Why should you read “Midnight’s Children”? - Isuelt Gillespie
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The chosen baby is Saleem Sinai, who narrates the novel from a pickle factory in 1977. As this article argues, much of the beauty of the narrative lies in Rushdie’s ability to weave the personal into the political in surprising ways.
Saleem’s narrative leaps back in time, to trace his family history from 1915 on. The family tree is blossoming with bizarre scenes, including clandestine courtships, babies swapped at birth, and cryptic prophecies. For a detailed interactive timeline of the historical and personal events threaded through the novel, click here.
However, there’s one trait that can’t be explained by genes alone - Saleem has magic powers, and they’re somehow related to the time of his birth. For an overview of the use of magical realism and astonishing powers in Mignight’s Children, click here.
Saleem recounts a new nation, flourishing and founding after almost a century of British rule. For more information on the dark history of British occupation of India, visit this page.
The vast historical frame is one reason why Midnight’s Children is considered one of the most illuminating works of postcolonial literature ever written. This genre typically addresses life in formerly colonized countries, and explores the fallout through themes like revolution, migration, and identity.
Postcolonial literature also deals with the search for agency and authenticity in the wake of imposed foreign rule. Midnight’s Children reflects these concerns with its explosive combination of Eastern and Western references. On the one hand, it’s been compared to the sprawling novels of Charles Dickens or George Elliot, which also offer a panoramic vision of society paired with tales of personal development. But Rushdie radically disrupts this formula by adding Indian cultural references, magic and myth.
Saleem writes the story by night, and narrates it back to his love interest, Padma. This echoes the frame for 1001 Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folktales told by Scheherazade every night to her lover - and as Saleem reminds us, 1001 is “the number of night, of magic, of alternative realities.”
Saleem spends a lot of the novel attempting to account for the unexpected. But he often gets thoroughly distracted and goes on astonishing tangents, telling dirty jokes or mocking his enemies. With his own powers of telepathy, Saleem forges connections between other children of midnight; including a boy who can step through time and mirrors, and a child who changes their gender when immersed in water. There’s other flashes of magic throughout, from a mother who can see into dreams to witchdoctors, shapeshifters, and many more. For an overview of the dazzling reference points of the novel, visit this page.
Sometimes, all this is like reading a rollercoaster: Saleem sometimes narrates separate events all at once, refers to himself in the first and third person in the space of a single sentence, or uses different names for one person. And Padma is always interrupting, urging him to get to the point or exclaiming at his story’s twists and turns.
This mind-bending approach has garnered continuing fascination and praise. Not only did Midnight’s Children win the prestigious Man Booker prize in its year of publication, but it was named the best of all the winners in 2008. For an interview about Rushdie’s outlook and processed, click here.
All this gives the narrative a breathless quality, and brings to life an entire society surging through political upheaval without losing sight of the marvels of individual lives. But even as he depicts the cosmological consequences of a single life, Rushdie questions the idea that we can ever condense history into a single narrative.
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