I found ‘Midnight’s Children’ a challenge. It is a novel that has been showered with praise and awards, and rightly so. While it is overall a complex narrative, with a very large cast of characters and multiple locations, at the same time the autobiographical structure and the single narrator allow the thread of the story to be picked up reasonably easily, even when the novel is read in small portions, as I did in this instance.
So why the struggle? What is it about Rushdie’s novel that prevented me from reading much more than a dozen pages at a time? I’ll return to that question when I have worked through my other observations about the novel, which may help formulate an answer.
The title of the novel refers to all the children born between midnight and one a.m. on the day of India’s independence from the United Kingdom. Rushdie’s conceit is that these children – several hundred of them – are born with magical powers. The story’s narrator, Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of midnight, is telepathic, (although this power plays a surprisingly minor part in the overall events of the novel). Using this power he assembles a ‘Midnight Children’s Conference’ of all the gifted children – a conference that has huge potential, but never goes beyond discussion, and is eventually neutered, literally, and destroyed. The obvious point being made here is about the squandering of India’s post-independence potential.
The novel does not start at this point – Saleem takes his time reaching the disclosure about his magical abilities, spending a lot of the opening book of the novel giving us the background to his birth. This leisurely approach– as a narrator Saleem is very long winded – is part of the readability challenge I mentioned in opening.
Saleem’s story is openly allegorical of the story of India’s independence. Even the most obtuse reader could not avoid the numerous links Rushdie draws between his protagonists and Indian history – for example, Saleem’s story includes a number of the migrations and wars which plagued (and continue to plague) his country’s post colonial history.
Midnight’s Children is a wildly ambitious novel, huge in scope, a dissertation on identity, memory, nationalism, and family. In almost all instances it succeeds, and rightly deserves the awards and success it has received. My inability to engage with the text on this reading is I am sure more a reflection of my appetite for novels of this kind that the success or failure of the novel itself. While reading I could recognise the skill and intelligence involved in the construction of the novel I couldn’t warm to the characters or find much interest in the plot. When your main sensation on finishing a novel is relief you know you need to take a break from the classics – I am now reading Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and the contrast in the experience is marked.