Salman Rushdie’s (1981) Midnight’s Children is undeniably a novel which was not only a landmark in its time, but is also still relevant to this day. Proof of this is it having won The Best of Booker and being thus crowned as the best novel to receive the award in its forty years of existence. It is this essay’s aim to analyse its form, structure and language in view of its themes. However, to do so one must first have a grasp of what such themes are. For that we are required to observe the novel in context, for, as Rushdie (2006, p. 3) says himself, this is a book about history and politics; its narrator being “handcuffed to history”, even if it does deal with its postcolonial identity in a colourful and fantastical way.
India is a state both new and so ancient as to be ageless, reaching back into the untold depths of myth. A fact not gone unnoticed by the narrator, the midnight child Saleem Sinai,
(…) because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country that could never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will – except in a dream we all agreed to dream; (Rushdie, 2006, p. 150)
Therefore, ironically the culturally varied India, heir to an impressive historical pedigree would never exist in its current form if not for its British colonisers. Dealing with 60 years of Indian history, 30 before independence and 30 after, Midnight’s Children tackles more than just the origins of the nation; it also portrays its first governments and the establishment and end of the Emergency government by Indira Gandhi. However, it does so not through omniscient narration of the country’s history, but through the personal experience of Saleem Sinai, who tells the story by hindsight.
Being in many ways a semi autobiography, Rushdie and Saleem share many similarities. His first attempt was to depict his home country’s past in historical exactness, however his memory soon failed him and he was forced to acknowledge the divergence of historical facts and those of memory (Rushdie, 1991: 10). Therefore, what we receive in Saleem’s narration are not hard facts, but facts tainted by the workings of his memory. As a matter of fact, Rushdie goes out of his way to make Saleem an unreliable narrator (1991: 22), even having him depict the death of Mahatma Gandhi in the wrong date.
This unreliability is something that the character himself acknowledges and yet refutes ascertaining his version to be as valid as ‘official’ history, thus creating tension between personal and historical truth,
‘I told you the truth,’ I say yet again, ‘Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.’ (2006, p. 292)
To further increase this tension Rushdie makes use of what is called body politics. He makes Saleem’s very body represent the Indian subcontinent (Kane, 1996, p. 95), his nose, we are told represents the Deccan peninsula and therefore India’s history is his own, or better yet his ‘fault’.
Polarities are abundant in Midnight’s Children: fact and memory, private and public, secular and religious, writing and oral, active and passive, metaphorical and literal, old and young, mythical and real, nose and knees to name but a few. One would expect a novel that is filled with so many paradoxes to burst with the conflict caused by such opposites, and eventually end up into that which Saleem fears the most: absurdity (2006: 4). However, that is not the case with Rushdie’s tale. Far from losing its way or being marred by the clash of such opposing forces, it instead derives force from it, thriving from the fact that, like Saleem and Shiva, one cannot exist without the other (Rege, 2003, p. 164).
The way in which Rushdie brings about such reconciliation of paradoxes is mostly through his use of a style which is an oxymoron in itself, Magical Realism, often associated with Latin American writers, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, writers which also suffer from a sort of double consciousness due to their colonial past and its never ending consequences. The style’s trademark is the blending of realism with fantastical elements, in the case of Midnight’s Children, we have historical facts mingled with the 1001 magical midnight’s children, the Germany trained doctor Aadam Aziz and his friend Tai, the thousands-years old boatman, the harshness of war and the surreal Sundarbans, among many other examples. Saleem’s narrative is at the same time plausible in itself and too fantastic for even his muse Padma to believe in (Schurer, 2004, p. 42).
Another way in which Rushdie deals with paradoxes is by imbibing them in the very structure of the novel. The novel is neatly divided in three books and organised in thirty chapters, each with its own thematic and meaningful title. The first book tells of the years before Saleem’s birth; the second depicts his growing up in newly independent India and his moving to Pakistan; and the third deals with his life during and post amnesia. Yet, despite such straightforward chronological organization, Saleem’s narrative is anything but linear; on the contrary, it constantly flashes backwards and forwards, alluding and referring to characters and situations that have either already occurred or that have yet to come to pass. Far from transforming the experience into an incomprehensible mess, the balance struck generates the effect of spellbinding the reader to the flow of the narration while keeping him alert and skeptical of its narrator.
Equilibrium is also applied to the very language used by Saleem in his narration; it fluctuates between grandiose epic and downright satiric, sometimes even in the same sentence,
Where the partitioned nations are washing themselves in one another’s blood, and a certain punchinello-faced Major Zulfikar is buying refugee property at absurdly low prices (2006: 150)
These satiric elements of the novel are generally directed at political characters and situations and by being spaced out and in between so many other layers of narrative, they become but another element of Saleem’s narrative (Ball, 2003, p. 212), keeping it from having a purely bleak and pessimistic view of Indian and Pakistani history. Punctuation also is one of Rushdie’s tools in order to accommodate such a plethora of themes and messages in his already bursting novel, going from simple punctuation, to abundant use of hyphens and stops (2006, p. 589) to the use of almost no punctuation at all in a stream of consciousness style (2006, pp. 288-9).
There are even more paradoxes, such as the countering of written tradition by having Saleem narrate the novel orally to Padma; the perhaps unconscious opposition of writing a decidedly Indian novel about Indian history in the language of its past coloniser; and the paradoxical opposition of the form, full of life, and content of the novel, which has a decidedly bleak ending with the midnight’s children all ending either dead or impotent both literally and metaphorically, which is pointed out by Rushdie himself (1991, p. 16). Nevertheless, all these paradoxes generate not only the life force of the novel and further meaning, but also a general message to post colonial nations in general, for countries that where colonised can never return to be what they were. They must become new entities by taking bits and pieces from both their regional and colonial origins and become both the same and more than both. This is the message that makes Midnight’s Children an important and relevant literary work even almost 30 years after its publishing.
- Ball, J. C. (2003) Satire and the Menippean Grotesque in Midnight’s Children. In Bloom, H. (Ed) Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Salman Rushdie. Chelsea, Chelsea House Publishers.
- Kane, J. M. (1996) The Migrant Intellectual and the Body of History: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. In Contemporary Literature, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 94-118
- Rege, J. E. (2003) Midnight’s Children and Post-Rushdie National Narratives. In Bloom, H. (Ed) Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Salman Rushdie. Chelsea, Chelsea House Publishers.
- Rushdie, S. (2006) Midnight’s Children. London, Vintage.
- Rushdie, S (1991) Imaginary Homelands. London, Granta Books.
- Schurer, N. (2004) Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: A Reader’s Guide. New York, Continuum International Publishing.