This was one of those modern classics that often crops up of “best books of the 20th century” and the like, so I thought I should read it at some point. I picked it off my shelf on the evening the 14th of August, as it seemed an appropriate time and date to begin it, having read the back cover.
I have to say I didn’t like the start of the book much. Rushdie doesn’t start at the beginning, but rather a couple of generations back and spends quite a few pages rambling on about a guy with a big nose and another who decides not to wash. The biggest issue for me was his introduction of a large number of characters who are not properly formed. When I read fiction, I like the author to be able to give me enough detail when each person is introduced to be able to visualise them, so that as I continue to read, I can visualise any scenes that occur. So the start of the novel was suffused with bit-part players who kept coming and going, but whose voices just seemed to merge together in a background cacophony.
The main story doesn’t really get going until about page 140. Once we do get going, what we have is a novel which is extraordinarily beautifully written, but which crawls along at a snail’s pace. There is no clear narrative in the traditional sense. Rushdie often seems more interested in making a sentence aesthetically pleasing than in telling a coherent narrative. Of course, there is an underlying story which permeates the book, but it is not progressed in the conventional manner of a storyteller. This lack of convention may appeal to some readers, though I personally found it quite frustrating.
In rough outline, the story follows the growing up of Saleem Sinai, who was born on the stroke of midnight as India became independent of British rule. The book is written mostly in the first person, although in a few places this becomes muddled when Saleem starts referring himself in the third person as a Buddha. Along with the children born in the hour after India’s independence, he is endowed with a “superpower” not unlike X-Men or Heroes, though the fantastical element is underplayed here in contrast to the aforementioned creations. The closer to midnight they were born, the more powerful their power. Saleem’s was telepathy. He is able to use his gift to “talk” to all the other children of midnight, though very little is actually done. The other key feature of the book is that, having been born at the same moment as the modern India, his fortunes and misfortunes are inextricably linked with that of the country.
I think for me, the thing that frustrated the most was that the detail was extremely fine, but at the cost of losing context. Rushdie spends most of the book describing people’s physical attributes, their actions and other mannerisms, but very little on the environment in which they lived. I am the kind of reader who likes to be able to visualise a scene as I read it. But Rushdie’s style of writing forces the reader to look through a magnifying glass at almost all times, so you can’t get a feeling for your surroundings.
The book is really quite long (~650 pages) which is why it has taken so long to finish from the time I started. As I now consider Midnight’s Children to be one of those classics that I’ve not really liked, it might be a favourite of those who liked those other books that I would put into the same category: Catch 22 & The Unbearable Lightness of Being.