by Salman Rushdie
a squillion pages, Vintage
A bit of a pickle by Pat Black
There’s a nasty meme going around concerning Salman Rushdie. The latest in a long string of critics and public figures to use it was the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He was asked in a BBC show about Tony Blair’s decision to award the Indian author a knighthood as one of the last acts of his premiership. “I object to Salman Rushdie’s knighthood on literary grounds,” Mr Johnson said. Then he commended anyone who had ever gotten through one of Rushdie’s books.
I’ve heard this snide junior comedian comeback dozens of times, and it grates. Salman Rushdie can be an exhausting writer, granted, but he’s never been boring.
Midnight’s Children isn’t my first Rushdie; I read, and adored, The Satanic Verses as an undergrad. His most infamous novel is rich in the storytelling, playful in its use of metaphor and allegory and – doesn’t he know it – culturally naughty.
The same can be said of the book that made Rushdie’s name, his 600-pages-plus epic. For what it’s worth, the Booker Prize panel have honoured it twice; it won the top gong first time around, and then the “Booker of Bookers” celebrating the first 25 years of the contest. That’s a whopping reputation to carry around.
It’s also a whopping f*cking book to carry around, especially if you’re going on holiday with it. I was sweating when they loaded my hold luggage onto the scales at the airport; those budget airlines don’t mess around when it comes to excess baggage charges.
Midnight’s Children concerns the family saga of one Saleem Sinai, who was born on the stroke of midnight when India gained full independence – August 15, 1947. We go through 100 or so pages of Saleem’s family history, from the moment his grandfather returns from medical studies in Europe, to the meeting of his parents, before we even reach the moment of his birth.
The story is heavy with allegories, some of them extremely clunky (the slow seduction of his grandfather by his grandmother, glimpsed only in pieces through a hole in a white sheet, can be seen as a metaphor for the partition between India and Pakistan, for example). Saleem, like the hundreds of other “Midnight’s Children” is born with a superpower; he can mentally connect with the other children, can unite them and – he hopes – lead them in the future. And later on, it turns out that his gigantic, Cyrano de Bergerac-esque nose (which a cruel geography teacher likens to a map of India) can sniff out anything; scents and tastes, truth and lies.
Rushdie is a devil when it comes to tricksy, turny moments in the narrative. The reader is deceived several times when it comes to the mystery of Saleem’s parentage, and so we can assume that India’s parentage appears to be somewhat dubious through Rushdie’s eyes, with lots of things in the mix – the colonial presence of the English not among the least of these. Caste issues are also brought up, and every single major religion is referenced.
Everything, everything, as Underworld said.
As Saleem journeys from India to Pakistan (enlisting as a soldier in the Pakistani army against his homeland in the wake of a traumatic episode) and then back to India for a final reckoning with Midnight’s Children... well, you may well find yourself losing patience with the book. It’s a bit much to digest. His connection – sometimes direct, sometimes tenuous – to every major event in Indian history in the first 30 years of his life begins as quite cute, but grates a little as the book progresses. You half expect Saleem to pop up in Indira Gandhi’s washing basket at some point, hearing how things went down in the seat of power.
Luckily there’s magic in these pages, supernatural powers and physical freaks, and it helps to colour the narrative as we move on from one unlikely scenario to the other. The structure of the book lends itself to the 1001 Nights fable (it’s referenced more than once), and it struck me that a lot of the individual episodes may have worked a bit better as short stories, rather than the ongoing and unlikely saga of Saleem Sinai. But although you need to put the work in with Midnight’s Children, there’s a rich reward to be had once you’ve reached the pickle factory and dear Padwa at long last.
This was a bloated book that ate about half my holiday; even on the plane back home, as we all worried about an earlier security alert, it snapped at me, refusing to let me go until I’d finished it. You get a sense that Rushdie, just over the line into his 30s when he wrote this book, was giving it absolutely everything he had. This was his magnum opus, his big shot at immortality, and he’d packed utterly everything into the pickle jar.
And you know what? He made it. This was his big shot, and he hit all the big targets. These days, if he still has to do a bit of ducking and diving in order to stay healthy, hopefully the worst he’ll have to endure is backbiting comments from people with a scintilla of his talent.