MAN BOOKER PRIZE 1981
Midnight's Children is the right winner
Salman Rushdie's madcap characters splash gleefully in the novel's serious historical tide. A tough book, but a rare treat
Thu 10 Jul 2008
It's only minutes since I reached the final, typically long and rich sentence of Midnight's Children and closed the covers. It feels like shutting the lid on a magic box. A swirling, overloaded mass of words, colours, smells, allusions and illusions has suddenly been contained. A portal to a fantastical, vital dimension has been sealed off.
I no longer have the "headful of gabbling tongues" conjured by the garrulous narrator Saleem. And I feel bereft. The poignancy of this regret convinces me that Salman Rushdie's spell has worked - especially since the feeling comes after more than 600 often exhausting pages.
So I, like just about everyone else who has come to write about this epic story of the birth of modern India, am entranced. My best expectations have been met. I can understand why it has now won the Best of Booker award as well as 1993's Booker of Bookers, why the New York Review of Books called it "one of the most important books to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation" and why the London Review of Books found it simply "brilliant".
What surprised me, however, is how much simple pleasure I was able to take from Rushdie's writing. Given Midnight's Children's weighty reputation, its position as a bulwark of so many post-colonialism syllabuses, not to mention the tragedy and human misery inherent in its subject matter, I was (in my ignorance) expecting something drier and worthier. Instead, I was overwhelmed by its zest and sparkle; the sheer joy in creation shown in every gleefully overloaded sentence, every authorial sleight of hand and every scatological joke. Midnight's Children is (whatever Tory-oaf Boris Johnson and hordes of Booker-sceptics might say) tremendous fun.
The story wilfully defies description. Roughly speaking, it's the biography of Saleem Sinai, a child with unusual psychic and (later) olfactory powers, born on the stroke of midnight on August 15 1947. His destiny is inextricably linked with that of India, the country that came into independent being at the exact same time as he did. But the narrative is so jammed with contradictions, digressions, deliberate false steps and allegorical insinuations, that it's impossible to do it justice in the space of a short blog. Suffice to say that it's a heady ride through the first 31 years of Indian nationhood, taking in religious divisions, linguistic battles, Indira Gandhi's repression, the tragedies of partition, the painful birth of Bangladesh, the colourful career of the unique-yet-everyman narrator, as well as verrucas, jungles, chutneys, spices, snot, "soo-soos", 15-inch turds, eccentric Aunts, indulgent uncles, slums, palaces, snake charmers, werewolves, soldiers, cripples and more than 100 other variously mad, bad, dangerous and delightful characters.
How not to love a book in which the lead narrator tells us at one stage that he is "swept into the datsun" of his Aunt's "vengeance" and who can describe the process of torture thus: "I was encouraged to talk. By an ill-matched duo, one fat, one thin, whom I named Abbot and Costello because they never made me laugh"?
I'm so smitten that the temptation to gush is near overwhelming, but there is also a dark, painful side to Midnight's Children. If it exhibits a rare lust for life, it also acknowledges that life can often be bloody and miserable. Rushdie rages as much as he charms, and a large slice of the book is a catalogue of corruption, failure, senseless slaughter and pain. Saleem may have a habit of presenting as casual offhand asides observations about, say, beggars forced into mutilating their children to help them earn more money, or the mass castration of undesirables, but they hit home with no less force for that.
And even if it's always enjoyable, Midnight's Children is rarely an easy read. Any book that takes its key references as Tristram Shandy, 1001 Nights and the Koran is likely to present complexities and the wealth of detail from American, Indian, Middle Eastern and European culture, history and religion is overwhelming. Sometimes unravelling the allusions is as fiendishly complex as doing the Times crossword (even if equally satisfying) and it's hard not to read each page simultaneously worrying that you might be missing something - and feeling sorry for those undergraduates who have to tackle Rushdie head on for their term papers.
Even so, and in contrast to plenty of the lesser, clumsier books on this Best of Booker shortlist, Midnight's Children is never burdened by its weight of allegory. Yes, it's making serious points about nationhood, how easily individuals can drown under the tide of history and far too much else to enumerate here, but it all flows freely and easily from the narrative. Thanks to the strength of Rushdie's creations and particularly Saleem's character, the writing always remains real, vivid and alive. It's full of artifice - self-consciously so - but there's no doubting the artistry. Saleem might be unreliable - infuriatingly - but he is always convincing. He might lie, but his voice is true.
Crucially, this voice is also always warm, compassionate and splendidly human. Enough reason to rejoice that Midnight's Children continues its glorious progress and adds the Best of Booker award to its already over-loaded prize shelf. Personally, I was torn between it and The Siege Of Krishnapur, but I at least am now convinced that Rushdie is a worthy winner.