I have tried reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children three years ago and stopped within the first 200 pages of it. Although I have read The Moor’s Last Sigh beforehand, I still found myself confounded by this noisy, brash, and difficult book. This is exactly the reason why I chose to limit my reading resolution to one doorstopper book a month for 2012, so I can finally find the time to finish this Rushdie.
First let’s establish the baseline for why I find this such a challenging work. It is told entirely in First-Person POV by Saleem Sinai, a man scrambling to commit his life’s narrative to paper as his body starts to deteriorate and come apart. “Life’s narrative” is a difficult thing to qualify here, however, since Saleem himself is so cosmically entwined with India that his recollection spans three generations’ worth of familial and national histories. Saleem constantly intrudes upon the narration, offering glimpses into the future and editorializing the events for both the audience and his lover(?) Padma (she also intrudes into the storytelling). Midnight’s Children is practically the definition of postmodern literature: fractured, subjective, and confusing. It upends the conceit of the bildungsroman, which focuses on the life of a single individual as he grapples with history. Here, the individual IS history, and he shapes it as much as it shapes him.
The book begins in Kashmir in 1915, a mountain paradise that will prove central to India’s ethnic and religious conflicts in the future. Aadam Aziz is Saleem’s grandfather, a German-educated doctor who returns to his hometown as an outsider. His difficult relationship with a smelly boatman demonstrates the tension between Aziz’s distrust of what he considers backwards thinking among his people and his defensiveness against accusations that he is somehow tainted by his contact with the West.
Aziz is also embroiled in a peculiar love story with a young woman named Naseem, a patient that he has to treat through a hole cut out from a white sheet. What was initially a measure to protect Naseem’s modesty ends up becoming a sort of Victoria striptease, as Aziz returns for checkups regularly and catches glimpses of ankles, stomach, ass, and face through the hole. This is my favorite part of the book so far, because it showcases Rushdie’s facility at humor. The small jokes that he constantly peppers throughout the story sometimes have an alienating effect on me but I found this romantic interlude quite charming. Too bad Naseem and Aziz’s married life turns out to be far from ideal–and by that I mean it’s a comedy of domestic horrors.
The couple moves from Kashmir to Agra, where the years bring them three daughters and a lot of trouble. Aziz becomes politically active, which angers the religious yet ultimately apathetic Naseem. Tied to their marital problems is the struggle on the streets for a free and independent India. Somewhere, Mahatma Gandhi is applying his lifetime philosophy of civil disobedience while Jinna and Nehru are coming to the fore of Indian politics. The conflict between the Hindus and Muslims is simmering beneath all this, as they struggle to define which faction will dominate the country once it’s free. There is an extended, metaphor-laden incident which involves an assassination and a fugitive that Aziz chooses to hide under his house.
So yeah, Midnight’s Children is basically chaos. I’m at the point in the story where the focus has shifted to Amina Sinai, one of Aziz’s daughters who is going to be (I think???) the mother of the narrator Saleem. There are so many jumps across time and space that slow reading is necessary, if only to prevent oneself from losing all the threads completely. Intellectually, I can grasp the basics of what this novel is trying to do–the narrative style, for example, is an approximation of the multiplicity and bigness of India itself. There is also an emphasis on smelling and scents, which evokes the in-your-face quality of the setting. I can’t say that reading is a pleasurable process right now. I have to stop reading every ten pages or so because I end up getting a headache.
I don’t begrudge the novel of its complexity and I can tell why this is considered the Booker of the Bookers. I just hope I can push through with finishing it by the end of February. I am starting to doubt myself a little.