World - Midnight's Children rides again but critics baffled
Hasan Suroor That the book has won such an overwhelming mandate flies in the face of all assumptions about what people like to read. As a fully paid-up member of the Salman Rushdie fan club I am, of course, delighted at the latest triumph of Midnight’s Children which, last week, was voted as the best of all Booker prize-winning books of the past 40 years in a global readers’ poll. But I am also a little surprised that a novel which, like Ulysses, has been more talked about and discussed than actually read should have proved such a hit with the public in a day and age when nobody, we are told, has time for “serious” literature. Midnight’s Children is one of those famous books that everyone has heard about and wants to read but few, in fact have. When a stage version of the book was presented in London a few years ago people flocked to it, but I had difficulty finding many who had read the novel. Most people I spoke to sheepishly confessed that either they had not read it or not got round to “finishing” it. Indeed, not “finishing” Midnights’s Children has become a bit of a joke: a character in one episode of a popular British sitcom Peep Show says to another: “Good luck with Midnight’s Children. Nobody ever finishes it.” What was even more surprising about last week’s poll was that apparently more than 50 per cent of those who voted for Midnight’s Children were under 35. What? Under-35s reading Rushdie? What’s going on? If the poll is, indeed, accurate, though I hesitate to take phone-in and internet polls seriously, then we have clearly missed a trick. And the stories we have been told about people’s reading habits (that serious writing is in trouble, people read only pulp, and the younger generation takes fright at the sight of anything more serious than Da Vinci Code, etc.) are a lot of nonsense. In which case we owe readers an apology; and should salute the under-35s who voted for Midnight’s Children. For a book that doesn’t tick any of the right boxes in terms of popular taste to have won such an overwhelming mandate from the public flies in the face of all our assumptions about what people like to read. Indeed, Rushdie himself was surprised to hear the news of his win. He said he was “astonished” that Midnight’s Children was still “interesting and relevant to people who were not even born when it was written.” Less surprisingly, the choice of Midnight’s Children has provoked controversy as happens with most awards and especially with anything to do with Rushdie. The idea that it is the greatest of all the novels that have ever won a Booker Prize has been questioned even by several diehard admirers of Midnight’s Children which was chosen from a shortlist of six that included the works of some of the world’s best writers. Many believe that at least three other books — Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist; J.M.Coetzee’s Disgrace; and J.G.Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur — had a better claim. Some have criticised the shortlist itself for leaving out such important works as V.S. Naipaul’s In A Free State which won a Booker Prize in 1971; Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) ; Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea (1978); and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989) among others. Writer and critic D.J. Taylor, though a huge admirer of Midnight’s Children, found the shortlist skewed in favour of novels that represented the fashion for a more flamboyant literature whereas equally interesting but “quieter” works were left out. “To pluck a few deserving names from the Booker’s 40 years, it would be a shame if David Storey (Saville, 1976) and Penelope Fitzgerald (Offshore, 1979) were overlooked in the Ggdarene dash to acclaim Salman Rushdie as the Dickens of our day,” he wrote in The Independent. To me, it seemed odd that book that had already won the Booker of Bookers on the 25th anniversary of the prize in 1993 should have been put forward again at all for a similar prize. True, the selection process this time was different but how many times are we going to see the same novel, however great, being flogged at the cost of newer and perhaps equally interesting works? There is a danger that at this rate the Booker Prize sponsors will end up causing a Midnight’s Children fatigue even among its most enthusiastic fans. Meanwhile, Rushdie has disclosed that he “wasn’t confident at all” when he wrote Midnight’s Children. “It was all just a trick. My first novel [Grimus] had done less than zero and had been trashed. I had four or five other unpublishable novels, so I felt like a failed writer. At the time Ian [McEwan], Martin [Amis] and Julian [Barnes] had had great successes. All my contemporaries were like Ferraris, leaving me at the starting grid,” he said in an interview in Guardian’s G2 section. A quarter of a century later that “trick” is still pulling in the readers across the world — and winning prizes. “The book has leaped the generations which is wonderful for me. I feared it might just be a topical book about the birth of India and that it wouldn’t endure,” he said. But sometime being proved wrong can be such a bliss.