The latest novel I have read has become a modern classic. It regularly makes the top 100 lists of the greatest novel of all times. It has also won a Booker prize twice; originally in 1981 and recent in 2008, when it won the Best of the Booker in order to celebrate the prize’s 40th Anniversary. So does Midnight’s Children deserve the honours it has gained?
Let’s start on the length of the novel. For saying I am to read all Man Booker Prize winners in 18 months, it took me a month alone to read this. It is split into three books, chronicling the life of the narrator, Saleem Sinai, who was born on midnight on 15th August 1947; the day when India and Pakistan were born as well. He is also one of many ‘Midnight’s Children’ who were born in that hour and became endowed with magical powers. The first book covers the fantastical events which led to his birth; the second covers his childhood up to his late teens; and the third book covers his adult life. The length of the novel didn’t really put me off. The more I read, the more I was engrossed by it.
This was partly down to Salman Rushdie’s writing. Rushdie is more of a public figure now than a writer. Martin Amis famously said that after the execution order or ‘fatwa’ was placed on Rushdie by the Iranian government after the publication of The Satanic Verses, “He has vanished into the front page”. He’s been there ever since. But for those, including myself, who had never read his works until now, you actually discover why he is such a good writer in the first place. Midnight’s Children is a demonstration of Rushdie’s talent as a storyteller. Throughout the novel, Saleem tells numerous tales about all sorts of things; family, friends, famous events in India and Pakistan’s history, all of which are tied together by destiny. It is Rushdie’s storytelling in its simplest form which is the greatest strength of the novel.
Circumstance, and most importantly, destiny, are key themes in the novel. When Saleem looks back at his life, he sees that everything happened for a reason. Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather, had a unusually large nose which was runny a lot of time. When facing a column of British soldiers at Amritsar, Aadam sneezes just as the soldiers open fire into the crowd. Aadam survives the Amritsar Massacre, and ensures that Saleem will be eventually born. All events in Midnight’s Children are interconnected; he feels the weight of history on his shoulders and everything that happens to India after independence is mirrored in his own life. Saleem’s life is, as Prime Minister Nehru puts it, “a mirror of our own”.
Magic and other fantastical elements appear throughout the novel. Saleem develops telepathic abilities and is able to communicate with other people like him such as a witch called Parvati who can actually do magic; Soumitra, a boy who can travel through time; and Saleem’s rival Shiva, who possesses unusually large knees and whose fate is intertwined with Saleem’s. One of my favourite aspects of the novel is its sense of the extraordinary and that everything isn’t as it seems. The novel is part of the ‘magic realism’ genre in which magical and mythical elements are brought into a realistic historical context. Rushdie uses magic, mythology and destiny to make sense of the turmoiltious events which took place in India and Pakistan after independence.
In answer to the question I posed at the beginning, does Midnight’s Children deserve to be a modern classic, I would say that it is a great novel and the critics are probably right that the novel will be celebrated for many years to come.