Friday, 31 March 2000

Salman Rushdie: Midnight's Children (1981)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1981
Review number: 466

Being born in Bombay at midnight (to the second) on August 15, 1947 makes Saleem Sinai a special child, for he comes into existence at precisely the moment of Indian and Pakistani independence. This fact has an obvious symbolic significance linking him to both countries, and he grows up having a life which mirrors the history of the two countries (and later three, after the separation of Bangladesh).

Like the other children born between midnight and one in that morning, Saleem has strange magic powers, stronger in him because his birth came so close to midnight. This amounts in him to the telepathic ability to tune into the thoughts of others, making him feel uniquely qualified as a chronicler of the history of the subcontinent following independence.

Rushdie's novel combines the realist, symbolic and magical in a unique way, and Midnight's Children is probably the best example of how he does it. Through the coalescence of Saleem's bizarre peronal history with the world around him, he is able to say something about what independence has meant to the three countries. Having something to say perhaps motivates the novel so that it is more effective than his later writing.

The roots of the magical realist style lie in science fiction and fantasy, yet it is difficult to point to any specific author as a direct influence. The idea of a hidden group with special powers is quite common (examples can be found in John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos and A.E. van Vogt's Slan), and a mundane world with magic in it is a commonplace of fantasy. The non-genre author of whom I was constantly reminded by Salim's autobiography is Lawrence Sterne; there are many echoes of Tristram Shandy. It is principally the style which is reminiscent of this book, but it is the way that the fantastic is blended in which makes possible Rushdie's blurring of the distinction between reality and metaphor, which in turn gives the novel the ability to make satiric points.

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