A Brilliant Portrait of Schizophrenia

I wrote this book review and posted it on my personal Facebook a couple of years back. To my mind at least the novel in question, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, very cleverly portrays schizophrenia from the perspective of the sufferer, and so I am re-posting it here: 390 words.

I just finished reading the very dense novel Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (his first, from 1981), and I feel compelled to write about it, so *spoiler alert* for those who are planning to take it on one day. I nearly gave up on this novel because it’s a hard read (much like this review), but roughly mid-way through I became hooked as I realised that rather than being a fantasy novel, Rushdie was in fact weaving a brilliantly intricate and magnificently epic portrait (can you weave a portrait I wonder? – I suppose you can) of schizophrenia in his protagonist, Saleem Sinai. When I briefly looked the book up online this was either not mentioned at all, or was dismissed in favour of accepting the book’s other major motif on face value – that Saleem’s life is linked supernaturally to the fate of the nation of (pre-partition) India, but this seems a very superficial interpretation to me. There are references to a whole range of relevant symptoms, like auditory and olfactory hallucinations, complete absences of emotion and feeling, dissociative amnesia, paranoid delusions and delusions of grandeur, finding connections between everything, tangential thinking, mind reading, the notion of Saleem ‘cracking up’ (in the present day scenes), and perhaps some element of split personality* or at least an alter-ego (Saleem and Shiva). There are also a handful of indirect references to Saleem’s later unkempt appearance and aimless existence which kind of take you by surprise, because in fact it seems from the busyness of his thoughts that he is purposeful and always on the go; and finally there are direct references to potential inconsistencies in the plot made at the very end by Saleem himself, as though to suggest he is on some level aware of problems in his own version of events (but nevertheless remains unperturbed and unwavering in his beliefs). I think it is also far more satisfying to understand the meaning ascribed to the numerous and obscure connections as a grand elaboration on the part of the protagonist himself, rather than a pointless fantasy thought up by the author. It adds a layer of cleverness to the book, but ultimately makes this a very moving story of personal tragedy, one which mirrors the trials and tribulations of the subcontinent over the mid half of the twentieth century.

* Not actually a symptom of schizophrenia, but rather Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which is nevertheless at the same pointy end of mental health problems.