Thursday, January 6, 2022

Book 317: Midnight's Children

"Does one error invalidate the entire 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? Today, in my confusion, I can't judge. I'll have to leave it to others. For me, there can be no going back; I must finish what I've started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began..."

Dates read: May 20-29, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize, Time's All-Time 100 Novels

I have many issues with how history is taught in public schools, but one of the biggest is how little time gets spent on the Eastern hemisphere. Lots of America, obviously, but outside of learning about the Fertile Crescent and Ancient Egypt again and again and again, we don't get into much besides Europe. I have to imagine that most countries focus heavily on themselves and their immediate neighbors when they study the past, but some of the oldest, richest civilizations in the world are on the other side of the globe and we barely study them! I wish it were otherwise, but sadly I am not in charge of things.

The more books I read set in India, the more I wish I had a firm grasp of modern Indian history. Indian independence, and the partition that followed, continue to resonate not just in literature, but on a global political scale. Salman Rushdie explores these momentous events through his Booker Prize-winning epic, Midnight's Children. The novel tells the story of Saleem Sinai, born at the moment India begins post-colonial self-rule, and tracks his life as it, and his country, develop. But its more ambitious even than that: it begins with his grandparents and their youth, then tells the story of his own parents, and only then turns its full attention to its own protagonist.

Saleem is born to Ahmed and Amina Sinai, well-off Muslims living in Bombay, at exactly midnight on the day the British officially surrender the country, at the same moment as another child, a Hindu boy called Shiva. It turns out there are 1,001 children born in that first hour of India's modern life, and each of them have a gift, a magical power...and the closer to midnight, the stronger that power is. Saleem doesn't discover his until he is nine, when he begins to hear voices in his head: those of the other "children of midnight", who can speak to not only him but each other as he psychically hosts them. He eventually loses this power, but develops the ability to smell the feelings of other people. As he continues to grow, his fate (along with those of his parents and his little sister Jamila, called "The Brass Monkey" as a child for her hair color) is tied to that of his homeland.

There's much, much more than that, of course. Even attempting a brief outline of the twists and turns of Rushdie's tremendously complicated plot (and enormous cast of characters) would take several paragraphs. It's truly a stunningly ambitious novel, and what's even more stunning is that it mostly pulls it off. Characters come and go organically, storylines are fully developed and have solid payoffs. Rushdie writes the story to be narrated by Saleem himself to a female companion from roughly the modern day (when the book was written), and superbly uses that technique to frame it and give it momentum. It's deep, and rich, and beautifully written and constructed.

While it is undisputedly a masterwork, though, I don't know that I actually loved it as much as I respect it. Part of that is that I simply don't have enough context for it. Even as an educated person, my understanding of modern Indian history is thin and this book is the kind that requires a higher level of knowledge to really comprehend everything that it's doing. And while Rushdie mostly maintains the plot's progression nimbly despite the text's density, by the end there have been just so many characters and the scope is so vast that I found myself a little burned out and ready for it to end. It is not a book that should be read in snippets here and there, it demands and requires full and sustained bouts of attention. If you're ready to read a modern classic that's going to need a lot from you as a reader and reward the work you put into it, I'd highly recommend it. If you're looking for something on the easier side, though, leave this one until you're really ready to sink your teeth into something. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Satanic Verses

Two years ago, I was reading: Native Speaker

Three years ago, I was reading: The Winter of the Witch

Four years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Five years ago, I was reading: American Heiress

Six years ago, I was reading: The Serpent King

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