The 100 best novels: No 91 – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

SalmanAmong the many turning points in the constant remaking of the English novel – the dazzle of Sterne (No 6 in this series); the quieter, witty genius of Austen (No 7); the polyvalent brio of Dickens (No 15); the vernacular brilliance of Twain (No 23), and so on – the appearance of Midnight’s Children in 1981 now stands out as a particularly significant milestone. Salman Rushdie’s second novel took the Indian English novel, revolutionised it by marrying the fiction of Austen and Dickens with the oral narrative tradition of India, and made a “magical realist” (the label was still in its infancy) novel for a new generation. This emergent global readership would find, in a story set in Bombay, a work of contemporary fiction that mashed up tales of east and west into a self-confessed fabrication narrated by the highly symbolic figure of Saleem Sinai, an Indian boy born on the stroke of midnight, 15 August 1947, a boy whose distinctive nose seems like a miniature embodiment of the sub-continent whose history has just taken him prisoner. Saleem sets out his stall as the narrator in the novel’s third paragraph: “I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow a lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me…” And so, off we go. Saleem, whom Rushdie inhabits for his own purposes, is a character with many unusual powers, especially a psychic connection to all the other children born as he was, at the very moment of modern India’s birth. An equally important, and sometimes neglected, element of the novel is Rushdie’s angry response to the repressions of the 1970s “Emergency”. With Saleem, the personal and the historical become indistinguishable, and Rushdie makes a further duality when he exchanges his narrator for a second baby, an alter ego who expresses Saleem’s dark side. All this is described in Indian English prose that pulsates between the tumultuous and the fantastic.

A page of Rushdie is a rich, jewel-encrusted tapestry of allusions, puns, in-jokes, asides, and the unconsidered trifles of popular culture. Some readers may find this diet close to indigestible, but Rushdie’s charm, energy and brilliance, with his sheer joie de vivre, justify the critic VS Pritchett’s verdict (in the New Yorker) that, with Midnight’s Children, “India has produced a great novelist… a master of perpetual storytelling”.

More here.