Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

I’m a bit of a sucker for the Booker Prize you know. Actually I’m a sucker for anything that brings new books to my attention – TV Book Club, Richard and Judy, Costa Book Award – I lap them all up, eagerly read the synopsis on the back of all the books and add them to my ever growing list of books I want to read. The Booker Prize has come up with some gems for me (step forward last year’s winner The Finkler Question) but occasionally it throws the occasional nightmare into my path (do I need to mention the unreadable Wolf Hall again? Anyone else bored with me saying how much I hated that book? No? Excellent.).

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)


  1. I think I decided long ago that this would be one to miss - not really my cup of tea.

    Wilkie Collin's will be great though. I read The Woman In White for A Level and just couldn't put it down. x

  2. You were bang on when you wrote about why people don't tend to read Booker Prize winners. I must admit to being ever so slightly scared by them. With the exception of The Life of Pi, which I absolutely loved.

    The Poisonwood Bible was a book I really struggled with, yet I know some folks really rave about it.

    I think your next choice of Wilkie Collins will be much more enjoyable.

  3. I only tend to read books that are directly recommended to me. Or if I like the look of the cover.

    A sneaky peek at your flickr makes me hope there's going to be a MOSI post? Not that I know if there's much to say. I just like the pictures. And science, generally like.

  4. I'll give this one a miss then! I do like the sound of the other one you read though, about the prison camp, must put that on my list.

    "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."

    Absolutely. And a VERY good book should inspire you to go off to the library to find out more on the subject.

    Ah well at least it's finished now - you can get on with your life! What's next? xx

  5. Very interesting. I won't read it now. From what you've said I don't think it sounds worth the effort either.

    And besides I'd still like back the three months (it seemed) that I spent reading 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Grrr - simmering resentment.

    Dear Authors of the world - you may be interested in a small obscure moment in history but if the rest of the world isn't already all that bothered about it you can assume you'll have to work quite hard to *make* it interesting. Try harder!

  6. I like to think that all the Authors of the world read your blog and will heed my call. This truth I hold to be self-evident :)

  7. Must say I've never fancied any of Salman Rushdie's books and when I've seen him on TV he comes across as a thoroughly unlikeable person.
    But I've enjoyed other Booker prize winners/nominees especially the dreaded Wolf Hall!
    Did you read 'Room' from last years nominees?
    that was a brilliant tale..I couldn't put it down.
    Em xxxxxxx

  8. This entirely confirms all my reasons for never having picked up this book. I wonder how many people actually like these modern literary classics, and how much of the hype is just pretentious twits wanting to sound clever and intelligent about their reading choices? (not in any way intended as a dig at you - I'm thinking of the types that pop up on Newsnight review droning about poetry and the like).

    Enjoy the Wilkie Collins. At least it'll be readable in comparison!

  9. I can't really comment...I've only read Shame by Salman Rushdie and that was because it was a prescribed English Degree text - turns out only for the full English degree not the half one with Classic so i never actually went on to study it. I quite enjoyed it...it was bizarre and weird with some goat sexual love in it but otherwise I don't remember a lot... Might be worth reading something of his again now I've been to India...

    ...but yeah I have never read a booker book...I wish I could have forewarned you about Hilary Mantel - everyone I speak to is like 'yeah I don't really enjoy her work/s...' Beyond Black is a good enough signal to stay well away...

    Will try a booker one day...so you think last year's baby was a winner then? xxx

  10. I really liked it. i read it cos I was 18 and being pretentious; i must have read a total of about 3 Booker winners in my life. But I respected the Rushdie as a person and decided to read some. The descriptions were awesome although I can't recall liking or identifying with any of the characters...
    I do have a rule though; only one 'foreign' book to every 3 or 4 British or American books otherwise I just get bored!! And maybe one potential 'classic' to every about 10 trash novels or non-fiction. Makes me sound a bit undeducated but it works very well!!

  11. I actually started reading this on holiday last week, having loved some of Rushdie's other books and noting all the many prizes it has won. Well, despite a whole day on trains and a couple of empty evenings I have barely got anywhere with it. I will persevere, but I have a feeling my review will have similarities to yours!


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