Monday, 19 September 2011

1981: Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children'

I shall begin at what was my beginning. On recommendation from several well informed friends and my watching of a documentary about Salman Rushdie on BBC 4 at some unsavoury hour, I decided to give this mammoth tale a go. I was becoming increasingly interested in Indian culture but was all too aware that this interest was growing through English vernacular and British eyes; my experience of this fascinating culture stretched as far as Blue Peter's annual summer expedition, Bend it Like Beckham and Meet the Magoons. The latter of which nobody remembers so I am forced to assume I imagined it, my desperate intrigue for Indian culture manifesting as a jovial channel 4 series about Indian men singing in the back of a car. If you have any recollection of this, please put me out of my misery. Midnight's Children, the story of a boy's personal history enmeshed with the history of India as a nation, seemed the perfect place to start. Plus Salman Rushdie makes a cameo in Bridget Jones so I knew I was on to a winner. Forgive me for the oncoming sparsity of detail, I read the novel over a year ago and it being so turgid and nuanced, I can only attempt to do it justice. 

Saleem Sinai is Rushdie's preferred and chronicled midnight's child. As the clock strikes twelve on August 15th, 1947, Saleem's modest birth is thoroughly upstaged by that of the newly partitioned India, whose conception matches to the minute that of the baby boy. They are thrown together; birth brothers from separate and quite different wombs but brothers nonetheless. They are to be irrevocably twinned forever, each rise and fall of one scaled to mirror the other and through Saleem's eyes, a provincial yet psychedelic personal journey is locally and globally mapped, India's equivalent tale existing adjacent to Saleem's. But Saleem is not the only child to have been born at this moment: thousands of children are flung together, telepathically connected by their inextricable foundations in Indian heritage. These children all have special traits and magic powers, India's womb providing them with tools for survival in a new world. Each character, significant or not, is provided with every bone to their skeleton, birthmarks, bizarre charm and a uniqueness that only the most perceptive and imaginative author could have possibly conceived. The tangle of accurate dated occurrences and the deliciously fictitious stories of how such history came about is sensational and unequivocally witty: Rushdie crafts literary illusions and forges historical trickery. 'Magic Realism', the pivotal theme and genre, is primarily the fuel and fire of the narrative and continually forces the reader to reassess what must be deemed fact and what fiction. More often than not, the fiction reigns as the more believable. 

To his bride to be, Saleem orally uncrumples the creased and blotted map that is his life and with her we are welcomed, jostled, spat upon, sold into, fight for, cry for, laugh at and get reincarnated into a little piece of a big continent. India is undoubtedly the leading lady of this story. No longer merely a few grid points upon an atlas, she emerges as a living, breathing entity. A person. She has a pulsating heart, disoriented and clamouring hands, a furrowed brow and darting eyes. Her wild politics, rogue inhabitants and technicolour flesh is so beautifully logged, it's the most engaging and genuinely thigh-tinglingly exciting book I have ever read.

I shall say no more; my recollection is insufficient and you should save time by simply starting to read the thing for yourself. I insist. It's not one to be taken lightly and will be a slog for most - what did you expect, it's the story of an entire country? - but one you will thoroughly enjoy and cherish. 

Did it deserve the Booker? Definitely. 
Has there been one better since? If so, I haven't read it yet.

Saturday, 17 September 2011


I am an awful critic. I have not the brash nature nor the literary expertise to equip me with fundamentally essential reviewing skills. I am unable to articulate my analysis in any concise or comprehensive manner. And yet I embark on this somewhat soggy challenge with honesty and intrigue and hope that if nothing else, I persuade my one or two readers to read something otherwise unread and I may spare my one or two readers from reading a book unreadable. I will gladly take the bullet in my quest for literary enlightenment. So, as dear lecturer Stephen Bending would say: onwards!