Midnight’s Children will haunt me, I fear, for the rest of my days on earth.
When I pledged to read 12 classics in a year, this was one of the first ones that I picked up – it’s been awarded the Booker of Bookers. That’s like....Booker Squared. Definitely in the ‘Modern Classic’ category and definitely on the list to be read. I dutifully started it at the beginning of January and what followed was the longest month of my life until I could finally close its pages at the beginning of February.
I have this thing where I don’t read the Introductions that are invariably included when you pick up newer editions of classics. I understand that they’re there to provide you with some background and context to the tale you’re about to read but all I think they do is imprint someone else’s interpretation of what the book is about onto your brain. I prefer to draw my own conclusions.
In this case I wish I had read the Introduction to this one (written by Salman Rushdie himself) because then I’d have been prepared for the character of Saleem Sinai. I don’t need my heroes to be bare chested paragons of virtue but I do need them to be vaguely likeable and Saleem is just a pompous jumped up little twerp, irritating and annoying and grating and someone that you just want to slap in the face. Once I’d read the Introduction I'm afraid I was having similar feelings about Mr Rushdie.
The book is supposed to chart Saleem’s life and that of a newly independent India (Saleem is born at the moment of India’s independence). This book is not short. It comes in at over 900 pages and is split into three sections. He isn’t even born until the end of the first section so I reckon we can get rid of that one. The last section is pretty much incomprehensible so I would recommend getting rid of that one.
That leaves us with the second section and actually the part of the book which I genuinely enjoyed. I struggled through the first book, and upon entering the second, felt a calm release that reassured me the effort had been worth it. I wanted to read it, I felt absorbed by it, heck I liked it so much I even did a bit of illegal reading at work of it. Then I entered the third book and it lost the plot entirely and I felt all the worse for it after the high of enjoying the middle section, I felt cheated.
So anyway. Saleem is born at the stroke of midnight on the day of India’s independence. At the age of 9 he discovers that he can hear the thoughts of those around them and later on discovers that he can willingly connect with the 1,001 other children who were also born on the first day of independence.
Now here’s the problem and I think some of the cause of my trials with this book. You need to know the basic background before you can even think about reading it. My knowledge of India’s independence and then the partition of it? Zero. Absolute zero. This is kind of major problem when you’re reading a book where the main character is supposed to be the personification of the country in question. It’s impossible to keep track and make connections between the two if you haven’t completed a short history course beforehand.
(And as an aside. This is why people don’t like books that win the Booker Prize. They think they’re going to be pretentious and in cases like this they are absolutely bang on. A good book shouldn’t be dependent on you having a degree in history to enjoy them , the writing should be good enough to carry the story on its own, without the need for the reader to have a library to hand.)
I think my lack of knowledge was a serious issue here. I couldn’t follow what was going on. I didn’t know what was happening and once war broke out and you’re with Saleem in the jungle in Book III I had completely lost the will to live.
What was even more annoying was that I felt the book had potential – there really were parts of it that I thought were beautifully written and sharply observant – my favourite?
“This behaviour...was the direct result of a confusion in his mind, which invariably muddled up morality – the desire to do what is right – with popularity – the rather more dubious desire to do what is approved of.”
The New York Times reckons Midnight’s Children is “One of the most important books to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation”.
I just wish I could understand why they think that. I’m afraid this is one of those times when I have to hold my hands up and say “I didn’t get it.”
Sorry Mr Rushdie.
On to the next classic!
(It's Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone if you wanted to know)