Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

r e t r o s p e c t i v e
SALMAN RUSHDIE
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Midnight's Children, all grown up

HAS IT been 25 years since Salman Rushdie's magical realist novel, Midnight's Children, was first released? Rushdie's second novel moved him to the top of the heap in 1981, earning him the Booker Prize (just for starters).

Recently, Midnight's Children won the "Booker of all Bookers;" that is, he was given the Booker Prize for the best Booker Prize-winning book in the last quarter century. (Say that five times fast.) The novel is simply that good.

Here's the plot breakdown, for those who haven't read the book (don't worry, I'll give no spoilers):

Two babies are born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947—the moment at which India becomes an independent nation, and—holy soap opera!—they are switched at birth.

I reference soap operas because, if you've ever encountered Indian cinema, you'll recognize the pervasiveness of its melodrama. Soap operas are the Americas' close cousin to India's film world, though let's be clear: soap opera casts aren't as ornately costumed, nor are soap opera sets rich in the carnivalesque grandeur one expects from Bollywood.

But Rushdie is not a melodramatic writer, regardless how over-the-top his characters and situations might be. In fact, there's a certain spare elegence in the fact that Midnight's Children was written on the meager advance money Rushdie earned from his first novel, Grimus. Hardly the budget or the atmosphere for producing so rich a novel, but Rushdie did it knowing he had to fill his canvas with all the strokes, layers and colors of India if he was to be the kind of author he wanted to be.

One interesting fact about the publication of Midnight's Children ought to be remembered, but hasn't been, what with the notoriety of Rushdie's greater insult to the Ayatollah via The Satanic Verses. (The jihadists recently renewed the death threats on Rushdie's head for that blasphemy back in 1988.) There's a smaller, yet no less serious, controversy surrounding Midnight's Children: India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, wanted to level libel charges against Rushdie for writing Midnight's Children. This forced the author to revise his novel and issue an apology.

If you plan to read Midnight's Children for the first time, consider getting a new edition. Rushdie has included a revised introduction to this version which revisits the controversy from the vantage of passed time and reflective wisdom.

Writes Rushdie: "The fact that Midnight’s Children is still of interest 25 years after it first appeared is, therefore, reassuring. … Like all novels, Midnight’s Children is a product of its moment in history, touched and shaped by its time in ways that its author cannot wholly know. I am very glad that it still seems like a book worth reading in this very different time. If it can pass the test of another generation or two, it may endure. I will not be around to see that. But I am happy that I saw it leap the first hurdle."

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Rev'd 2006/06/09