As a fiction writer, I can attest that there’s something tricky about balancing imagination with reality. Go in one direction too much and I risk making my story seem unbelievable in the worst sense of the word, while heading in the other too far always makes me worry that I’m sneaking into autobiography or memoir territory.
Then there’s magic realism, which involves putting the extremes of imagination and realism together in the same story.
While my forays into magic realism have been failures (not that I’m feeling sorry for myself or anything . . .), there are some spectacular successes in the genre, none more so than Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children. This selection for today’s post shouldn’t be too surprising, considering how I gushed over his controversial work The Satanic Verses back in May. Plus, I’m currently reading his new novel Quichotte, so I felt like this week deserved to be Rushdie’s.
Like that other monument to magic realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Midnight’s Children is lengthy, complex, and sweeping. That means I’ll apologize ahead of time because the gist I’ll give of it reduces or leaves out so many of the novel’s finest qualities.
By either freak coincidence or destiny, Saleem Sinai comes into the world at the same moment his home nation of India becomes independent at the stroke of midnight in August 1947. What’s even stranger is Saleem’s eventual discovery that across India, babies born at the same time as him all have bizarre superpowers. Saleem realizes he has his own special ability: telepathy. This shows off the “magic” in “magic realism.”
The novel’s obligatory dose of realism comes from Saleem’s often-funny, sometimes-scary childhood growing up in a growing nation as old (or, as young) as he is. Eventually, you’ll be asking yourself: Is India Saleem? Or is Saleem India? The knack Saleem has for playing a role in India’s historic events as he grows up—including a surreal venture he has in Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence—perplexed me. Saleem’s involvement with “midnight’s children,” meanwhile, takes a dark turn as he faces the antagonistic midnight child Shiva.
Throwing in these dreamlike and nightmarish elements and combining them with historical and political events like Indira Gandhi’s turmoiled leadership of India in the 1970s is difficult in and of itself. But not only does Rushdie succeed with this combination, he goes further and makes them accessible to just about any reader. My main goal with this blog has always been making great works of literature more appealing to those who might shy away from them because they seem dry, complicated, and above all unapproachable.
With Midnight’s Children, though, Rushdie does the hard work for me. The wonderment and imagination of Saleem’s childhood and adolescence, filled with comic figures, is alone a great incentive to read this novel. You’ll also learn volumes about India and its contentious relationship with its neighbors without having it come across to you as a history lesson. Finally, you’ll get to enjoy (?) one of the most entertaining, queasy, and disturbing point-of-views I’ve found in literature, that of Saleem Sinai himself.
Read what others have to say about this book on Goodreads.com here.