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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

Started 6/17, Finished 7/27

If I can learn to write with Rushdie's energy, I don't even care if I get published. His mind and heart and soul and pen are as alive as, well, as I would hope, given that he's stared death in the face for nearly 20 years now. Of course, this book was written well before all that started...

It's so hard to know where to begin on this one. I feel like I've used up a lot of "superlative adjective points" in my praise of other books on the list (what's my allotment of superlatives, anyway?) I guess that comes with stacking the deck to increase the odds that I'll enjoy nearly everything on the list (Eleven Minutes notwithstanding). I'm beginning to see that it's difficult to be a critic when everything is a rave. So beyond citing some of its credentials, I'll stay away from generalities (telling), and try to convey exactly why this book deserves all these awards (showing). See, it won not only the Booker, but it won the "Booker of the Bookers" prize - meaning it was voted the best of all the first 25 books to win the Booker award. In Time Magazine's "Top 100 Novels (Since 1923)", it was voted #1 by a reader's poll.

Midnight's Children is the story of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment of Britain's departure from India. The story follows Saleem until 1979, covering a good bit of history, and tying parallels between the life of the boy and the development of his country as a nation-state. Hijinks could be analyzed until the end of your life if you are a deep enough reader.

"No colors except green and black the walls are green the sky is black (there is no roof) the stars are green the Widow is green but her hair is black as black. The Widow sits on a high high chair the chair is green the seat is black the Widow's hair has a center-parting it is green on the left and on the right black. High as the sky the chair is green the seat is black the Widow's arm is long as death its skin is green the fingernails are long and sharp and black. Between the walls the childreen the walls are green the Widow's arm comes snaking down the snake is green the children scream the fingernails are black they scratch the Widow's arm is hunting see the children run and scream the Widow's hand curls round them green and black. Now one by one the children mmff are stifled quiet the Widow's hand is lifting one by one the children green their blood is black unloosed by cutting fingernails it splashes black on walls (of green) as one by one the curling hand lifts children high as sky the sky is black there are no stars..."

...and it goes on for two pages. I read it, wondering at the imagery, of characters yet introduced and "how am I supposed to remember all that?" and "what the hell..." but it's this passage that sticks with me the most. Because when you finish the book and you go back and read this again every word of it makes sense. The beauty of the rhythm you see and hear in there when you first come across it is greatly magnified when you get it. It starts to play inside your head, coloring all you think about, until that moment between sleep and wake you start to think about the day ahead the work is green the commute is black... And this is just one example of Rushdie's skills!

The book (whether intentionally or not) gives you a vocabulary to apply metaphors to all phases of life. The most innocuous images: the center-parting, the stifled children, the curling hand... each of these is a recurring theme: the parting between India and Pakistan, the parting between Saleem, the main character, and Shiva, his "hero" alter-ego "nose and knees; knees, and a nose", later the split of Pakistan into East-West (Bangladesh). This work has layers of meaning upon layers of meaning, giving the reader a connection between the events of the now to the events of the ancient. Saleem is a metaphor for India, India is a metaphor for Saleem. This is the biography of a country told as the biography of a child.

Talking about the parallelism, he even gives you clues along the way, referring to the ways Saleem and his country interact with each other: active-literal, active-metaphorical, passive-literal, passive-metaphorical. Every life event can be analyzed to one of these four categories in his relationship to India. Either he has had a direct effect on India (active-literal), or it has had a direct effect on him (passive-literal). Either it has had a symbolic effect on him (passive-metaphorical) or an event in his life mirrors a larger event in India (passive-metaphorical). This revelation, right there in the book, is doing all the analysis for you: and it's now a tool I'm going to use in my own projects. Relationships not between people and other people, but between people and objects, objects and other people, nations and other nations, people and nations. You can bet that if a shard of meaning can be extracted from a given relationship, it is explored in this book.

It's all about skills. Rushdie could keep you in edge-of-seat suspense while you wait to find out what flavor of chutney will accompany dinner. You'll be biting your pillowcase and drumming your fingers while you wait. What flavor? Don't tease me anymore?! I need to know! WHAT IS IT?!?! But that's about the least of what this man can do. He dangles threads of suspense as an afterthought, casually, as easily as a master tenor clearing his throat.

Every word is carefully laid out, yet it seems to have been spray-painted in fits of passion.
The amount of energy he brings to his prose is inspiring, and it never lets up. He keeps it at 11. It doesn't peter out near the end like (IMO) The Lovely Bones, or heck, my own godforsaken novel. Then you figure out that the character Saleem, disillusioned and beaten down at the ripe old age of 31, is conveying all this energy to you in order to laugh at you. "Look at all of you who try to experience my life and learn new things! What does it come to? Nothing!" He's got you where he wants you, as he dangles you at the end of a marionette string during a performance he considers boring.

But behind that is this virtuoso, this master stylist, who has given Saleem a voice and, from what I understand, has lent that voice to his home country as well. What this book did for the literary scene in India is incalculable. It focused the world on this long-troubled paradise, and gave it a reason to be taken seriously. I only wish I had discovered this long ago.

Rushdie could probably be accused of some sloppiness in the timeline of his narration, because his narrator acts as though there is no "line" of time. I think it's easy to see that it's all deliberate, however. He plays games with you, yes, but at no point is it mindless. He runs backward and forward into the future and past just to pluck hints like cherries then throw you the pits while he makes you suffer for the sour you know is coming. It all seems haphazard, but he is so confident in his plot, so very sure of himself, you can see that it was meticulously planned, probably for most of Rushdie's early life. This was a magnum opus, a life's work. As I've said, if I can produce anything like this in my working life, it won't matter if it ever gets published.

Book #19 will be Turning Angel, by Greg Iles



Blogger sue said...

Really grateful to you for posting the green and black passage - I had been turning the house upside down looking for Midnight's Children just so I could read those lines again. You (obviously) know how it gets you ... Couldn't find it, so tried to find an online library copy - no luck. In depsair I googled onebyone the children mmff - and there you were. THANK YOU. And I agree with you - it is one of the most astonishing pieces of writing ever, which is why I was desperately yearning to read it, for no reason at all except that I wanted to, twenty-five years after I first saw it.

Wed Dec 27, 10:31:00 AM  

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