fantasy" -- or exoticizing the works of non-Anglo-centric works of literature that does not subscribe to the established form of "realism".

    I'm writing as though I'm back in school and trying to hand up an essay on "Magical Realism." Blah.

    But one way of looking at Rushdie is how he explores the idea of History. This is the history of India -- but who writes history? The victors, the survivors -- and they tell the story from their own point of view, whitewashed with their own agenda.

    History isn't about truth, but rather it is another form of narrative, of story-telling. I believe Rushdie is very aware of this. So he chooses the structure of the mother of all stories -- Sheherazade -- for his "history" of India.

    Because who defines India? Just a group of powerful men who one day decides to draw lines on a map, and a country is born.

  8. I am still a bit confused over the definition of magical realism, tho I just gave up on a book that seems to fit that term- a wandering, beautifully described dreamlike fantastic thing. Thinking more about it, could Kafka's works be considered magical realism, too?

  9. Iliana: Isn't it? It made me laugh out loud. I hope you enjoy this one. His style can be hard to get into, but I think once you get used to it the story flows with ease.

    Dark Orpheus: That is an excellent point. History is definitely written by the winning side, and it is a very partial view of things. You are very right that Rushdie explored the notion of history as storytelling brilliantly in this book.

    Jeane: I have seen people refer to Kafka as such, yes. I think it's difficult not to be confused about what magical realism is exactly. I doubt that even the people who came up with the term would be able to say for sure. Which isn't to say that it can't be a useful label sometimes.

  10. I'm really glad you enjoyed this as well. I know it does get political near the end, but I thought it fit the story well and explained how he got to meeting Padma. I did have trouble with the writing style at first, but after a while it seemed really natural.

  11. Rhinoa: I did love the bit when Padma goes "That's me!" And yes, the style does take some getting used to...but I agree that once you do, it feels very natural.

  12. thanks for giving me this link - I agree with much of your review, but still, it really didn't work for me ... I'm really quite sad about it, as I WANTED to really love it

  13. i don't know how i missed your review of this book.. midnight's children is my FAVORITE book and i cant stop talking about it.. i totally loved your review:) have you read enchantress of florence? i am reading it now and totally loving it..:) i think magic realism takes on a whole new meaning in that book..

  14. Lovely movie & heard such music after ages! Def worth watching in the theatres. Superb acting by Ronit roy, rahul and Shahana also. Even darsheel was good.


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