Sunday, August 14, 2005

A modern classic: Midnight's Children

Here are some thoughts to share concerning the book I am about 3/4 of the way through now: Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children'. This book falls more or less outside of the direct scope of Duke's stated objectives for The Secret Thread, because it is more or less secular in nature and when it does concern itself with religion it is primarily Islam and some Hindu references that are made. Although there is a kind of flirtation between one character in the novel and Roman Catholicism. Religion on the whole does not seem to be the focus of this book. It is far more interested in the history, complexities and paradoxes of modern India, which is why it seems to have taken root almost immediately as a modern classic - few novels that preceded it seem to accomplish anything close to what this book does in terms of wrapping up all of the fascinating aspects of this culture, which is little known and less understood in the United States. If a reader was interested in a novel that touches on Indian culture but examines it in the light of contrast with Western Christianity and/or Catholicism, there is a book you can turn to for that, albeit from an unlikely source: check out the great Japanese writer Shusaku Endo's 'Deep River', which places a group of Japanese tourists on an exploration journey of the Ganges River in India. This novel examines the spiritual lives of the various members of the group, and since Endo was a reluctant Catholic, it explores the incongruity of the Catholic religion in the context of two different Asian cultures. A curious mix but a fascinating novel.

You have to respect the massive accomplishment of 'Midnight's Children', which was published back in 1980, and put Rushdie firmly and permanently on the world literature map. It is a wild, sprawling, strange book, containing historical anecdotes, flights of magical fantasy, Indian mythology, violence, and madcap comedy all in one expansive story. The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai, who by chance was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the date of India's independence (tomorrow, incidentally, and I heard on the radio that some guy from India is going to be ringing the bell on the NY Stock Exchange tomorrow in order to celebrate that anniversary - I hadn't planned to be reading this book at that time, it just worked out that way!). Saleem is telling the story from some point far ahead in the future, and seems to be rushing to get it down against a debilitating illness that has fissures - cracks - appearing across his entire body - he is literally coming apart at the seams, for reasons not clear to me yet. Anyway, the novel is a retelling of his life, starting back with his grandparents, leading up to his dramatic birth amidst a volatile and historic moment in the nation's history as it acquires its independence in a handoff from Great Britain, and proceeding onward to its conclusion with a mysterious figure foreshadowed only as someone called The Widow. Saleem realizes early in his life that he has been endowed with telepathic powers which allow him to see into the minds of the thousand other children born within an hour of the first strike of midnight on the same day, and he forms a kind of telepathic 'club' called the Midnight's Children's Conference, in which he visits them all mentally and acquires knowledge of their thoughts, dreams, and intentions. Meanwhile, questions arise for Saleem surrounding his birth into a well-off family that has raised him when he discovers the existence of another child born at the same stroke of midnight, who is a kind of coutnerpart to himself, and who has been raised in the slums and gutters of India rather than comfortable affluence. The two may have been switched at birth, and the counterpart, Shiva, may have knowledge of having been denied his birthright, and may be concocting his own plans for revenge.

At rare moments in the history of world literature, an artist will come along with the determination to try to capture everything about his culture and his time in the world in one sweeping drama; as you read the pages of these extraordinary works you can sense the intense effort that they must have required, the near-obsessive labor, the long hours of writing, the passion demanded of the artist to get the story written. These works of fiction must have been written at great cost to the artist and to the people that love them. Witness the amazing story of Marquez laboring to complete 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', chain smoking through huge quantities of tobacco, selling off his family goods to keep his children fed, risking the well-being not only of himself but his whole family to get the novel done. And we have seen the results of his labor, but it could so easily have gone the other way. Imagine the consequences of failing once you have taken the plunge into writing such an epic. 'Midnight's Children' is this kind of book. I do not know how much it cost Rushdie to write it, but it must have been a massive task, and an incredibly difficult one to see through. I admire the intense passion of these writers, who must have had clear visions of what they thought their books would accomplish in order to risk so much to write them. We are lucky to have novels like this. It has some quirks that are irritating, some passages that are less interesting than others, but the fact remains that without a novel like this in the world, people like me who grew up in some sheltered house in the United States with all the freedoms and advantages anyone would ever need would probably never know much about how people lived in a culture so far removed as India. Reading this book is a great experience.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

Now this is the kind of post that is going to keep The Secret Thread going for a long time to come... outstanding review and commentary from Mutt on Midnight's Children! I'll tell you what, reading this post made me want to drop everything and pick up the Rushdie book immediately... and that's a large part of the purpose of this blog, in my mind anyway: to get readers interested in classics (old or new) that perhaps they wouldn't have considered before (although I have to admit I have the book on my shelf awaiting my first read). This sure sounds like a challenging, intellectually rewarding novel, which of course is always the best kind. Another book that seems to fit the ambitious scope that Mutt describes is Halldor Laxness' Independent People. I have a feeling there will be posts about that book in the future on The Thread, since both Mutt and I have read it and were totally floored by it. But that's for another time... I have only one quibble with something Mutt said in his post, which I will address in a post of my own, coming soon... it's not really a quibble actually, just a clarification about the purpose of this blog in general (from my point of view, anyway). Stay tuned to this channel... at any rate, thanks for the awesome post, Mutt. It's the kind of valuable material that makes me proud to be involved with this blog!