Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the last book I read

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

It's August 1947, and great things are afoot, specifically the moment that India gains its independence from the cruel yoke of its colonial oppressors. Also, at the exact same moment in fact, Saleem Sinai emerges into the world.

Needless to say in a country as mahoosive as India he won't have been the only one to have popped into the world at the exact hour of India's independence, and so it proves. The group of children born in India between midnight and 1am on the big day (the "midnight's children" of the title) all share some unique qualities, not least the gift of telepathy, a gift they use to contact each other over great distances and share their experiences.

Saleem's own family are having some "experiences" of their own, some of which necessitate upping sticks and moving from Bombay to other places, eventually the newly-created state of Pakistan. It also emerges that Saleem is in fact a changeling, a nurse having switched him and another midnight child, Shiva, for reasons that are unclear, shortly after they were both born.

Enlisting in the army, where his freakishly enormous nose and highly-developed sense of smell make him useful as a tracker, Saleem gets involved in various military misadventures including the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and the war resulting in the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971, during the course of which Saleem spends some time meandering around lost in the Sundarbans after a botched mission.

Returning to Delhi, Saleem once again gets caught up in the sweep of modern Indian history when Indira Gandhi's government uses the pretext of the 1975-1977 Emergency to push through a program of compulsory sterilisation. It turns out that Saleem's old nemesis and childhood rival Shiva has engineered the sterilisation of Saleem and all the "midnight's children" as part of a belated act of revenge at being arbitrarily cheated of his birthright. The whole process is about to begin again, though, possibly with added supernatural powers, assuming they're hereditary, as Saleem is left to raise the child of his dead wife, Parvati, a child who turns out to be Shiva's.

Midnight's Children won just about every major literary award going when it was published in 1981, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize; it later went on to win the 1993 Booker of Bookers and the 2008 Best of the Booker award. It's the fifth Booker winner on this list after G. (1972), The Gathering (2007), Hotel Du Lac (1984) and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993).

So I'm evidently swimming somewhat against the tide here when I say that I found it something of an ordeal. The back cover compares it to both One Hundred Years of Solitude and The World According To Garp, which are both books I enjoyed immensely (and, in the case of Garp, have re-read probably half-a-dozen times), and I can see what they mean - epic sprawling family sagas covering many years in both cases, a good dose of "magic realism" in the case of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. But while they were both great, Midnight's Children just set my teeth on edge with its overabundance of detail, digression, flowery prose, and absence of any characters worthy of actually caring about or even identifiable as human beings from their behaviour. I think my central criticism really is that there's just TOO MUCH WRITING here for my taste. It made me long for a bit of Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy where ten times as much stuff would have happened and we'd have spent a tenth of the time hearing about it.

I should add that it's actually not just me who thinks this; I'll also add that one of the reasons it was such a slog for me is that my (early 1990s - like O-Zone this one has been sitting on the shelves for 20+ years) paperback edition is 463 pages, while the latest edition is 672 pages (though I think that includes a 20-odd page foreword). That (35 lines per page, medium-size print) gives you a better idea of the length of the book than my edition (43 lines per page, small print), which gives you the demoralising sense of not really getting anywhere.

All of which will help to explain why it's taken me 91 days since the last book review to read it, the second-longest stint on this list after Infinite Jest (at 96), which, to be fair, is something like twice as long. That's a pitiful 5.09 pages per day, which is second only to Sunset Song (at 3.91) in terms of slowness, and I have to say I'd rate Sunset Song as a much better book.

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