March 12th, 2008

Library books

East or West, India Is the Best?

Before I get to my review of Midnight's Children, I need to tell a little story about how I managed to finish the book at all when it was clearly mad at me for not finishing it sooner.

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Midnight's Children is essentially about Indian kids with superpowers, except it's really not. It is mostly about one specific man born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the day India became an independent nation. And so his fate and India's become intertwined, with milestones coinciding and political events having very pointed effects on his own life. Also, he has telepathy.

The man is Saleem Sinai, and he is frantically recounting the story of his life because he senses that he is dying (literally "crumbling"). So Saleem is telling his story to us for posterity, but Rushdie throws in a twist: he's also telling the story to his lover, Padma, who is right there watching him write the whole thing (and commenting on it, causing Saleem to comment on her comments in the book itself). It gives the really neat effect of allowing us to see the story unfold as we read; if we stop reading, Saleem stops writing. If there's one thing I like, it's metanarrative!

But there's so much narrative at play in this book; it's so meticulously crafted because Saleem, like me, is a man who sees his life as a story, and at times, it's as if he consciously acts to keep his own life story consistent with what has come before. At the same time, he's chronicling thirty years of Indian history happening in the background, some of which he plays an active role in. And he is so aware of his connection to his country that he's able to twist any event, large or small, into solely being about him. This is perhaps the most solipsistic book I've ever read.

Except it's brilliant. There are elements of magical realism, which allows you to buy that Saleem Sinai is living quite the narratively convenient life. He continually points out recurring themes objects names. Sometimes they'll be in parenthetical asides, and sometimes he will make a big fucking deal about it so that you understand the significance of what's happening. He's a very compelling storyteller, but he's also a tricky one since he engages in a lot of cryptic foreshadowing, highlighting the importance of objects and people yet to play their roles in his life or struggling with himself about telling what is to come.

And the language! Jesus God, the language. I had no idea Salman Rushdie wrote like this. I always had the impression his books were all stuffy and dense, but, no, they're just dense! The language is fucking vibrant, and I kind of hate him for using so many cool linguistic and narrative tricks in one book so that now I would just be ripping him off. At times, the language is a little overwrought and precious, but it's all in the service of the story and its narrator. Even though Rushdie uses waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too many semicolons (incorrectly), the words just leap off the page like Michael Chabon's prose (except with a better sense of humor). And he mixes in little Hindi words that he doesn't bother explaining but I totally knew anyway, ha!

What I didn't know, however, was the history of my own damn country. So it was interesting to read about in this way although it's a very biased look; Rushdie is quite critical of a lot of the decisions made.

Oh, there's so much to say, but what more do you want? Don't you want to read it yet? I didn't really know what to expect from the book, and that probably enhanced the experience. The only expectation I would probably have liked to have had dismissed is that, well, it's not a book about Indian kids with superpowers. Some other writer could take the concept of Midnight's Children and turn it into some comic-book action extravaganza, and it would be awesome, but that's not even close to what this book is. The children of midnight have their powers, but it's a very small part of the overall plot, even though it is not insignificant. The book is about Saleem Sinai and Mother India growing up together. But I probably wouldn't have read the book if I'd thought that's what it was about, so...Indian kids with superpowers, yeah.

I loved the book for the language and narrative and story. On the other hand, my co-worker could barely remember the language and narrative and story; what stuck with her were the rich visuals and emotional moments. She had thought, "How would I paint this?" Between the two of us, we loved the entire book!