One Amazon reviewer likens Midnight’s Children to a detailed tapestry with layers of characters and events and symbols. Rushdie’s creation is indeed so complicated yet delicious in it’s imagery and emotion and history.
The book is a novelized history of the nascent Indian republic after it won independence from the United Kingdom in 1947. The new nation is personified in the protagonist Saleem Sinai who was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15th, the moment of the official transfer of power. Rushdie, who was actually born earlier in the year 1947, writes mostly in first person with the Saleem’s family and life taking on many features of his own.
As in his other fictional works, Rushdie inserts magical realism, combining supernatural powers and phenomena with real events to give a more colorful and effective treatment of history. This is similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s use of time travel and interplanetary travel in his autobiographical novel Slaughter-House Five. Both authors promote their political opinions regarding real-world events that they had been part of or had observed.
Midnight’s Children is also a saga of war and the transformation of a nation, similar to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Additionally, both works have a main character who personifies the culture-- Scarlett O’Hara, the Old South; Saleem Sinai, colonial India-- experiencing evolution as a necessary adaptation to change that they encounter in the world.
At times I found Midnight’s Children frustrating in the sheer number of symbols and thematic motifs that must be interpreted. Knowing Indian history beforehand would be helpful as well. I read as a companion text the Reader’s Guide from Continuum Contemporaries written by Norbert Schurer. He adds much value to Midnight’s Children by providing some historical context as well as pointing out much of the symbolism. Also, Sparknotes has some helpful analysis.
Salman Rushdie is a serious writer and Midnight’s Children is an award winning novel that is not for the faint of heart. Not only is it lengthy, but it contains advanced vocabulary, lots of characters, heavy themes and weird literary devices like run-on sentences and giving characters magical powers. Unlike Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, readers of Midnight’s Children not only have to wade through history and war and a long family saga, but also supernatural symbolism, religion, social ills and enough leitmotifs to drop a pony.
Annoyed, I had given up reading Midnight’s Children at page 100 a few years ago but finally completed the task this month. A few months ago I read Rushdie’s non-fiction memoir Joseph Anton (reviewed here), and was thus motivated to finish Midnight’s Children now in advance of the recently released movie. Nobody will absorb all of Midnight’s Children at the first reading, but it is an impressive piece of writing.