Review: Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children
Midnight's Children
Salman Rushdie
Penguin Books, New York, 1980

Review Copyright © 1999 Garret Wilson — January 23, 1999, 3:45pm - 5:25pm

Salman Rushdie is a good writer. No, that won’t do. An excellent writer. But I must be more precise. An excellent storyteller. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: Salman Rushdie is a master of story creation.

Midnight’s Children is not a masterpiece, but it is a typical reflection of a master story creator. Not a storyteller — a story creator, for that is what Rushdie excels at. Surely Rushdie labored over each chapter, each paragraph, yes, even each line, to create a labyrinth of themes, a plethora of allusions, a pickle-factory of twists and turns. Midnight’s Children is not a masterpiece because its creator did just that: masterfully create a story.

(I see doubt on Padma’s face. "Doesn’t everyone like Salman Rushdie?" she cries. "Except of course for... It was a so so good story. Mister, what are you saying?")

And I, of course, must agree. Midnight’s Children is a good story, but that brings us back to definitions and to meanings. Semantics is indeed its undoing. "Story" has many meanings and in this case it means a creation. A fabrication of sorts. A better story one could not ask for. But, outside of its masterful montage of events, where is its meaning?

(Padma is frowning again, so I must make myself clear.)

Midnight’s Children is indeed full of meaning. And symbols. Symbols cut out of a perforated, blood-stained sheet. A sheet through which Aadam Aziz examined the patient which would one day be his wife. A sheet which would one day be used as a Halloween costume of a ghost, the symbol of walking death. A sheet that can even hide truth, as the sheet which cloaked the Brass Monkey, alias the Voice of Pakistan, a beautiful voice that did not speak of inner realities. A sheet stained in blood — is Rushdie symbolizing the nations of India (nations, for there are three, not one) that were bloodily cut out of a large, blanketing empire?

So Rushdie can’t be faulted for technique. Though it’s certainly not all new. Around the time Saleem Sinai recounting how he "helped change the fate of the Land of the Pure" (344), one suddenly realizes that it all could be another episode of the TV show "Quantum Leap." Or maybe a type of Forrest Gump that has been placed in history in order to force one to gain another perspective of the past. At times, such as the advertisement for LORD KHUSRO KHUSROVANI BHAGWAN (322), Arundati Roy even comes to mind, though certainly the latter must have been influenced by the former, and not the other way around.

But it is (and I realize that I seem to be contradicting myself here, but bear with me) exactly Rushdie’s technique that provides the only detraction from the book’s perfection. The story was planned. Created. The fact that Shiva was named Shiva was no coincidence. That Parvati the witch was named Parvati. And that their offspring had the ears of an elephant, a human Ganesh. (I certainly hope you’ve read the book, and that I’m not giving anything away.) This is all transparent to anyone of even a cursory background of Hinduism.

But that wouldn’t be enough for Rushdie. From allusions to Hegel’s master/slave relationship (I must confess that I don’t remember where this occurred; I must write quickly, before what-is-remembered becomes that-which-has-been-forgotten), to references of the Doppler Shift as a way of explaining how the telepathic "voices grew and diminished as strangers passed" Saleem (200), Rushdie has an imperative to show the reader that he is well-versed and well-read. " the buzzing in my left, or sinister, ear" (201). Yes, Rushdie knows a bit of Greek, for sinister is indeed the Greek word for left. Is there something sinister about what happened to Saleem’s left ear? What is Rushdie trying to tell us? Or is he merely telling us that (and what) he can tell?

For it all fits together almost perfectly. (And who would expect otherwise?) The Widow and her black and white hair. Drainings above and below, causing a dryness that leads to cracking. Do we really need anyone to tell us that the children of midnight represent the birth of a multitude of ideas of freedom, a land full of dreams — in short, a new nation that has, as many before it, caught the optimism bug. And of the ones who want to exterminate this bug once and for all.

...But doesn’t Saleem explain this heady imagery anyway? Does he not, after all, carefully explain the own allusions of his life, the abstractions, the generalizations and what they represent? If any part of the story (there’s that word again) would seem to be less-than-perfect (and therefore, by definition, be less-than-Rushdie), doesn’t Saleem himself explain such things away by admitting that "distortions are inevitable" (548) but that, should any anomalies be present, they must be excused because Saleem simply ran out of time, and that in the end, "It happened that way because that’s how it happened" (549)? Does not Rushdie provide us with a tautology, a story that must, by its own telling, be perfect?

So it’s all for naught. Saleem is perfectly correct when he says that a chair did not fall at thirty-two feet per second, but that it accelerated at thirty-two feet per second (135), because there is a difference. A distinction. A clear meaning of the terms. Saleem/Rushdie (remember that, in an event typical of Rushdie, he himself was born in 1947) would have nothing but precision. But on the other hand, Saleem mentions the freezing of Amina’s corns "with carbon dioxide at absolute zero" (186) (carbon dioxide yes, absolute zero no), and such a mistake must be chalked up to Saleem’s hyperbole.

So it’s all for naught. Never mind that while Aadam Aziz saw Joe and thought it was God (quite clever, the "Who are you?" and the exclamation, "Jesus Christ!") but that the servant who came back with leprosy and was mistaken for a ghost by Mary Pereira seems to have been initially created by Rushdie just for this clever event, this prodigious coming together of story (of the Rushdie definition) lines.

Any criticizing of any imperfections of plot are for naught, because Rushdie will have it no other way. The story is so perfect (one could say, "defined") as to banish all inconsistencies by redefining them. The plot cannot be anything but perfect. It is perfect by definition. Midnight’s Children is a tautology.

(Padma, who knows me better than anyone else alive, has returned after quickly leaving in the middle of my explanation, knowing that it would be quite a while before I got to my point. "‘Tautology’ and all those other fancy-shmancy words, baba. I’m going to finish dinner.")

...while I finish what I was trying to say. Rushdie can take any sentence, any word, and dive into its definition, constructing links, making analogies, playing with meanings. He certainly did this later in Satanic Verses, and even hints of Mahound and Jibreel in this work (192). (The story of the theft of the hair of the prophet (333), by the way, occurs in other of his works, East, West, for example.) "Rann of Kutch" and "Rani of Kutch Nahi." Kutch nahi means "nothing," and if one were to examine this closer, one could find a multitude of meanings below the surface, I’m sure.

Rushdie knows his stuff. He knows (or thinks he knows — who am I to disagree?) how the name, Allah, was created (350). He’s quite correct when he notes the "futility of statistics" when referring to the ten million refugees who fled from East-Pakistan to India in 1971: "like all numbers larger than one thousand... [ten million] refuses to be understood" (427). He knows his number, all right: 420 (immortalized by the Hindi films, "Sri 420" and the Russian shoes that show up later in Satanic Verses) is associated with "fraud, deception, and trickery" (235); Hindu legal codes will back him up.

Rushdie masterfully has every number and statistic in place — in place and ready, a skeleton ready for a body, and Rushdie readily provides the body. The allusions and plays on words are everywhere — Rushdie isn’t content to leave out any of his clever contrivances, noting that the chapter "Alpha and Omega" could have also been named, "Thicker Than Water" (270). With the skeleton of facts and the flesh of clever circumstances, Rushdie is still not content — he must also provide the interpretation, and suddenly "Alpha and Omega" suddenly means more than the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet, coming in the middle of the story, but it stands for two types of blood, A and O, which revealed that Saleem was not the true child of his father, and blood was what rushed to Amina’s cheeks — Rushdie spells it out for you. But Rushdie, master that he is, has constructed more meanings than even he himself explains, for surely he was well aware that He whom the Christian faith believes to be the Savior, the "Alpha and Omega," was similarly (in certain New Testament books, anyway) revealed to be not of his earthly father, just as Rushie’s Saleem felt a divine calling to be the Savior of his homeland.

Rushdie explains his cleverness: "Midnight’s children can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view; they can be seen as the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive in our myth-ridden nation, whose defeat was entirely desirable in the context of a modernizing, twentieth-century economy; or as the true hope of freedom, which is now forever extinguished..." (240). Rushdie explains his cleverness, because he knows (oh, how clever he is) that his story is too clever to be tied down to only his meanings. "A thousand and one children were born; there were a thousand and one possibilities..." (240), and Rushdie certainly knew that his clever story has a thousand and one interpretations.

A thousand and one interpretations is something I can’t go into, for time is running short. Even now Padma is back, and I can see in her eyes that she’s getting exhausted; I must admit that I am, too. Fine, Padma, I’ll get right to the point.

The fact is that Rushdie, with all his facts, statistics, all his clever plots and complex allusions, his magnificent imagery, has fashioned an excellent story. But this story-that-has-been-fashioned is left somewhat (OK, Padma, just a wee bit) cold and impersonal. Something almost too unreal, something that is too much of a creation to come alive and actually be touched.

At places, there are signs of warmth, a sign that one might be able to reach out and grasp it. "If Indira Gandhi had asked him to commit suicide, Mustapha Aziz would have ascribed it to anti-Muslim bigotry but also defended the statesmanship of the request, and, naturally, performed the task without daring (or even wishing) to demur" (467). Signs of life, personalities, not created but being. But overall, Rushdie has, in typical Rushdie fashion, outdone himself.

Midnight’s Children is a story that makes excellent reading. It’s classic Rushdie. That’s what makes it excellent. But it’s that excellency — that Rushdie ability to create-a-perfect-story — is what keeps it from perfection.