Monday, October 13, 2008

book review - Midnight's Children

This is a big book in many ways. In terms of printed pages it falls into the category of doorstopper at 600 plus and in terms of reputation as the Booker of Bookers it cannot get much higher. Add to that the larger than life author Salman Rushdie and you come to this with a certain sense of trepidation.

In some cases minds are clearly made up before the book is given a chance. One friend saying he didn’t like Rushdie and therefore wouldn’t try the book. But there has clearly got to be something there if it won the awards it has and has remained such a popular read even after a couple of decades since its first publication.

After reading it the first thought is that it might have made more sense to have gone through some sort of brief Indian history refresher because the crucial years in the book and the lives of the main character Saleem Sinai are connected with Indira Ghandi and events I had no knowledge of, the state of emergency she declared and then abused. In some respects you pick a great deal up but with the mixture of myth, fantasy and reality it’s not always clear what did happen or what is a dream.

What you can say for sure is that this weaves you through a period of history where India had gained its independence but struggled to find its soul. The splits in society quickly emerged and the country split, went to war and then consolidated with seething bitterness still continuing in some quarters.

Taking the reader through the thirty plus years of independence is Saleem who discovers that he has the ability to communicate telepathically with all of the other children who were born in the midnight hour on the arrival of independence.

It is the Midnight’s Children that link Saleem to a different world, an India of old beliefs and strange powers, as well as a hope that the future will be different from the past. But in the end the children are literally neutered as they fail to break with tradition and produce an India of their dreams.

The second thought is that you wish there was a way that a book could come with a sense of smell because this invokes many smells and tastes that although described well would have been pouring out of the book like an Indian market had smell been possible.

In the end it is the sense of smell, both natural and almost supernatural, that allows the hero to reconnect with his past. But just like his country he is disintegrating into a million pieces.

At the end you realise that imagination and fantasy can be powerfully deployed to help make sense of a real history that at times must have seemed to be unreal.

The final thought is about the writing and the style. There are motifs established in the early part of the book that return again and again. There are big themes with justice, love, betrayal and religion all getting their chance to be played out in the form of grotesque characters and situations.

Time is crucially important. Being born at Midnight not only gives Saleem his telepathic powers but also makes him who he is in the sense of being a child of national prominence. He can only talk to the others after the midnight hour has been struck and it is the sense of his own time running out that ruins through the book from start to finish.

An odd feeling about the book is that in places it feels cinematic to the extent that you see the images as if shown on a screen and the impact of cinema is clear on the writing technique.

But ultimately I guess the real question is not about the writing, the story or the length of time it lingers in the memory but whether or not it is enjoyable. It is intimidating but after a while even with the madness of circus freaks, wars and a family of flawed characters grows on you.

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