12 October '20
by Salman Rushdie
Midnight's Children has left me with a lot to think about.
I wasn't sold on the book for the first 100, 150 pages or so. That's like a third of the book. I felt like I needed to be prepped for the whole world that Rushdie builds here. The language is extremely rich and heavily referential. The main like structural conceit at play here is that the main character, Saleem Sinai, is recounting the story of his life, but Saleem's present continually sort of interjects upon the telling of the past. There's a massive cast of characters, and they're thrust on you continuously and numerously.
All of which contributed for the first third of the book or so, to a thoroughly disorienting experience.
By the middle of the book, however, I started picking up on things. There's a lot at play here. The references, to events and characters both real and legendary, all feel meticulously chosen. Most of the language, actually, feels pretty meticulously chosen. I never got the sense that we had wandered off into some side plot that could have been cut from the novel. The unreliability of Saleem as narrator was a fun little technique, building a sort of meta-interpretation of events on top of his original interpretation of events.
Sometimes Saleem's telling felt… over-wry. I get that he's the sort of character that's experienced so much tragedy that he just has to laugh it off, but sometimes the wryness got in the way of the emotional resonance of a moment. Near the end of the book, he undergoes some awful torture, and he takes the moment to sort of step back out of himself and point back to a rhyming prophecy made earlier in the book, and then we move on. I'd have liked to dwell on the personal consequences of torture—but that's just me.
That's something that Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell, which we've also just finished, does really well: sticking with our characters in their quiet moments. We get a couple of moments where Saleem's not doing much, like when he's trapped in the Sundarbans, but those moments are always so full of noise.
But going back to the way that Saleem references an earlier part of the book: this was the only other part of the book that really bothered me. The whole book is a web. You can barely go a few paragraphs without some reference to something else that's happened to Saleem somewhere else.
Don't get me wrong—I like foreshadowing. Harry Potter does is very well: Rowling will drop little inconsistencies into the book, just enough to draw a pattern, and near the end she'll reveal what was happening all along, and you sort of go, "Oh of course, that explains everything!"
In Midnight's Children, however, Saleem will sort of say, This thing is going to happen later—but enough about that, and then move on. And when the thing happens, there's no payoff, because it's just what he said would happen. E.g.:
"Uncle Mustapha is growing inside me, and the pout of Parvati-the-witch; a certain lock of hero's hair is waiting in the wings, and also a labour of thirteen days…"
And sure enough, Uncle Mustapha shows up, Parvati-the-witch pouts, a hero of the Indian Army gives Parvati a lock of hair, and then Parvati goes into labour for thirteen days. There's no payoff: it's just exactly what he said would happen.
This happens enough to bug me.
Stuff I did like
I liked the Forrest-Gump nature of it, the way that Saleem is sort of haplessly meandering across the course of Indian history. I guess that when the novel was published in 1981, Indian history was less than half as old as it is now; but it gave me a very high-level perspective of the major events of the subcontinent developing as its own state in the middle of the twentieth century.
I did also, in spite of a couple of quirks, really come to enjoy the richness of the prose. Rushdie does a lot of fun, unconventional stuff with language that adds to the texture of the novel. Adds some colour to the world. I liked the use of puns (Ahmed Sinai being "haunted by djinns" v. being addicted to gin), and what I might almost call memes: little renamings that occur across the novel (e.g. "Parvati-the-witch" or the "Black Mango").
In the end, I felt like the novel got a little more emotionally resonant as well. Maybe I'm just susceptible to the expression of anxiety; or maybe it's a function of Saleem's recounting nearing Saleem's present, and so since the emotions are fresher for him, they surge to the surface more easily.
Here's where all the questions cropped up, for me.
What does it all mean? What's the purpose of all of the damage to Saleem throughout the story? He's castrated and half-deaf and tonsured and big-nosed and all the rest? Why? What is this book trying to say about women? All of the women in Saleem's life are powerful—but what does it mean? What am I not thinking of?
But it's not just women: all of the things in Midnight's Children are powerful. The perforated sheet echoes through history. The silver spitoon is a talisman. Picture Singh's umbrella is inextricable from his mystique as The Most Charming Man in the World. Somehow, these things show up again and again; Saleem brings them out before us again and again as if to say, look, look at this immensely powerful thing, look at it.
Echoes: I think that's what Midnight's Children is about. The way that Saleem's past, India's past, your past, echoes up out and out. Maybe that's the reason for all of the "rip tear crack" stuff at the end, maybe Saleem is coming apart from the noise of the deafening echoes bouncing around his inner life for so long. I like the idea of him going back to Kashmir with Padma, at the end, to the clear blue lakes and the cool quiet air, to the place where the story started and there were no echoes at all.