Midnight's Children: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) Reviews

UPDATE TIME: 2018-12-25 
Review Score: 4 out of 5 star From 335 user ratings

I tried tackling this "sacred monster" of a book twenty years ago, and I was defeated - neither my English skills, nor my cultural background were up to the task, and I had to return it to the library only a third of the way in. In a way I'm glad I've waited so long to come back, because Midnight's Children is still a difficult book, but worth all the effort on my part and all the critical praise it received from the Booker Prize crowd.

It was from the start a most ambitious project - the Indian epic to rival War and Peace, Les Miserables, Gone With the Wind and One Hundred Years of Solitude - the big canvas that captures and preserves for posterity the birth of a nation and all of its spirituality:

And there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives / events / miracles / places / rumors, so dense an commingling of the improbable and the mundane! I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you'll have to swallow the lot as well.

Despite the Gordian Knot puzzle of the narrative line (Rushdie has an inborn aversion to the straight line from event A to event B), I have the feeling that every chapter in the story of Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, was carefully planned and integrated in the larger story of the subcontinent. The metaphor is not difficult to discern, as the book starts with Saleem being born at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, the exact time of India Indepencence from British rule. Of course, from here the author will spent the next 300 pages traipsing back and forth through the saga of the Sinai family from the clear lakes of Kashmir, to Agra, Delhi, Bombay and beyond. I wish, at times, for a more discerning audience, someone who would understand the need for rhythm, pacing, the subtle introduction of minor chords which will later rise, swell, seize the melody. . And the book indeed feels like a symphony, with hundreds of instruments playing different tunes, but following the partiture of the composer and the baton of the conductor. It's also very demanding on the focus of the reader. Sometimes I speed-read my books, especially thrillers, but I found it impossible to fast forward here. On the contrary, I often had to backtrack and re-read a baroque passage to see where I started and make sure I didn't miss one clue or one note played by one specific instrument / character.

The individual life and the history of the country are one indivisible entity, macrocosm and microcosm tied in a cause-effect loop by such innocuous artefacts as a lapis-lazuli decorated silver spitoon, a perforated linen sheet, or a dash of mercurochrome. Politics is life in the tumultous years of Indian and Pakistan struggle for independence, and Salman Rushdie is no casual outside observer of events - he is full of passion and righteous indignation - to the point where the line between his character Saleem and his own personal experiences is blurred. Both of them a unreliable narrators, embelishing the truth to make a point and introducing the magic wand of the supernatural to explain coincidences and causalities. Is factual accuracy more important than the message? The author doesn't think so:

Does one error invalidate the whole fabric? Am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I'm prepared to distort everything - to re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role?

and, in another place:
We're living in the Age of Darkness, Kali-Yuga, in which the cow of morality has been reduced to standing, teeteringly, on a single leg! Kali-Yuga - the losing throw in our national dice-game; the worst of everything; the age when property gives a man rank, when wealth is equatted with virtue, when passion becomes the sole bond between men and women, when falsehood brings success (is it any wonder, in such a time, that I too have become confused about good and evil)

I find it impossible to make a concise resume of the plot or to introduce each major character - remember, I've swallowed a whole world - so I will try to make a few observations about style. Rushdie follows the oral traditions of the Oriental world, where the narrator sits in the dust in front of the whole village and will eat and drink well only if he captures the audience imagination. He will start his chapters with teaser like movie trailers, foretelling in cryptic utterances the coming attractions, postponing the death sentence for another night, holding the reader / listener rooted in place for one more tall story, one more chapter, one more pickle jar of memories:
... and still so much remains to be told ... Uncle Mustapha is growing inside me, and the pout of Parvati-the-witch; a certain lock of a hero's hair is waiting in the wings; and also a labor of thirteen days, and history as an analogue of a prime minister's hair-style; there is to be treason, and fare-dodging, and the scent (wafting on breezes heavy with the ululations of widows) of something frying in an iron skillet) ... .
I look forward to re-reading the book just to savour these titbits of prophetic utterances, now that I have an inkling what they mean. He ends his chapters with promises of more to come, stories waiting in the wings for their time on the scene.

Like the already mentioned Arabian Tales, the content is earthy / slightly rude, with little reticence in tackling sexuality, a really raw sense of humor, freaky characters and improbable magical abilities: If I seem a little bizarre, remember the wild profusion of my inheritance ... perhaps, if one wishes to remain an individual in the midst of the teeming multitudes, one must make oneself grotesque. . The result is partly a circus show, but so full of life , so brilliantly colourful, noisy and smelly and overpowering in scale.

In a wily inversion of gender roles, if Saleem takes the role of Sheherezade, The Prince / listener is played in the book by Padma: the down to earth helper, prospective consort and keeper of common sense, pulling the author's sleeve when he goes on a tangent for too long and keeping in check the wilder fancies of his exuberant imagination:
Padma! The Lotus Goddess; The One Who Possesses Dung; Who is Honey-Like, and Made of Gold; whose sons are Moisture and Mud ... Padma, who along with the yaksa genii, who represent the sacred treasure of the earth, and the sacred rivers, Ganga Yamuna Sarasvati, and the tree goddesses, is one of the Guardians of Life, beguiling and comforting mortal men while they pass through the dream web of Maya ... Padma, the lotus calyx which grew out of Vishnu navel, and from which Brahma himself was born; Padma the Source, the mother of Time! ...

The novel mixes freely and to great effect the Gods of Ramayama with the Muslim heritage and with the British / Western pop culture icons in a melting pot that reflects the raw materials from which Saleem spicy pickle preserves / chapters are made. I got the impression the actual Children of Midnight are incarnations / avatars of the old gods - Vishnu, Rama, Ganesh, Shiva, Kali - but I'm not so well versed in the Indian Pantheon to be sure of each reference and godly atribute. The point, anyway is that they are all part and source of the India we are seeing today.

Why introduce magic realism into what is basically a historical account? Because the author operates with symbols and allegories rather than academic reports; because history is made of people not cold statistics, with all their imperfections and irrationalities; and because sometimes reality is too hard to swallow:
What I hope to immortalize in pickles as well as words: that condition of the spirit in which the consequences of acceptance could not be denied, in which an overdose of reality gave birth to a miasmic longing for flight into the safety of dreams
The birth of a nation is not a pretty watercolour to swoon over - it is painted in the blood of millions - from the British troops opening fire in Agra, to the burning of mosques and warehouses, stormtroopers invading Bangladesh, political dissidents dissapearing without trace or prime ministers declaring a state of emergency in order to keep their position ( do we not get the leaders we deserve? . Midnight Children is thus a painful book, with few heroes and a multitude of ordinary people who will get crushed under the steamroller weight of history. Saleem himself has been in the thick of it and then has been thrwn to the sidelines. He has come out with more questions than answers. Most of all he has the people and their stories to preserve in his pickle factory, least they be forgotten:

Who / What am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been / seen / done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone / everything whose being-in-the world affected / was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I've gone, which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each "I", every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world.
" said.

"This was an extremely good book; one which, for some reason, I couldn't quite fall in love with. I was, however, more and more impressed with Rushdie's mastery over his novel as I made my way through it.

Midnight's Children is as much a tale of history and nationhood as it is of a person. I think, in some sense, the book was a sort of authorial attempt to bring into the realm of substantial palpability everything that had happened to the Indian subcontinent since Independence in '47 (or thereabouts). In so doing, Rushdie had to deal with many of the themes that have been the standards of world literature in the passing decades: the richness of pre-modern superstition falling away to the antiseptic light of post-colonial progress, the upheavals of third-world political instability, magical realism, the individual as a link in the hereditary chain.

I don't know for sure, but I'm certainly willing to grant the benefit of the doubt to the notion that Rushdie (along with with Gabriel Garcia Marquez) was among the first to employ these literary devices. And in some ways, he does it best. I was repeatedly impressed by the fact that Midnight's Children didn't just talk about history, patterns, and the past and the future interlinking. No -- its author had done the hard and uncommon work of planning the book so that those patterns would really be there. So that images from the beginning of the book would effectively and reliably return to haunt at the apex and at the climax of the tale. I *often* lose patience (and Marquez is on this list) with books that make great promises (witness: Love In the Time of Cholera) early on, but end up meandering, without focus, robbing the book's conclusion of greater meaning and impact. Rushdie did not make this mistake.

I think that one of the problems I had with Midnight's Children is that I read it out of order. Clearly clearly clearly God of Small Things and Middlesex to pick two at random among many, were heavily influenced by this novel. But I read them first. And in some ways, you have to admit that they improved on the techniques that I suspect Rushdie pioneered.

Rushdie brings history to life in Midnight's Children, and he does it by adding magic. He weaves a personal, wonderful, and improbable life into the history of Indian independence, the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is set in an even more charming, and considerably more personal (and personable) frame-tale narrative. The structure is not born of whimsy. The author is making a strong and cogent point about the nature of knowledge and history and experience. Official records contain one version of history. Rather than just smugly assert that there are others, he provides us a literary illustration. Who knows what could have happened? When Reasons swept its bright and ruinous hand over this part of the world, who can say what got lost? What was looked over? It is as if the thesis of the book (if there were one, other than that Indira Ghandi was a plague to the nation), was that within the cracks and crevices of official knowledge are rich seams of midnight-black possibility, a dark rainbow of being.

My final criticism: the book brought all of this history and insight beautifully to life. I felt the sacrifice was the actual protagonist. In the present, he is a charming reality. The versions of himself that he narrates feel like a frail sort of cipher. He rarely has strong attachments, we are not told much about his feelings, and when we are, they don't seem to be connected to the main thread of the narrative. He changes as needed to move the story forward, but, ultimately, the story is not a personal one. The person at its center has worked too hard to be a symbol, a nation, history.

Is Midnight's Children worth reading? Absolutely. Will it enter my list of most-beloved novels? I'm afraid not.
" said.

" WOW!!!It took me 140 pages to really get 'hooked'. Do you know there is a 32 page vocabulary list (I printed it out)--online for "Midnight's Children?Its worth reading this book! lolUPDATE:In spirit of Sharyl's review which I read today...I'm going to RAISE my my 3 stars to 5 stars!I read this a long time ago ---(I had to work it) --looking up tons of words. However --I thought the story was TERRIFIC!!!I still think about this stars it is!!!!! " said.


Just back from watching the movie and.... well... it kind of highlights the less great parts of the book, just because it's a movie. You notice the non-plot, you notice that the characters get dragged around from India to Pakistan to Bangladesh depending which big political event or war is happening as we make our way from 1947 to 1977; and we really notice how gushingly sentimental it all turns out in the end. All of these problems are there in the book but are melted, dissolved, and blended like tasty spices in a piquant dish. All is made good by Rushdie's fantastic prose style which is utterly stunning and makes the book a MUST READ. And the prose, even the bits read by the narrator, who is Mr Rushdie himself, is not in the movie. Because it's a movie not a book.


Book : 10!

Film : 5.5


An earlier non-review:

Everyone knows Salman was once a humble copywriter for an ad agency. And he came up with a couple of good ones – famously, one for the National Dairy Council, when they were advertising cream cakes. The slogan was “Naughty … but nice” and the ads were televised around 1980.

I was listening to a lot of American pop stuff from the 50s the other day and what came up but Frankie Avalon, singing a daft song called “Gingerbread”

Ginger bread ginger bread ginger bread ginger bread
Ginger bread ginger bread ginger bread ginger bread
You're full of sugar you're full of spice
You're kinda naughty but you're naughty and nice

Salman Rushdie – you’re busted. And you're outed as a Frankie Avalon fan.

" said.

"This book is everything, no that won't do. You need two words, this book is every thing. And the F word? There's no getting away with it. This book is frigging everything. No that won't do, this book is every-fucking-thing.

I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine.

" understand me, you'll have to swallow a world.”

Little Saleem exaggerates a lot, you only have to swallow India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Perhaps, a bit of Britain.

This is a coming of age story of snot faced, cucumber nosed, stupid Saleem. He's dragged all over the Indian sub continent from 1947-1977. So this is Historical Fiction, fantasy , drama, Political fiction; and ultimately the best thing Indian Literature has ever produced.
See? Everything

Saleem centers himself as the cause or victim of everything that happened to his country, born at the stroke of midnight, August 15th, fate doesn't stop him and his midnight mates being chained to his country.

Salman Rushdie has tried to write everything Indian that ever happened in the thirty years following 1947. This is book of Indian History in fictional form, without appendix and index though.

First Indian thing that comes to mind is, crowd. Effing crowd, people everywhere, cities everywhere. And then there's little Saleem who gets through these people, pushes himself through the dense crowd (like readers struggle with that loquacious prose initially). 1975's India had 600 million population which is almost half of present number. Still, it isn't any less dense.
I mean there's a new character ever five pages. How more Indian can this be?

Coming back to Everything part,
every major event; British rule, Jallianwala Bhag Massacre, Independence, State divisions, whatnot? Everything

Every person, language and color. It is here.
To be honest I just found out my mother-tongue is called as Canarese in English (sue me).

Little Saleem, one moment he's little, he's ten, eleven, twelve, then he's thirty year old man. You love him, hate him and feel everything for him. Keeping aside the crowd and people, you have a Brown Forrest Gump here.

My take on Indian Literature has changed.
If there's one Indian book you'd want to read, this should be it.

Swim through this dense, viscous, 'hard to read' prose, you've swallowed Indian sub-continent too.

"....the nearly thirty one year old myth of freedom is no longer what it was. New myths are needed; but that's none of my business."

Scratch that, make it Seventy-one." said.

"It doesn’t happen often, but from time to time after I finish a work of literature, I wonder, “What just happened?” In an effort to answer that question, my brain attempts to turn itself inside out to make sense of it all. This time that torture came from Rushdie’s Midnight Children. This novel is my first experience reading Rushdie’s work, so I am not sure if the writing style of this book is typical of the author, but I am not in any hurry to find out.

Being an English Literature student and an avid reader, I felt a certain expectation of myself to admire Rushdie and his work. After all, he is a very celebrated author, and his books appear on many “must read” lists compiled by authors I respect. After the first 250 pages of Midnight’s Children I felt self-conscious that I that I didn’t like the book, in fact, I was beginning to despise it.

I consider Midnight’s Children a triple dog dare from Rushdie to read his book to the very end. As with most dares, it was daunting to face, and to test my resolve, he made every attempt to make me put down the book for good. The fact that I see all dares through, from eating worms to kissing a friend’s younger brother, and that Midnight’s Children was a class assigned book, were the only motivations that I had not to. Within the more than six-hundred pages of text, there are about one hundred pages of straight forward biography written by the protagonist Saleem Sinai, and Rushdie makes you work very hard to find them hidden among the overwhelming quantity of details, a task I found tedious, frustrating and at times mind numbingly boring.

I simultaneously pitied and despised Saleem. Like the other 1,000 children born at the stroke of midnight of India’s independence, Saleem has special powers, the telepathic ability to communicate with all of these children. Despite his gift, he is not particularly respected among the children for very long. His average life is also not spectacular. He is not handsome or physically co-coordinated. He is bullied by children and adults, often betrayed and physically mutilated, and so emotionally sensitive he seeks comfort by surrounding himself with dirty laundry. However, this same Saleem that my heart went out to was the one writing the story that was torturing me page after page after page.

Rushdie does provide the reader with a representative in the plot, Padma. She is the novel’s saving grace, the one person who is able to stop Saleem’s self important dialogue. She is frustrated with the slow moving pace of the narrative and gives voice to the like minded reader when she urges Saleem to write more concisely and get to the point faster. At first I found Padma’s sudden entries into the plot distracting, but after awhile I found myself peeking ahead in order to see when she would appear again to gauge exactly how much longer I had to continue reading before respite.

I confess I am very ignorant of the events surrounding the formation of Pakistan, the independence of India, and the decades of war and political maneuvering between them. I didn’t even make it through the entire movie “Gandhi”. At first I welcomed the history lesson Rushdie provides of those times. However, by the middle of Book II, I found the sheer volume of details confusing and obtuse, and was skimming over these parts. By the end of Book II, I was skipping them altogether. In the chapter “How Saleem Achieved Purity”, I felt vindicated of my behavior. Saleem’s description of the events that led to the demise of his family in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 starts with, “Which facts to present?” and continues with pages of questions and conjecture, “Did it happen this way or didn’t it?” The seemingly endless expansion on his proposed questions finally raised my own: “I don’t know exactly how it happened, I don’t care, and can you please get to the point?!”

Rushdie misses, or maybe ignores the perfect opportunity to end his story. With the final dispersal of Midnight’s Children after their captivity by the government, most of the loose ends are tied up, or the reader has learned enough essential plot elements to forgive Rushdie if he ended Saleem’s story this way. To me, I felt the last forty pages were Rushdie’s last challenge to me to complete his dare: would I or could I read through these superfluous pages of obvious revelations or would I finally quit. The sense of power and freedom I felt after reading the very last sentence was made sweeter by my accomplishment.

To be fair to Rushdie, objectively, his writing skills are incredible. His ability to tie Saleem’s life to history and his ability to overlap events, religions, and mysticism is something for some to aspire to. His overwhelming details created vivid images: beautiful Kashmirian landscapes, putrid slums and titillating, (almost) love scenes. His skills in these areas might be enough for some people to excuse the tedium of Midnight’s Children, but for me it didn’t. By the end of the novel, I didn’t even feel bad that I didn’t like Rushdie’s writing, or this novel.

" said.

"(view spoiler)

درست نصف شب بود. در لحظه ای که من پا به جهان می گذاشتم، عقربه های ساعت روی هم افتاد؛ و این درست در لحظه ای بود که هند به استقلال رسید. به حکم جبارانه ی عقربه ها، من و تاریخ به هم پیوسته شده بودیم؛ سرنوشتم برای همیشه با سرنوشت کشورم عجین شد.

ما همه بچه های نیمه شبیم. به دنیا آمده ایم برای کارهای بزرگ. برای شگفت انگیزترین جادوها. ما خود اساطیریم، اساطیر زنده ای که روی زمین راه می رویم. با قدرت هایی جادویی که خودمان هم نمی دانیم به چه کار می آید. پیش از تولّدمان جهان در انتظار تولّدمان بوده است، پیشگوها این عظیم ترین رخداد هستی را پیشگویی کرده بودند، چشم مردم سرزمین مان به زندگی ماست.
"تو تازه ترین نمود آن چهره ی کهن سرزمین هندی، که جوانیِ جاودانه دارد. همواره به دقت چشم به زندگی تو خواهیم دوخت، که به نوعی، نمایانگر زندگی همه ی ماست."

رودخانه ی گنگ هستیم ما، مادر همه ی رودخانه ها، سرچشمه گرفته از موهای شیوا. اما به کجا می ریزیم؟ در کدام باتلاق ها به خاک فرو می رویم و ناپدید می شویم؟ مقدس ترین رود جهانیم، کدام لجن زار را آبیاری می کنیم؟ بچه های نیمه شبیم، که "سربازها محاکمه اش می کنند، جبّارها سرخش می کنند..." (hide spoiler)]" said.

"Reading Rushdie's Midnight's Children is like listening to someone else's long-winded, rambling re-telling of a dream they had. And like all people who describe their dreams -- especially those who do so long past the point where their listeners can believably fake interest or patience -- Rushdie is inherently selfish in the way he chose to write this book. Midnight's Children is one of those novels that are reader-neutral or even reader-antagonistic -- they seem to have been written for the sole purpose of letting a writer wallow in their own history, their own problems, their own pet concerns, desires, and childhood hangups. Books like this are not mirrors of the world, or even mirrors of the author, but mirrors of how the author wants to be seen by the world.

There are patches of writing in this book that startle, amuse, and tantalize the reader, but the story is not as interesting as the narrator or the author seem to think it is; in fact, the narrator's constant references to the depth/difficulty/complex interconnectedness of his story all rang false to me. The narrator constantly tried to impress the reader with the gravity, absurdity, necessity, etc. of the story he was telling: there were lots of annoying, melodramatic asides to the reader along the lines of "O, this!" "O, that" "If only--" "But I must wait to get to that later!", which only served to distract from a story that should have just been left to stand on its own.

I'm not necessarily the type of reader who wants concrete, literal, plot-driven stories, but I'm also not the type of reader who has infinite patience for postmodern, self-inflated authors who either have a degree in literature and waste no time bludgeoning you with that fact, or don't have a degree in literature and waste no time in showing you just how good they are despite it all.

And, lastly, above and beyond the annoying narrator, the rambling story that went on for about 200 too many pages, and the author's disrespect (or at least disregard) for the reader, the last and crushing blow I can deliver to this book is that it was boring. The narrator – who, by the way, is a fairly flat character despite having over 500 pages to develop himself -- went to great pains to convince us otherwise, with constant reminders of how "epic" and "interconnected" his life was and how it resonated with the history of modern India, but in my opinion, a truly interesting story wouldn't need an obsequious narrator to constantly remind us how interesting it was.

I realize I'm in a minority in my dislike of this book; after all, it won the Booker Prize and is widely regarded to be one of the most important novels in English-language literature. I also realize I haven't said anything about what the book is actually about (in a nutshell: a coming-of-age story with a heavy dollop of magical realism and self-pity, with doses of Indian life scattered throughout) -- but all I felt when turning the last page of this book was relief.
" said.

January 2019 New Book:

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