- Author: Salman Rushdie (b. 1947)
- Rank: #47
- Published: 1981
- Publisher: Jonathan Cape
- Pages: 552
- First Line: “I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time.”
- Last Line: “Yes, they will trample me underfoot, the numbers marching one two three, four hundred million, five hundred six, reducing me to specks of voiceless dust, just as, in all good time, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.”
- ML Edition: none
- Film Version: planned by the BBC in the late 90’s with a screenplay by Rushdie; current version being planned
- Awards: Booker Prize; 25th Anniversary Booker of Bookers; 40th Anniversary Booker of Bookers, All-TIME List; Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #90
- First Read: Spring, 2000
The Novel: “Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately, this makes the stories less juicy; so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal.” That line doesn’t come until page 64, but it could have begun the novel, for it cuts to the very core of this remarkable book. It is David Copperfield, as interpreted through the eyes of magical realism in a country being born rather than the unshakable empire. No one was prepared for this. Salman Rushdie, at the time, was the author of a rather unsuccessful (and mediocre) science fiction novel called Grimus. But the publication of Midnight’s Children immediately threw him on the literary map. It won the Booker, placed him in the forefront of Indian writers, British writers and world writers, placed him squarely in the role of successor to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a style that Garcia Marquez had clearly established as his own. It also made the birth of India and the Partition much more dramatic and exciting than would the following year’s Oscar winner Gandhi.
It is the tale of the 1000 children born in the first hour of India’s existence. Narrated by Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, a youth with telepathic powers who would eventually discover others like him and seek them out among the millions (“I contented myself with discovering, one by one, the secrets of the fabulous beings who had suddenly arrived in my mental field of vision, collecting them ravenously, the way some boys collect insects, and other spot railway trains.”), it is also the story of India itself, from the last days of British rule all the way down through the end of the Emergency. Saleem himself is a modern day Copperfield, but has no questions about whether or not he will be the hero: “I’ve been hanging around in the background of my own story for too long, and although it’s still a little while before I can take over, it’s nice to get a look in.” He is at once, unmistakably natural as a narrator (“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 unquestionably funny (“How did Nadir Khan run across the night town without being noticed? I put it down to his being a bad poet, and as such, a born survivor.”).
At one point I ended up re-reading this and re-watching Gandhi at the same time and the difference between the two was startling. In Gandhi, we get straight-forward history, clean, forthright, well done, if at times a bit dry. In Rushdie, we get a new, vibrant point of view. Everything is alive – the people, the land, the history, all rich with texture and subtlety. As we are reminded by Saleem: “Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it any less real.” And so we learn about these thousand children, we see them interact, we are reminded that though they seem to hold the fate of their nation in their hands, they are still children, they will still have their petty arguments, their romances, their pains, their joys. We see Saleem’s son, Aadam, born at that exact instant when India transitioned into The Emergency, and the words that Saleem uses to describe his son could also be describing his country: “He was the child of a father who was not his father; but also the child of a time which damaged reality so badly that nobody ever managed to put it together again.”
But all is not complete despair. There is hope, even in those final lines of the novel, lines so reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s famous ending to 100 Years of Solitude, precisely because he adds one element that Garcia Marquez was never quite able to manage, the one element that has allowed Rushdie to rise, complete with his mastery of the English language and with narrative form, to the top of all the world’s writers. He has humor, even in the darkest of times: “To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva’s death. My first out-and-out lie – although my presentation of the Emergency in the guise of a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight was perhaps excessively romantic, and certainly contradicted by the available meteorological data.”
End Note: One of the problems of doing such a list as I am doing is the living structure of it. I am keeping to the list that I wrote for myself over a year and a half ago now, but after re-reading Midnight’s Children, I wish I had placed it higher, possibly into the top 30.