Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

I finished rereading Midnight’s Children almost two weeks ago, but had not yet got around to blogging it until yesterday’s terrible news pushed me into action. It’s good to hear that Salman Rushdie is likely to survive this dreadful attack, but awful that he has been grievously wounded in the course of what should have been a normal professional engagement.

I fear that there are lessons here for anyone involved with organising cultural events; none of us is safe from a determined malefactor. I know that the internal culture of sf conventions is increasingly conscious of security risks, both internal and external. It sucks but it is necessary.

It should also be noted that the risk comes from all extremes. No ideology or belief system has a monopoly on the use of political violence. Christians, Jews, atheists, leftists and right-wingers all use terrorism. Anyone who says that it is a uniquely Muslim phenomenon can go forth and multiply with themselves.

This particular incident is almost certainly rooted in the fatwa pronounced against Rushdie back in 1989 by Ruhollah Khomeini, shortly before his death. I have always suspected that it was an outworking of Iranian politics at the time; the dying Ayatollah wanting to reinforce the place of his regime as a champion of Islam against the West, as the world in general was undergoing revolutionary changes, and therefore picking on a very prominent Westernised Muslim writer as an easy target of opportunity.

The practical effects for Rushdie were devastating even before yesterday. I recommend reading the account he wrote (in the third person) for the New Yorker ten years ago. He makes a very interesting point about the real problem as he saw it:

When friends asked what they could do to help, he pleaded, “Defend the text.” The attack was very specific, yet the defense was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, felt that he needed, a more particular defense, like those made in the case of other assaulted books, such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Ulysses,” or “Lolita”—because this was a violent attack not on the novel in general, or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together.

I don’t feel well informed enough to comment in much more detail. I read The Satanic Verses fifteen years ago and found the critique of Islam pretty mild stuff, at least to what I am used to reading about Catholicism. I hope that Rushdie survives to write more.

My copy of Midnight’s Children was given to me 35 years ago by a dear friend who I have since fallen out of touch with. Opening it again was a return to the better times of that relationship, and I felt a warm glow of nostalgia just from the title page. I enjoyed it over Christmas in 1987, and I enjoyed it again now. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

I am not speaking metaphorically; nor is this the opening gambit of some melodramatic, riddling, grubby appeal for pity. I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug – that my poor body, singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history, subjected to drainage above and drainage below, mutilated by doors, brained by spittoons, has started coming apart at the seams. In short, I am literally disintegrating, slowly for the moment, although there are signs of acceleration. I ask you only to accept (as I have accepted) that I shall eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious, dust. That is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters.)

This weekend is the 75th anniversary of the Midnight of the title, the moment of India’s independence in 1947. The book is the story of India in the last years of British rule and the first thirty-odd years of independence, and it covers also Pakistan and Bangladesh, because you can’t tell the full story otherwise. We know we are onto a good thing in the second chapter, when hereditary nasal problems prove an unexpected blessing to the narrator’s grandfather during the Amritsar massacre:

As the fifty-one men march down the alleyway a tickle replaces the itch in my grandfather’s nose. The fifty-one men enter the compound and take up positions, twenty-five to Dyer’s right and twenty-five to his left; and Adam Aziz ceases to concentrate on the events around him as the tickle mounts to unbearable intensities. As Brigadier Dyer issues a command the sneeze hits my grandfather full in the face. ‘Yaaaakh-thoooo!’ he sneezes and falls forward, losing his balance, following his nose and thereby saving his life.

The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is one of the thousand children born in the first hour of India’s independence, all of whom are endowed with supernatural powers of one kind or another. He is perpetually conflicted about his own identity, unaware that in fact he was swapped at birth with the child of a poorer neighbour. His life loops in and out of Indian (and Pakistani and Bangladeshi) history; his powers prove more a curse than a blessing; the political becomes personal and the personal political. It is tremendously engaging; sometimes funny, sometimes very bleak, sometimes both.

If you don’t know a lot about India (or Pakistan or Bangladesh), as I did not in 1987, you’ll learn a lot from this and enjoy the process. If you do know a bit more, I think you’d still enjoy it. I think the one point that has not aged all that well is that the protagonist is actually not a very pleasant person, especially to the women in his life (who are in general as well drawn as the men), and that gets a bit tiresome. But overall I can see why it was acclaimed at the time and why it remains popular. You can get it here.

This was the top book on my shelves which I had read but not yet written up on line. Next is a much older magical book, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.