Friday, November 4, 2011

Midnight's Children


Sadly, not my cup of tea. This unruly, exuberant, at times fantastic (in the magical realism sense) novel was just too too much for my taste. I won't dispute that it's probably my own darn fault that I didn't get it; I don't know nearly enough about India's religions, culture, and politics. But it blunted my enjoyment to feel almost the entire time that I was missing various pieces of information that would have allowed me to understand it much better.

Rushdie's narrator, Saleem Sinai, tells his family's story, both to the listening ear of a fictional female companion who is both caretaker and fiancee, and in the guise of writing the book itself. This framing device lends some structure to what is otherwise a sprawling multi-generational tale. How sprawling is it? Wikipedia lists 89 characters for its 533 pages.

Saleem's tale is filled with fanciful details, such as a couple who live happily in a basement, accessed through a hole in the floor concealed by a carpet; his enormous nose and enhanced sense of smell that allows him to smell emotions; a sister who sets fire to shoes; prophesies, supernatural powers, switched babies and renamings; and his murderous arch-enemy Shiva who kills by squeezing victims with his knees. All this against the political and social backdrop of India's birth to independence from colonial rule. It's a story as detailed and intricate as any embroidered sari.

Still, this novel missed the mark with me (and perhaps the target is somewhat to blame). I had trouble connecting the dots, I like my literature more neatly organized, and I kept thinking of J.R.R. Tolkien, who said, "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

I'm sure many adore it -- after all, it won both the Man Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Prize (it's my double winner for the Battle of the Prizes: British Version), and was voted Best of the Bookers. I won't dispute that it probably deserves adoration. All I'm saying is that it just didn't happen for me.

Excerpt:

She had spent the morning alone with giggling Zohra and the echoes of the name Ravana, not knowing what was happening out there at the industrial estate, letting her mind linger upon the way the whole world seemed to be going mad; and when the screaming started and Zohra--before she could be stopped--joined in, something hardened inside her, some realization that she was her father's daughter, some ghost-memory of Nadir Khan hiding from crescent knives in a cornfield, some irritation of her nasal passages, and she went downstairs to the rescue, although Zohra screeched, "What are you doing, sisterji, that mad beast, for God, don't let him in here, have your brains gone raw?" . . . My mother opened the door and Lifafa Das fell in.

4 comments:

  1. I read it, enjoyed it in it's own way, but will readily admit that it is a bit of a wade. He has no fear of leaving the reader staggering around in some half-lit gloom, indeed, with this book, it seems that may be the intention.

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  2. This was the first Rushdie book I ever read, and I was expecting it to be completely joyless, so the fact that it was funny made me love it. That said, I haven't reread it since the first time, and I think most of the stuff about Indian politics etc. went straight over my head. :/

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  3. I read it several years ago and enjoyed it, but it exhausted my meager tolerance for magic realism. I haven't been able to tolerate any MR since. And I have a particularly difficult time with subsequent novels from Indian writers, which often strike me as knock offs of this one.

    But I am glad you read it and posted your review on the Battle of the Prizes page. I added it to the list of challenge reviews.

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  4. Orenta, you are so right: not only is he not trying to be clear, he doesn't seem to be thinking about a reader at all. Very self-idulgent, that!

    Jenny, yours is probably the best technique, to just ignore and enjoy. I liked the funny and clever parts, too. Thank goodness there were some!

    Rose City, this isn't the best introduction to MR -- Like Water for Chocolate and The House of the Spirits come to mind. But at least I can cross this one off my lists and get some credit for reading it!

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