Friday, January 1, 2010

38. “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie



Year of first publication: 1981
Genre: novel, family saga, postmodernist novel, postcolonial novel, magical realism, satirical novel, farce
Country: India / UK

In italiano: I Figli della Mezzanotte di Salman Rushdie, edito da Mondadori (2008), € 9,40

Plot: Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on the day India became independent from Britain. For this reason Saleem has some special powers, like all the children born on that particular hour of that memorable day. For example, he can communicate telepathically with all the other “midnight’s children” and has an extraordinary (and prominent) nose that can smell danger. The book tells the story of India through the life of Saleem, whose story is inextricably linked to that of the subcontinent. The novel follows India (and Saleem) from independence and partition through the numerous wars and the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, to the so-called Emergency, when Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties producing one of the most horrible pages of the history of India.

Some thoughts: I can’t believe I waited so long to read Midnight’s Children. I had already read two of Rushdie’s novels (The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Satanic Verses) and I liked them only mildly, because they are both quite complicated (the latter, especially). This book is not simple either, but it’s multi-layered, so you don’t need to catch every single reference to enjoy it. However, the more references you catch the more you enjoy the book. I now understand why this novel influenced an entire generation of postcolonial and Indian writers (the so-called “midnght’s grandchildren”): it is rich in characters and themes, beautifully-written, humorous and engaging. Moreover, it is the story of modern India, but also the story of the encounter between the East and the West. The author, being an Indian educated in England and coming from Bombay (a city founded by the British), is the perfect example of this cultural mix. I have a lot of things to say about this book, maybe too many for a single post. I am not ashamed to say that Midnight’s Children is going to have a place in the list of my “All-Time Favourites”.
First of all, I was surprised that in the introduction of my Vintage Books edition Rushdie thanks Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, describing them as “Indian writers”, the former because of her female characters entrapped in the conventions of society, like many Indian women he knows, and the latter because of his “great, rotting, Bombay-like city and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyper-realistic background”. It’s not a coincidence that the novel begins in the style of Dickens, with the introduction of the ancestors of Saleem, in particular with his grandfather Aadam Aziz. The name is an obvious blink at the main character of A Passage to India, Dr Aziz. They’re both Kashmiri doctors with a western education and they both encourage their wives to come out of the purdah. Names are very important in the book: Aadam is of course a reference to the first man for both Christianity and Islam, who lived in the Garden of Eden (and Kashmir was a heaven on earth before war came). In the novel, like in the book of Genesis, Aadam is forced to leave, thus giving birth to the whole tale of the Bible. Rushdie incorporates different traditions into his narrative. For example, Saleem’s story is told by himself to his soon-to-be wife Padma in a frame that recalls the Arabian Nights of the Islamic tradition, but also the Mahabharata. The famous Hindu epic is in fact told by Vyasa, who’s part of the story like Saleem is, and written down by Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. In Midnight’s Children the part of Ganesh is played by Padma, the listener and commentator of Saleem’s story. Ironically, Rushdie would marry a woman called Padma (Lakshmi, a super-model) some years after writing the book.
Saleem’s story is partly autobiographical because it’s also a book about Rushdie’s childhood in Bombay and a great ode to the city. Saleem’s friends are probably the same friends that the author had in his childhood (Evie Burns for instance) and his relationship with his family might have been similar to that portrayed in the book. And don’t forget that Saleem has a big nose (“there are dynasties waiting in it, like snot” says Tai, the old boatman) and Rushdie also has sort of a prominent nose, maybe not magic but certainly important! Saleem’s existence is nonetheless special: because he was born at the same moment that his nation came into existence, he is linked to the history of India (or rather he comes to believe that his life is a metaphor for the state of his country!). In the book, Indian politics often resonate in the life of the characters to an improbable degree (for example when a sneeze saves Aadam Aziz from being shot in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of Amritsar), but it’s rightly so, because the book has no aim to be realistic.
There are tons of allegories that enrich the tale: for example when, just after partition, the Sinai family moves to the former house of an Englishman who is leaving the country, at first they are annoyed by the furniture and the commodities of the British officer, but then they start adjusting to them and even take on an Oxford drawl. This of course represents modern India, shaped and created by the British: the country has gained its independence but it’s now dealing with the postcolonial experience. Another important allegory is the obvious correspondence between the children that make up the Midnight’s Children Conference, possible only through Saleem’s telepathic powers, and the nation of India. Both of them are made of diverse people (concerning gender, religion, caste, upbringing and character) who develop biases and prejudices, starting thus to fall apart (like India in many ways after partition).
I loved this novel also for its historical sweep. I was astounded by the amount of political criticism that Rushdie puts into the novel, especially against Indira Gandhi (“of the multi-partitioned hair”). I have experienced an incredible journey through the contemporary history of India while I was reading this novel, but without losing the joy of pure storytelling. Despite this “historical sweep”, Rushdie’s novel has a peculiar idea of history. Saleem’s memories are not always historically accurate, but right from the beginning of the novel he claims that the truth of facts and figures is not the only way of understanding history. The narrative coming from a person’s consciousness, with alterations and self-obsessions, forms another, equally legitimate, kind of reality. This is something difficult to understand for us pragmatic westerners who don’t believe in the supernatural. That is why, while the book is usually labelled as magical realism in the West, it is usually considered to be quite realistic in India.

About the author: Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay in 1947 to Muslim parents and was educated in India and England. Despite his religious background, Rushdie is now a self-described atheist. His first novel, Grimus, was published in 1975, but it was generally ignored by public and critics. His second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), was instead a bestseller and it was awarded the Booker Prize. It is considered his masterpiece and a key novel in Indian Writing in English. His most famous book is nonetheless The Satanic Verses (1988), because of the controversy it aroused. The book fictionalizes a part of Mohammed’s life in a way that was considered offensive for devout Muslims. Therefore Rushdie was accused of blasphemy against Islam and ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a sentence of death) against him. The book tells the story of two Indian actors, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha: their rivalry and their experience as immigrants in the UK. They are both trapped in a hijacked plane that is flying over the English Channel. In his works Rushdie uses magical realism, juxtaposing symbols of different myth systems and religions, interweaving them in order to display the cultural exchange brought by the British Empire in India. Other famous works are The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). The former is the story of Moraes Zogoiby who descends from a Sultan, whereas the latter is an alternative history of modern pop music. His latest novel is The Enchantress of Florence (2008) (link to a conference I attended where Salman Rushdie talked about it).

7 comments:

  1. E' sicuramente anche nella mia lista dei “All-Time Favourites”. Ho amato questo libro e Rushdie fino alla follia e anche se non si coglie nessun riferimento rimane godibilissimo, istruttivo e geniale.

    Poi Rushdie, pur avendo scritto altri libri anche affascinanti (ultimamente invece è decaduto un po' troppo), non ha mai superato se stesso e questo libro. Secondo me ci è giunto vicino solo con "Vergogna", che è un po' "I figli della mezzanotte" del Pakistan.

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  2. Non ho letto "Vergogna", però sono d'accordo sul fatto che non si è più superato (almeno a giudicare dagli altri due libri che ho letto).
    Dicono lo stesso di Kureishi e "Il Buddha delle Suburbie" (anche se quest'ultimo mi è piaciuto molto meno che "I figli della mezzanotte).

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  3. Hi Stefania...I love this review. I will add this to my list of TBRs and if possible read it this year. THis review is very good and intellectually done. I am grateful to be a follower. Thanks

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  4. Hello Nana. I'm happy you enjoyed my review. Please do read this book, I'd like to hear your opinion. I must warn you, though, that there are many people who hated it.

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  5. Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! Hope to read more from you!

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