Thursday, December 1, 2011

#90 - Midnight's Children

K. says:
Hello, lovelies! We’re so glad to have you here on our very first tag-team book review from our Top 10 List. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is, more than many of the books on this list, definitely one that the everyday reader is familiar with, for one reason or another. Salman Rushie is an incredibly high-profile, controversial writer, and I think the experience of reading Midnight’s Children definitely showed me why that is.

This review is going to be coming out a little later than we expected, and I’m going to start off by taking the blame for it. We just finished it a few weeks ago in my Postcolonial theory class, and for as much as I loved the book, we needed a little time apart. And as long as we’re spilling our guts here, I’ll admit one more thing: for the first few days of my reading, I really couldn’t stand this book. Reading is one of my great joys in life, but the beginning of the book was really a strain for me to get through, especially since this was my first encounter with Rushdie.
So now, K.’s Helpful Hints to the Reader of Midnight’s Children:

  1. This is going to sound obvious, but it was probably my biggest issue with the book initially: this is emphatically not a realist text. There is nothing about this that even remotely resembles a realist text. It’s not magical realism or historical realism or hysterical realism. It’s anti-realism. In fact, it’s aggressively anti-realism. That’s kind of his shtick here, if one can really use the word “shtick”. This, the thing that most hindered me, actually grew to be one of the things about it I liked most about this book.
  2. Bring a pen. Bring a notebook. Get ready to make some charts. There are about umpteen million characters in this book.
  3. Find a source. Even something as simple as sparknotes or Wikipedia will do. Nothing particularly fancy or scholarly is needed here, just something to flesh out some details for the reader, who unlike M., does not have fourteen languages at their command. E.g., I would not have known that the Rani of Cooch Naheen was a clever little multilingual pun, and Rushdie was literally calling her “The Queen of Nothing”, had wikipedia not informed me thusly.

Apart from the book’s various challenging aspects, this is one of the novels that I think absolutely, undisputedly deserves its place on the list. It was not only written in a really innovative style, it was also an important book. It revolutionized what we think of as the hero’s tale. The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot nowadays, and usually I take issue with it. Midnight’s Children earns the descriptor “modern epic”, as far as I’m concerned. It has all the trappings of the classical epic[1], including a hero that must go on a journey and undergo trials and exile before he can reach his destination, transformed. Speaking of exile, the chapter entitled “In the Sunderbans” is definitely my favorite in the book, and I think much of the writing in it can serve as a prime example as to why Midnight’s Children won the Booker of Bookers, and why many of today’s fiction writers would give an arm to be able to craft a description like Rushdie:
“…but in the last light there could be no doubt that the jungle was gaining in size, power, and ferocity; the huge silt-roots of vast, ancient mangroves could be seen snaking about thirstily in the dusk, sucking in the rain and becoming thicker than elephants’ trunks…The leaves in the heights of the great nipa-palms began to spread like immense cupped green hands, swelling in the nocturnal downpour until the entire forest seemed to be thatched; and then the nipa-fruits began to fall, they were larger than any coconuts on earth and gathered speed alarmingly as they fell from dizzying heights to explode like bombs in the water.”
Towards the end of the book when India State of Emergency is declared, the refrain “Indira is India, India is Indira” comes up again and again. For all that is said, I think it’s pretty clear that Indira never was India- Saleem is India.
Now, since this is our first team review, I'm going to turn it over to my dusty book-buddy....

[1] I am going to get in so much trouble with M. for saying that. Ooof.

M. says:

Salman Rushdie (1947- ) probably needs less introduction than some of these authors, but dammit, I’m a stickler for tradition. A native of Mumbai, he was born quite appropriately (for the present title) only a few months before India was officially declared independent. He is the author of more than a dozen books, of which Midnight’s Children is the most celebrated, and The Satanic Verses is the most notorious. He is considered one of the founders of the Indian Literary Renaissance, he has been knighted by the British crown for his service to literature, and he still has a price on his head care of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Midnight’s Children, his second novel, tells the story of Saleem Sinai, a child born at the stroke of midnight as India obtains independence. The novel also details Saleem’s family, going back two generations, and more than this, it is a tale of the birth pangs and the tribulations of India, from Amritsar to Indira.

I know a great deal about India from the Harappans down to Kalidasa, and almost nothing after that until my own lifetime. This is a terrible handicap when reading this book. K.’s advice is solid here[2]. At the very least, acquire a scrap of paper for character notes (I used an old envelope which was serving as my bookmark) and devote an hour to familiarizing yourself with Indian history from 1910 to 1980 or so.

The first thing that struck me upon reading was how cinematic Rushdie’s authorial view is. At a few points, he actively calls attention to this in his narration – referring to a cut, or to a close-up. In other places, its merely implicit in the way that he frames scenes.
… Aadam refills his mother’s glass and continues, worriedly to examine her. “Put some cream on these rashes and blotches, Amma. For the headache, there are pilles.” […]
…Slap of oar in water. Plot of spittle in the lake. Tai clears his throat and mutters angrily, “A fine business. A wet-head nakko child goes away before he’s learned one damned thing […]”
This section, at the very beginning of the novel, exemplifies the trend. One scene is continuous – the river-ride with Tai where Saleem’s grandfather Aadam is being upbraided. Interspersed with this is what we could almost call a montage of other scenes showing Aadam the doctor reintegrating with the community to which he has returned. You can practically see the wipes each time Rushdie drops in an ellipsis.

Rushdie writes with a flamboyant prose style that gleefully gallops over all linear time and strict logical consequence. My able colleague holds back from calling it a schtick; I am not so generous. Frankly, while his style is indisputably fresh and innovative, I think at times that Rushdie leans too much upon the “Look what I can do” showmanship in his writing, and the book suffers from what grows to be a colorful monotony.

The book also sometimes gets lost in the intricacies of its details. An author is certainly not charged with making things as easy as he can for his reader, but Saleem (and Rushdie by extension) seems to take an almost malicious delight in throwing in additional fibs, plot loops, digressions, and flashbacks which further complicate the book’s forward motion. As a reader, I feel that the well-placed authorial aside is an over-criticized and under-used tool; Sir Salman pushes me past my patience.

Despite these reservations, on balance I believe that the Modern Library got this one right. I was exhausted by the style and felt that the often convoluted structure was a net harm to the book. However, Style and Structure are only two important components that make a Good Book, and Rushdie gains ground on some other points.

While Rushdie’s overly-flamboyant prose can be exhausting over the long haul – like a fireworks show that drags on a bit too long – every so often a rocket will explode that still can take your breath away. I’m glad that K. included the quotation that she did from the Sunderbads chapter, as it’s a perfect example where the burst of exotic details and playful prose suddenly fits exactly right.

More important than that, I love a book that rewards close reading and re-reading. If Children’s structure is in danger of collapsing on itself, that’s only because its being asked to hold up a Himalaya of complicated allegory, allusion, and symbolism. Half the time that I put this book down, it was with exhaustion at the style. The other half the time, it was because I needed to think, really think, about the meaning of some passage I had just read. An author who can build such consistent but multifaceted puzzles into his narrative clearly deserves recognition among the Greats of his generation. [1]

And since narrators seem to have become a particular schtick of mine, I will say that I am fond of Saleem, for all his excessive pyrotechnics. And Rushdie rather brilliantly gives him an effective interlocutor in the form of the practical, earthy (dung-like?) Padma, whom Rushdie uses quite effectively in counterpoint to Saleem’s flights of fantasy.

[1]My favorite puzzle to ponder over, for those who have read the book, is this – what does one make of Saleem’s parentage?

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