Midnight's Children (1981)
by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie is like the poster child for serious literature in the late 20th century, transcending the narrow world of the novel to become an international superstar in the aftermath of the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. He also has dated many super models, become a public intellectual and makes semi-regular appearances in gossip columns on three continents. But that reputation was built on the back of several world beating novels, and Midnight's Children is the first of those novels.
Midnight's Children not only won the Booker Prize in 1981, it also won the 25th anniversary "Best Booker" award for best Booker AND the 40th anniversary award for best Booker. Midnight's Children was his second novel, but it might as well been his first, for all the attention the first novel received. Midnight's Children successfully qualifies as serious and popular art at the same time, and those looking for an explanation for the triumph of Midnight's Children would do well to look at Rushdie's obvious grasp of the entire tradition of the novel and his ability to blend that with his knowledge of life in India and Pakistan in the time of independence from the British.
Rushdie's virtuosity is on full display from jump, with a narrator who narrates his own not only his own birth but also the history of his family going back to his grandparents, a narrative trick out of use since Sterne used it in Tristam Shandy in the 18th century. Rushdie escapes the dour strictures of realistic fiction by drawing from inspirations ranging from 1001 Nights to the magical realism of Latin America to the flights of fantasy commonly found in fantasy and science fiction.
He also integrates the actual history of India in the partition era, to the point where she was successfully sued by Indian Prime Minster Indira Ghandi for some of his statements in the book. The family of the narrator and protagonist Saleem Sinai are Muslims from what would become Pakistan who settle in India during the time of British rule. Born at the stroke of Midnight on the night of partition, Sinai is telepathically linked to some 600 other children born during the same day within the territory of post-partition India (when Sinai moves to Pakistan as a young adult he finds his gift inoperative.
Despite the high concept telepathy elevator pitch, the meat and bones of Midnight's Children are a very well developed work of fiction about a devilishly complicated topic. Midnight's Children was another top five title for me in 2016, narrowly behind Blood Meridian for best novel I read in 2016. I've been actively looking forward to reading both titles for over a year, and neither disappointed.