Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) 647 p.
Midnight’s Children was written by Salman Rushdie (more famous for The Satanic Verses and subsequent fatwa) in 1981. It won that year’s Booker Prize, and subsequently won both “Best of the Booker” awards in 1993 and 2008. As such it can safely be considered one of the greatest English-language novels ever written.
I couldn’t stand it. An absolute drag to read, an immensely frustrating writing style, and the worst case of a wasted idea I’ve seen since Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series (although I wouldn’t compare them any further than that; Rushdie may not be to my tastes, but he knows how to write, whereas Farmer had trouble stringing a sentence together).
Midnight’s Children is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism, following the life of Saleem Sinai, a Muslim child born in Bombay at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – the exact moment that the nation of India came into being. This coincidence of birth grants Saleem, and 1000 other children born between the hour of midnight and one o’clock, with various supernatural powers. One can teleport through mirrors, one can see through time, one can change his size, one can fly, one is a werewolf, one is a magician, and so on. Saleem himself, the eldest of the children, can read minds and communicate telepathically, and so he sets himself the task of uniting the children into what he calls the “Midnight’s Children Conference,” to discuss their purpose and destiny, and determine what to do with their powers.
I’ve never been a fan of superhero stories, but I found this to be unconventional enough to be an awesome idea, partly because it was in India rather than the USA, and partly because their powers were allegorically linked to the existence of the nation itself. I was quite disappointed, then, to find that less than two or three chapters are devoted to Midnight’s Children, and other than Saleem, only two other Children are remotely close to being major characters. The vast majority of the book is typical literary fiction: growing up, falling in love, a backdrop of great events, weddings, deaths, family, epiphanies, blah blah blah, all wrapped up in Rushdie’s tiresome writing style, which is particularly thick and impenetrable, every sentence dripping with awareness of its presence in a piece of literature.
Towards the end of the book, during India’s Emergency, most of Midnight’s Children are rounded up and imprisoned by the despotic Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, and surgically robbed of their superpowers and their ability to reproduce. Rushdie’s argument is that Indira was filled with a lust for power bordering on godhood, and sought to eliminate the only people who were actually close to godhood, threatening her own ambitions. This would have been more tragic, and made a lot more sense, if Midnight’s Children had actually featured in their own novel beyond a couple of chapters, and had actually been a significant political or social force in India. Which they weren’t. At all.
Such a waste! Such a fantastic idea, so irresponsibly squandered! 1001 children with superpowers, growing up alongside India, with conflicting powers and beliefs and agendas – forming factions, some fighting each other and some working together, some offering their services to the state and others trying to bring it down, splinter cells, defections to Pakistan, villains and heroes, betrayals, friendships, rivalries! The classic superhero story, set in the fascinating nation of India, flowing from the pen of a gifted master of literature! Now that would have been a novel!
Instead we get pages and pages about the backstory of Saleem’s grandparents, and his schoolboy experiences, and his mother’s affair, and dozens of other banal and boring plot threads. And all the while I’m plodding along with that carrot of speculative fiction dangling in front of my face, just out of reach, Salman Rushdie sitting on my back coaxing me along, faithful old donkey, what a delicious carrot it looks, come on now, nearly there, and all of a sudden it’s the end of the book and Rushdie snatches the carrot and flings it into the distance, never to be seen again. Not cool.