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(Ahmed) Salman Rushdie 1947–
Indian-born English novelist and critic.
Rushdie is best known for his second novel, Midnight's Children (1981), which was awarded both the Booker McConnell Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. This work established Rushdie as an innovative and accomplished young novelist.
Although his first novel, Grimus (1975), did not draw wide attention, several critics appraised Rushdie as a promising literary talent. Grimus relates a quest for the meaning of life undertaken by Flapping Eagle, an immortal American Indian. Flapping Eagle's encounters with supernatural events and bizarre characters and Rushdie's witty observations on the ways human beings rely on myth were particularly appreciated.
Midnight's Children chronicles the recent history of India, beginning in 1947 when India became independent from British rule. The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, one of a thousand and one babies born during the first hour of India's independence, is presented as a man in his early thirties who has aged prematurely and become impotent. The novel has been widely read as an allegory, with Saleem and the other thousand babies, many of whom died at birth, representing the hopes and aspirations as well as the frustrating realities of independent India. Midnight's Children is rich in allusions to Indian history, literature, and mythology. For this and other reasons, the novel is widely viewed as a stylistic tour de force. Rushdie introduces fantastic and comically absurd events into socially realistic settings, a technique known as "magic realism." Rushdie's use of magic realism and his exuberant prose, which features extensive use of symbolism and hyperbole, led many critics to compare his style with that of Gabriel García Márquez. Critics were also impressed with the multiple narrative perspectives employed by Rushdie to expand the scope of Midnight's Children. Several critics have placed Rushdie among the great chroniclers of India's political, social, and cultural history.
Rushdie's recent novel Shame (1983) presents a fabulistic account of events in an unnamed country that strongly resembles Pakistan. He examines the related themes of honor and shame, shame and shamelessness, as cultural influences that affect the personalities and actions of individuals in Pakistan. A number of characters in this novel embody various forms of shame and honor. While Shame lacks the sweeping scope of Midnight's Children, Rushdie's stylistic techniques are similar in both books, and in Shame he weaves an elaborate, multilayered plot that many critics found rich and intriguing. However, several critics objected to Rushdie's presentation of actual events, and some asserted that he was more interested in constructing an intricately complex story than in providing a serious examination of contemporary Pakistan. Nevertheless, Shame was generally received enthusiastically, and many found it a poignant artistic analysis of Pakistani culture and society.
(See also, CLC, Vol. 23 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 108, 111.)
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'Shame' begins deceptively, not as a political allegory but with a miraculous birth, as if we were to have the fabulism of 'Midnight's Children' all over again, only more so. Three sisters, Chhunni, Munnee and Bunny, give birth jointly to a child of prodigious gifts called (no relation) Omar Khayyam. Locked away in the upper storeys of a mansion, Omar, who sleeps a mere 40 minutes a night, teaches himself Arabic, Persian, Latin and voyeurism. Aged 12, he descends by dumb waiter to the outside world and impregnates a girl whom he has put under hypnosis….
Omar promptly disappears to the fringes of a narrative dominated by the rivalry of two men. One is Iskander Harappa devotee of stud poker, horse-race fixing, French food, opium and women, who, at 40, goes serious and becomes leader of the Popular Front and then Prime Minister. He is based unmistakably on another playboy-turned-politician, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His antagonist is Raza Hyder, pouch-eyed general, who restores the morale of his army by losing wrestling matches against his under-officers and becomes Iskander's right-hand man and later his executioner—the General Zia figure.
This 'masculine saga' of 'power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge,' factually based if scarcely documentary realism, is balanced by a more obviously fantastic 'feminine' plot involving Bilquis, neurotic wife of Raza, Rani, long-suffering Penelope-like wife of Iskander (she embroiders shawls depicting her husband's fateful progress) and Sufiya Zinobia, brainsick daughter of Raza and wife to Omar….
'I'm only telling a fairy story,' Rushdie reminds us, and apologises that he has to use goblinish means to bring down Raza/Zia ('You try and get rid of a dictator sometime'). Self-conscious asides like these are part of the novel's fabric. Where 'Midnight's Children' was narrated by the hero, Saleem, the narrator of 'Shame' is Rushdie in person, who breaks in to have his word on the Islamic revival, or to make Kundera-like jokes about regimes ('you can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail'), or to concede that he knows Pakistan only as an outsider: 'I must reconcile myself to the inevitability of the missing bits.'
The missing bits include the generous and authentic detail, the sights, smells and sounds, that made 'Midnight's Children' so compelling. Instead of the super-sensory Saleem we have what Rushdie calls a 'peripheral hero' (a dignified way of handling the fact that Omar never took off as his author hoped?) and a plot so frenziedly eventful as to make one hanker at times for a long cold bath of Proust or Henry James. Against this, one can say that 'Shame' is more economically written than its predecessor, more confident (though never didactic) in its political allegorising, and no less funny: Rushdie can be a wry, waggish, almost facetious writer, much more so than his solemn advocates admit….
Whether or not he repeats his earlier success, Salman Rushdie has earned the right to be called one of our great story-tellers, a magical realist in the tradition of Grass, Calvino, Borges, above all Garcia Marquez. How far his magical family chronicle can be about the 'real' Pakistan is a question many will ask and which he keeps teasingly coming back to. But the answer he intends is there in a sentence from 'Midnight's Children' 'Sometimes legends make reality and become more useful than the facts.'
Blake Morrison, "On a Magic Carpet," in The Observer, September 11, 1983, p. 31.
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Shame stands to Midnight's Children very much as Pakistan to India; a smaller book for a meaner world. To embody a nation in a book, yes; but the kind of book called forth by India, the ultimate 'loose and baggy monster', can hardly be repeated for India's angry appendage, that sad artificial afterbirth of Independence. Entering a world less known, and less loved, Rushdie discovers a wasteland. Midnight's Children may have been triggered by the shame of India's emergency, yet India remained throughout the book a magnificent possibility. Pakistan, the Land of the Pure, was in Rushdie's account a mistake from the start, 'a failure of the dreaming mind'. Its shame engulfs all. (p. 93)
Rushdie begins in fairytale, more or less beguiling; but as the book continues, the invented characters are elbowed more and more out of centre, and History hogs the floor.
It was Brecht who best articulated the need some artists have felt, in the face of political disorder, to sacrifice their talent, to speak less seductively. Some such conflict seems here to be at work in Rushdie, and one wonders if he sometimes sees his story-telling, world-creating gifts merely as useful sweetener, to sell the political denunciation. In the earlier book the tale was often fractured by the narrator, but this narrator was him-self part of the fiction, and it was even possible to read it all as his marvellous, unreliable yarn. But in Shame the authorial presence is Rushdie himself, suddenly interposing in his everyday rôle as enlightened, sharply-commenting man of the world. From the fairy-tale we shift jarringly into a kind of Time-Out Agitprop…. Somehow, meanwhile, the substance of the novel—the brilliant dialogue, the rich sense of place, the warm characterization, all that fertile invention one knows Rushdie is capable of—seems to slip away, or is never allowed to surface…. Rushdie can be, by turns, arch, convoluted, journalistic and tedious; and because he lacks sympathy his acrobatic style here conveys only a cold-hearted cleverness. Yet there are moments when this voice still rises to an eloquence few contemporaries can rival: the sustained elaborate invention of the shawls knitted by Harappa's wife; or earlier, the child Omar's exploration of the dreamlike mansion in which he's been all his life immured. But the stilled tableaux, the empty rooms, tell the same tale. Until Rushdie's allegorical gifts are once again conjoined with a population that speaks and feels, we are left with the bitter taste of his arid conceits. (pp. 93-4)
Timothy Hyman, "Fairy-Tale Agitprop," in London Magazine, Vol. 23, No. 7, October, 1983, pp. 93-4.
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Rushdie, born in India, moved first to Pakistan and then to England. In life he is a migrant and exile, in fiction a fantasist and historian. He's a wonderful writer. Midnight's Children, published in 1981, is dense with passion, intelligence, excitement, and every vocal and literary effect conceivable. Shame, his new novel, is also brilliant and risky—not so steadily dazzling, more raw in parts, but just as daring. The rawness is there because Rushdie is always testing the tenets of history, politics, and art; for him, composition is inseparable from intellectual improvisation.
He was born, like Saleem Sinai, narrator of Midnight's Children, in 1947, the year India gained independence from the British and emerged as a new myth—"a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivaled only by the other mighty fantasies: money and God." Pakistan, Land of the Pure, was born the same year, from religious obsession and political chicanery, its name invented by a group of Muslim intellectuals in England. "To build Pakistan," Rushdie writes in Shame, "it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani Standard Time." This post-colonial world strains the limits of historical reality. Politics mingles with the occult; old feuds and loyalties join new ones. Facts are screened by hopes or lies; spiritualism is draped over ideology. Myths, screens, veils abound in Rushdie's work. The women are continually shrouded in burqas, sheet, dupattas, chadars, garments of womanly honor meant to preserve manly pride….
Certain themes and obsessions dominate, you could even say ignite, Rushdie's work. He takes psychoanalytic insights into children—their solipsism, their craving for love and approval, their boundless capacity for guilt, the literalism that makes them believe thoughts are equivalent to deeds—and combines them with the determinism spawned by religion, ideology, and the occult. The result is an endless chain of factual and metaphorical links between individuals, sexes, families, and societies.
Primal myths about women (fear of their sexual and maternal potency rises in proportion to the limits placed on their political and economic power), paternity (fathers are always being lost, sought for, and wrongly identified), and the fragile boundaries between physical and psychic needs are played out: as mythology, history, tragedy, farce. What we call miraculous can be taken as both fact and metaphor (a marriage of science, magic, and literature). This kind of writing is called magic realism at the moment; it might be seen as a taut balance between the excesses of imagination and the unconscious (fantasy) and those of history and politics….
Metaphor becomes literal in Rushdie—thoughts poison the air people breathe or the food they eat; blushes don't just look like flame, they burn like flame. Analysts of fairy tales have been describing these links for years, but Rushdie doesn't veil the symbol or let the metaphor (a word whose root means to transfer, to bear) carry the whole weight of the message. This amounts to a code of aesthetic ethics, or maybe ethical aesthetics. Rushdie has much in common with the Delhi street magicians of Midnight's Children: Marxists and illusionists, their "hold on reality was absolute; they gripped it so powerfully that they could bend it every which way in the service of their arts, but they never forgot what it was."
His code is bound up with politics in the broadest sense, with being an outsider, an exile at the mercy of unmerciful powers….
Rushdie is immersed in fiction's intricacies, in writing as a process of excavation and innovation. But there's none of that insistence, so bellicose, so dreary, so common to criticism and literature now, on writing as the supreme reality. You can have a wonderful time playing trace-the-echoes-and-influences in his novels. (Among those which especially please me, for mingling so vividly and sometimes improbably: Sterne, Musil, Borges, Márquez, Poe, Ellison, Pynchon; the parental or romantic identity mixups found in Mozart operas or Gilbert and Sullivan; a gallery of characters speaking a mix of high and low Anglo-Indian, British, black and late '60s white American dialects.) But influences are transmuted, not imposed. Refuse to trace them and the books are still resonant and exhilarating….
"Not so long ago, in the East End of London," writes Rushdie in Shame, "a Pakistani father murdered his only child, a daughter, because by making love to a white boy she had brought such dishonour upon her family that only her blood could wash away the stain. The tragedy was intensified by the father's enormous and obvious love for his butchered child, and by the beleaguered reluctance of his friends and relatives (all 'Asians,' to use the confusing term of these trying days) to condemn his actions. Sorrowing, they told radio microphones and television cameras that they understood the man's point of view, and went on supporting him even when it turned out that the girl had never actually 'gone all the way' with her boyfriend."
Rushdie, a father and "Asian," was appalled because, among other things, he understood the father's point of view. "We who have grown up on a diet of honour and shame can still grasp what must seem unthinkable to peoples living in the aftermath of the death of God and of tragedy: that men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altars of their pride."…
Rushdie goes on. "Wanting to write about shame, I was at first haunted by the imagined spectre of the dead body, its throat slit like a halal chicken … I even went so far as to give the dead girl a name: Anahita Muhammad, known as Anna…. But finally she eluded me, she became a ghost, and I realized that to write about her, about shame. I would have to go back East, to let the idea breathe its favourite air. Anna, deported, repatriated to a country she had never seen, caught brain-fever and turned into a sort of idiot.
"Why did I do that to her?… All stories are haunted by the ghosts of the stories they might have been…. These ghosts, like Anna, inhabit a country that is entirely unghostly."… (p. 14)
Rushdie's ghosts become the heroine, or rather the victim and the scourge (what else are heroines?) of Shame. She is born to a Pakistani couple who crave a son and acknowledge her with rage and resignation: what better source of original shame? By the age of two she has contracted brain-fever and become retarded ("I did it to her, I think, to make her pure," Rushdie-the-author confesses). "Sufiya Zinobia Hyder blushed uncontrollably whenever her presence in the world was noticed by others. But she also, I believe, blushed for the world." By the age of 28, she has become a virgin wife, a streetwalker, a murderess, and an animal.
Sufiya is one of many who practice purity and bestiality in various forms. With nothing akin to linear narrative, Rushdie tells the story of two Pakistani families, the Hyders and the Harappas, whose patriarchs become heads of state, collaborators, and competitors in "the mutually advantageous relationship between the country's establishment and its armed forces." Shame's hero, such as he is, the man who marries Sufiya, is a hypnotist, autodidact, and immunologist. His mother was one of three sisters raised in wealth and ignorance in a remote Indian border town. Isolated and devoted, they swore to share whatever children any of them might have. When their dictatorial father died, they found that he had left them nearly penniless, and threw a scandalous party. They served liquor, forced local musicians to play Western dances, neglected Indian guests in favor of English sahibs and their gloved begums, "raucous-voiced and glittering with condescension."
One of the sisters became pregnant that night, and all three promptly retired to their mansion, ordering food and supplies through a specially constructed dumbwaiter. They delivered a son in perfect synchronicity—nobody ever discovered which one actually bore him. He was named Omar Khayyam, for a poet unloved in his own land, and known largely in translation…. Scorned by the townspeople for his shameful origins, he developed a defensive shamelessness which served him well in his friendship with Harappa and his courtship of Hyder's daughter.
Scattering asides on literature and politics as he goes, tucking small stories into larger ones, Rushdie wends his way through the histories of Omar and Sufiya, Pakistan and its ruling families. Isky Harappa is a philanderer; his wife Rani stays alone on their estate, seemingly dutiful, but passing the years of humiliation by weaving shawls that document his political crimes. (Rushdie's description of her handiwork brilliantly joins a "J'accuse" indictment with a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy.) Raza Hyder puts piety at the service of military coups; his wife Bilquis spends her girlhood in movieland dreams of glamour, her old age in a kind of madness, sewing shrouds and uttering gnomic, futile pronouncements. Sufiya has her counterpart in Arjumand, called "The Virgin Ironpants" because she is ambitious, smart, and rebellious. ("'This woman's body,' she tells her father, 'it brings a person nothing but babies, pinches and shame.'") Regimes rise and fall, the one constant being exploitation of the ruled. Marriages wither and rot, comedy mingles with horror and farce, personal and societal shame fester until the means of purification become sub- or supernatural.
I started to write "sub- and superhuman," then stopped myself, because calling foul deeds subhuman lets the human perpetrators off the hook. But the words do describe views men and women have of each other, and Rushdie is increasingly complex on the subject….
Rushdie describes women with all the ingenuity that love, fear, and obsession can bestow. Some are monstrous, some ordinary, some gifted and willful. All have lives forced into the striking but narrow grooves made when tyranny presses itself onto individual temperaments. Propriety and convention suddenly crack open and give way to anarchic impulses. Every archetype/stereotype of the East and West makes its way into Rushdie's pages, to be embraced, lingered over nostalgically, or rejected….
But once the women have made their way to the center of Shame, Rushdie must go further. The basic repertoire of conception and copulation horrors is here…. Rushdie must show "life within the veil" (the phrase is W.E.B. Du Bois's), must show how these women, born into a family of men who ignored them and abused each other, take revenge on their sons, who take revenge on someone else's daughters. He must slip past the sanctioned images of Greek legend (Pandora flinging open the box of worldly ills, faithful Penelope at her loom), and explode the false dualities of fairy tales like "Beauty and the Beast."
This is a quest worthy of anyone wanting to be a hero in fact or fiction these days. It's woven into the story's texture; it's stated baldly, even doggedly at times, as we all state newfound insights to keep our courage up. (p. 15)
Margo Jefferson, "A Magician for Our Times," in VLS, No. 21, November, 1983, pp. 14-15.
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If Mr. Rushdie had followed [the logic of realistic psychology] in "Shame," he would have robbed his novel of its spectral magic, its breakdown of narrative logic that allows time to rush suddenly forward and reveal the end of things, or permits characters to be reincarnated in each other. He would have robbed his novel of its truth—not precisely the truth of parable or allegory or myth, but the truth of a narrative that describes a world apart and is a system accurate and logical only unto itself.
Most damaging of all, an adherence to realism would have robbed "Shame" of the character of Sufiya Zinobia Hyder…. Sufiya Zinobia is the tiny girl whose gender so enraged her father, Raza Hyder, the future military dictator of his country, that even at her birth she blushed in shame. The heat of that shame incubates a beast inside of Sufiya Zinobia, a beast that grows and takes possession of the tiny girl until as an adult she must be immured in an attic to be kept from wandering out at night, seducing strange men and tearing off their heads. When she escapes that attic, she leaves "a hole in the bricked-up window. It had a head, arms, legs." At the end she will return in the form of a white panther to topple her father's regime and destroy her shameless husband with the heat of her rage. I am not giving anything away. The suspense of the story lies in its fabulous illogic.
The story of Sufiya Zinobia is just one the the threads in a pattern so rich and various that it rivals the 18 shawls embroidered by Rani Harappa to depict "The Shamelessness of Iskander the Great," Rani's husband and Raza Hyder's rival for the dictatorship of the country the author calls P. Follow any one of the threads and it leads to a conclusion equally phantasmagoric. Still, a reader steeped in Western rationalism wants to know what seeds Mr. Rushdie's country has sewn to reap such a terrifying whirlwind. Is it a sin of geographical presumption she has committed—of being "a palimpsest" obscuring what lies beneath?…
Or does the ultimate responsibility lie in the character of the novel's picaresque "shameless" hero, Omar Khayyam Shakil, who bears the name of an Eastern poet famous only in the West, who has a phobia about being on the edge of things (he grows dizzy whenever he approaches the border of his country), who embraces Western logic by becoming a medical doctor, and who ends up marrying a Jonah in the belly of Pakistan?
Each of these answers has a truth; the tragedy of "Shame" lies both in the evasion of historical destiny and in embracing that destiny too violently. Yet this doesn't begin to account for the extravagantly tragicomic nightmare evoked by "Shame," which does for Pakistan what Mr. Rushdie's equally remarkable first novel, "Midnight Children," did for India. The narrative voice of "Shame," creates its own irresistible logic. In a postscript to his story, the author acknowledges having quoted Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka, Nikolai Erdmann and Georg Büchner. Here and there in the text, one can't help thinking of Gabriel García Márquez. These are extraordinary writers with whom to be associated, but it's company that Salman Rushdie deserves.
Christopher Lehmann-Havpt, in a review of "Shame," in The New York Times, November 2, 1983, p. C27.
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[Michael T. Kaufman]: How would you characterize the political position, or rather, the political lament, of your novels about India and Pakistan?
[Salman Rushdie]: Well, I think it's very difficult for a writer in the 20th century to look at the world and avoid a tragic view.
Yet your villians, if that's what they are, don't really come across as monstrous.
No, they are too small for that. I think the great characteristic of our age is that we don't have great despots, we have very low-grade people. This is not exclusive to the East. I would include many governments in the West. One of my central ideas during the writing of "Shame," though it is stated no-where in the book, is that what you have in Pakistan is a tragedy on a very large scale. But the protagonists are not tragic actors. It's as if you had "Macbeth" and you cast a group of second-rate vaudeville clowns in it, and you have clowns trying to speak those great lines.
Why did you choose "Shame" as the title?
It seemed to me that the opposite of shame is shamelessness, but it is also honor. There are two axes—honor and shame, which is the conventional axis, the one along which the culture moves, and this other axis of shame and shamelessness, which deals with morality and the lack of morality. "Shame" is at the hub of both axes. You have the politicians, representing shamelessness, acting without honor, but also without shame. And then you have a girl who is the incarnation of shame. But the book is also full of manifestations of honor.
Do you see a relationship between "Shame," and your earlier novel, "Midnight's Children"?
Yes, I do. There's no connection in terms of story, but the two novels, put together with a half-dozen stories I wrote at the same time, seem to me to represent a kind of statement, in a way that "Midnight's Children," on its own, did not. (p. 3)
Were you aware in writing these India books that the clearing you were making was in such virgin territory? I mean that no one had mined they myths of contemporary India.
Yes. It was amazing. It seemed to me that if you had to choose a form for that part of the world, the form you would choose would be the comic epic. It seemed like the obvious, the most natural form. And it seemed amazing to me that when you looked at the literature that had been produced about India, it seemed dated and delicate, and I wondered why these dainty, delicate books were being written about this massive, elephantine place? It was as if you'd seen an area of cultivable land and the richest soil in it had never been cultivated. You know that everybody is trying to grow crops in the stony ground around the edges and this wonderful prime soil is just left there.
Are you, like the hero of "Shame," a child of three mothers?
When I wrote the book, it was an unconscious allegory, but since then, well yes, I think that is true. In the sense that there are these three places that have more or less equal claim on me—India, Pakistan and England—in which I have spent roughly equal amounts of time. England is the country where I live, India is the country where I was born, and Pakistan is the country where my family lives.
But the three mothers in "Shame" were not used consciously for that reason. I was thinking about the connections between various kinds of repression. The political repression in Pakistan is, in a way, permitted by the existence of a social code that is in itself repressive, and the people who feel that mostly are the women. So it seems that when women are kept down in such a society, they form all kinds of very interesting and important networks of support and solidarity among themselves.
In "Shame," for instance, there is a telephone link between two of the characters that is like an umbilical cord through which they nourish each other; sometimes one character is stronger than the other so the nourishment flows in different directions at different times. In the beginning the three girls who become the mother were kept locked away by their father and what I was trying to do, at the time, was achieve an intensified metaphor for that kind of drawing together, that kind of closing ranks against the world, that many women achieve in that kind of circumstance. (pp. 3, 22)
If modern literature is largely a literature of alienated man, written by Western cosmopolites and émigreś, do you think that with books like yours and those of Gabriel García Márquez, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, V. S. Naipaul, alienation is being increasingly expressed within third-world contexts?
I think that's almost right. It seems to me that the idea of rootlessness has certain problems. I know it is something that explains a kind of Western intelligentsia. But I don't think that migration, the process of being uprooted, necessarily leads to rootlessness. What it can lead to is a kind of multiple rooting. It's not the traditional identity crisis of not knowing where you came from. The problem is that you come from too many places. The problems are of excess rather than of absence. That's certainly the feeling I have.
I've often been asked about my identity crisis and as far as I'm aware I've never had one, never had a feeling of unknowing about myself. What I have had is a feeling of overcrowding. It's not that there are pulls in too many different directions so much as too many voices speaking at the same time. There are some odd effects of this. When I go to India or Pakistan, I stop dreaming in English and start dreaming in Urdu. Once you change language you also change who you are—self alters when language alters. I've become familiar with these shifts. They cause a certain dizziness for a few days but no pain.
I have a fear that it may, at some point, become necessary to make choices among these three countries, and that it would be very painful. (p. 23)
Salman Rushdie, in an interview with Michael T. Kaufman, in The New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1983, pp. 3 22-3
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Shame has as vast and exotic a cast of characters as Midnight's Children, and it is as rich in incident, yet it is a wholly different sort of book. History here is a collective fantasy clinging to the dusty deserts and dilapidated cities of reality, not emanating from the wild imagination of a single, terribly self-conscious narrator. The laughter it provokes is consequently edged with a familiar pain and the marvels it contains are never free of palpable horror.
Most appalling of these is the novel's heroine, Hyder's daughter-who-should-have-been-a-son. Brainless, bestial, immeasurably violent, she is the embodiment of shame itself, and though she prowls around the edges of the story for most of the time, she is the monstrous referent and ultimate ground of all its dark visions. Into this image Rushdie has packed a wealth of psychological insight, for Sufiya Zinobia is the utterly convincing and terrifying product of a culture lost in falsehood and corruption.
Shame is a profoundly disturbing book. Courageously, Rushdie has resisted the temptation to write another exuberant epic. Instead, he has created a concentrated and dark masterpiece, an answer to those who may claim that certain evils of modern history are beyond either representation or translation. Rushdie is intensely aware of such claims, and begins his journey into these evils with a refusal to submit to that which causes them—peripherality and shame…. With Shame, Rushdie vindicates the claim staked in Midnight's Children to a place in the company of such writers as Gunter Grass, Milan Kundera, and V.S. Naipaul, who are giving modern history a forceful voice. (p. 591)
Una Chaudhuri, in a review of "Shame," in Commonweal, Vol. CX, No. 19, November 4, 1983, pp. 590-91.
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When Midnight's Children appeared a few years ago, Salman Rushdie was "admitted to the ranks," as critics say, of the world's great writers, and those who did the admitting wrote as if a South American writer was suddenly born in the subcontinent. Rushdie seemed condemned to be always compared to García Márquez, and more generally to that kind of inflammation of the imagination, that tropical expressionism, to which a lot of literary taste has surrendered. Magic realism is its latest label. Rushdie surely shares its phantasmagoric ways, its interest in the knowledge that is turned up by delirium, its visionary violence, its appetite for epic and for epic exaggeration. This new novel will show, however, that the acclaim was only approximate. The shock of Shame lies in its fidelity to reality. It is a moderately distorted report on a world that is already deranged. This great English novel of Pakistan asks to be admired not for the richness of its invention, though admiration is plainly deserved, but for the truth of its judgments. It is a reckoning with a whole country and a whole culture; which requires not only language, but courage. Rushdie, then, is a different sort of fantasist. He is not that free. There is more pain than play. The extravagance is an emergency. The novel is more closely stuck to things than its style makes it seem; and it is punctuated with personal and political commentary in which all fictional pretension is dropped. When he calls his manner of writing "off-centering," he is not falsely modest. That is all, alas for those who live in "not quite Pakistan," that it is. For this reason Rushdie recalls Kundera, rather, though he lacks Kundera's metaphysical concentration and his sublime silences. This fairy tale is not the invention of a world but the completion of a world. Here the miraculous is a tool of analysis.
Shame is the story of Pakistan…. The story is wildly comic and wildly cruel, because of the disparity between the scale of Pakistan's history and the scale of the people who determine it. The people, in Rushdie's telling, are small squalid little creatures, "God-absorbed" and perfectly profane, unbecoming to the sacred history of a society. The history, however, is large; indeed, it is too large. Pakistan is "a palimpsest" that leaves Pakistanis with the problem of "what to retain, what to dump." (pp. 32-3)
Hanging over it, too, is the sentiment that gives the novel its name, and for his exploration of the emotional economy of his culture Rushdie deserves its (and not only its) gratitude. The emotional life he describes is extreme, and in an advanced state of excitement; it is madly disciplined or madly dissolute; it is fearfully pre-psychological. According to Rushdie, it swings between shame and shamelessness, and every swing leaves wounds. Rushdie is withering about what he calls "the stink of honor." He gives in detail its destructive consequences. A swimmer botches a dive "so completely that he preferred to drown rather than emerge from the waters of his shame," and up from there all the way to the affairs of state, where all kinds of physical and political outrages are owed to this horror of humiliation. It is not far from mortification to murder. (p. 33)
The most moving figure in the novel is Raza Hyder's idiot daughter Sufiya Zinobia, who should have been a son. She is a kind of infernal incarnation of a whole people's shame; cursed by an uncanny consciousness of the inner ignominies of everyone around her, she is seized by a state of burning ("blushing is slow burning") and turns to slaughter, tearing the heads of men from their necks with her helpless evil hands.
Whence all this shame? Rushdie does not say. There is a clue, though, in the novel's constant noise. This is the picture of a society in which the soul has no corners in which to hide. All is public. The people in this story offer no resistance to the judgments of others. (It is as if the social sense has skipped the superego and lodged deep in the ego.) When they do resist, lives are lost. Shame makes them feel like dying, or it makes them feel like killing.
You read this book with a flushed feeling of repugnance, with what Dickens called "the attraction of repulsion." It is an original study of the dark side of the species. Still, it is not hard to read. It is, in the first place, hilarious; the tawdriness of third world politics, for example, has rarely been so well captured….
It is, moreover, written with tenderness, which not even the sexual and scatological grotesqueries can mask. Rushdie is brilliant, but he is not like the heartless Naipaul.
Indeed, compared to Naipaul the unsentimental Rushdie is a sentimental fool. There is a good reason. He is not a man without a place. He is a man with a place that is hard to bear. The difference matters. Rushdie calls this "a novel of leavetaking," which is a familiar kind of modern novel, but he writes affectingly, a little even to his own surprise, of the young polity's hopes. He writes most affectingly of their women. They are twisted and they are abandoned, but they are not insulted; it is the men who insult them who are insulted. Rushdie's women are the custodians of his meanings, and not just the terrible Sufiya. We meet Bilquis, who is doomed to marry Hyder and bear Sufiya, in the years of parition, in the middle of a religious riot, her clothes torn off in a crazed crowd that has gathered outside the ruins of her father's movie theater. (He blew it up with himself inside, satisfied that he had insulted the Hindus by screening a Randolph Scott cattle Western.)…
There is compassion behind Rushdie's cruelty. The mannerisms of the marvelous do not interest him, and neither does the glamor of the homeless. I wonder how Pakistani readers will read his book. Bringing the bad news is a brave thing to do if you intend to stay. "Realism," as Rushdie observes, "can break a writer's heart," and a reader's heart, too. Still, happy is the man who can see so clearly. (p. 34)
Leon Wieseltier, "Midnight's Other Children," in The New Republic, Vol. 189, No. 3594, December 5, 1983, pp. 32-4.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1598
[Shame has] all the welcomed virtues of Midnight's Children, and most of the vices (peculiarly hard though these are, in a work whose "logic" is partly that of the fairy tale, partly that of the nightmare, to separate from the virtues), and it possesses an extra virtue. It is considerably shorter—which, in a writer whose riches are embarrassing, can well indicate a firmer control. Shame is often exasperating, in the way of Günter Grass's best novels, but never (or so I found) to the point of blinding one for long to its sheer power—in horror, humor, slapstick, shrewd wit, and even pathos….
While the story owes much to Salman Rushdie's imagination, Rushdie owes much to Pakistan, to the reality afforded by a real Pakistan, even while his dealings with that reality are (to say the least) highhanded. Or, as some would protest, below the belt. Of course we shall agree with the author that he is not writing "only" about Pakistan. He is writing about sexual rivalry, ambition, power, betrayal, and so forth—matters found everywhere and always—and about politics and religion and history and ghosts. Pakistan happens to provide these in abundant and striking forms.
The core of the story consists in the protracted and intensifying feud between Rushdie's prime minister Iskander Harappa, a clever and debauched civilian, and his president, Raza Hyder, a grim, none-too-bright warrior; Harappa dies at the hands of Hyder, and Hyder at the hands of fate, in the shape of three crazy old women. The parallel with actual personages, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, once prime minister of Pakistan, and the present president, Zia ul-Haq (whose government executed Bhutto in 1979), is obvious enough—yet equally obvious is it that the fictitious characters exist at a more than slight angle to the real people. Harappa and Hyder are Bhutto and Zia as they might appear, centuries later, in some Thousand and One Nights—magnified, transmogrified, distorted. We may ask, Can an author rightly do this to real persons? Well, think of what these real persons have done or caused to be done to so many other real persons. Is no one sacred? Not until human life is sacred. Should novelists be allowed to exaggerate? We should congratulate them if they manage to.
The narrative of Shame is hardly less difficult to summarize than that of Midnight's Children. It helps somewhat if we see two of the characters, nominal hero and nominal heroine, as the book's symbolic poles: Omar Khayyam Shakil, literally (it would seem) fatherless and brought up by his three mothers not to know the meaning of the word "shame," and Sufiya Zinobia, Hyder's first daughter, who is shame incarnate, carrying within her the unfelt shame of others. Sufiya Zinobia was born blushing—she was meant to be the son Hyder never had—and at first looks much like the traditional holy idiot. The shame-less one, we can see, is going to marry the shame-full one—and the inevitable explosion is bound to ensue.
Without Rushdie's linguistic verve, the novel would never get off the ground. Hence—and even if he has his mother tongue in his cheek—it is sad to see him selling his adopted language short: "this Angrezi in which I am forced to write." He may consider "shame" a "paltry" word—he didn't grow up with it—and "a wholly inadequate translation" of sharam, which (he says) contains "encyclopaedias of nuance" and "dialects of emotion for which English has no counterparts." But it serves well as the title of his book, a book which, were he in Pakistan, would earn for him a fate worse than shame, or even sharam. I am not suggesting that he doesn't have the right to carry on so shockingly while living in safety, out of range of reprisals….
No, my point has to do with Rushdie's Nabokov-like complaints against the language that has brought him both renown and cash. And related to it is his interpretation of the true story … of the Pakistani father in London who killed his only child because she had brought dishonor on her family by making love with a white boy…. (p. 26)
By the supposedly flaccid standards of Western morality, that Pakistani father was a murderer. And it would be interesting, though less than decent, to speculate on what in the man drove him to leave the land, the society, in which his act would have been something nobler than murder and settle in one where it wasn't. Rushdie is biting the hand of both the language and the society that are feeding him. The thought is one for such as Rushdie to bear in mind. In others' minds it is merely grudging and mean (quite aside from the declared fact that the poor London-Pakistani girl was, however indirectly, the inspiration for Sufiya Zinobia). Such writers are more than welcome for their additions to literature and their modifications to language; if England can't always quite take them, then English can, that remarkable language which, incidentally, quite a few remarkable Americans have used, abused, exploited, and enriched.
Shame is more a "dramatic poem" than a naturalistic fiction, and Rushdie's diction is correspondingly rich and varied, including "straight" English, "Asian" English (once called "babu"), idioms translated out of Urdu, and crossbreeds between all these, such as (Anglo-Hindi) "snack-wallahs." The conventional grandeur of "the moon-faced, almond-eyed types so beloved of poets" collapses into the colloquialism (originally US) "in that neck of the woods"—the resultant effect of jauntiness being perhaps one of the author's devices for keeping the reader on his toes. A homely allusion to "the famous forty winks" chimes nicely with "the forty thieves," not those of The Thousand and One Nights, as it happens, but the forty husbands who sidle into a women's dormitory to visit their wives at night. (pp. 26-7)
It is not the mingling of reality and fantasy that disquiets, but the degree of reality in the fantasy. Compared with Midnight's Children, Shame is more tightly constructed, yet some of its strands are too lurid for the most willing suspension of disbelief. The four-times repeated reference to the umbilical cord that strangles Hyder's only son as prefiguring the hangman's noose in which Harappa will die is merely a heavy-handed gimmick whereby a raconteur renews his grip on the audience. But the anecdote about a team of scientists and engineers sent in patriotic fervor to develop newly discovered gas fields on the southwest frontier goes over the top: the "tribals" rape every one of them "eighteen point six six times on average (of which thirteen point nine seven assaults were from the rear and only four point six nine in the mouth) before slitting one hundred per cent of the expert gullets." Likewise the arithmetical progression of Good News's babies: first twins, and then, at yearly intervals, triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, septuplets. And also perhaps, comical though it is, the account of Harappa persecuting the representatives of foreign governments by opening diplomatic bags and interpolating scandalous misinformation, so that the US ambassador apparently confesses to a strong and longstanding sexual attraction toward Secretary Kissinger. Like everything else, extremes can go too far, fertility turn into excess, the unbelievable sometimes fail to convince.
The dividing line between what works and what "goes too far" is impossible to locate, but as we read we can tell which side of the border the author is operating on. Among many successes are a macabre incident in which Harappa's long-suffering wife embroiders eighteen pictorial shawls…. Even the sensational transformation of the blushful Sufiya Zinobia into a magical beast given to wrenching people's heads off and pulling out their guts—even this comes off, because we recognize and accept the allegorical sense: one's sins will find one out, Nemesis will eventually catch up with Shamelessness.
Rushdie isn't writing realism, but he is acting coy when he says, at least twice, that he is only telling a fairy story and so "nobody need get upset." The horrific ways in which, one by one, his characters meet their ends belong to neither realism nor fairy story, but are nearer to the Jacobean revenge plays, the stage left littered with corpses; and the suggestion is that those who live by atrocity can be cast out only by the most extreme means. (pp. 27-8)
It is the author's too-frequent interventions and personal appearances that are truly tiresome. Not when he introduces the nonfictitious Pakistani girl sacrificed to family pride or defends his right to his subject—this is highly pertinent—but when he complains about his characters seeing into the future less clearly than he does himself, or confides in Shandean fashion that he has "idled away too many paragraphs in the company of gossips," or frivolously accuses his "so-called hero" Shakil of giving him "the most Godawful headache."
Such behavior led a critic in the London Review of Books to rebuke Rushdie for his "self-regarding tricksiness." With tricksiness and self-regard too, it is a question of degree. Writers deal in tricks, and—though it is an emotion we do well to conceal—this writer has considerable reason for feeling pleased with himself. For the greater part of Shame, linguistic extravagances, imaginative inventions, and sinuous intricacies of plot march—or scamper—together, seemingly about their own multifarious businesses and yet progressing in one ordained direction, moving through terror (though evoking little pity) toward the nasty death of a couple of mortal gods. (p. 28)
D. J. Enright, "Forked Tongue," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXX, No. 19, December 8, 1983, pp. 26-8.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952
Shame is in some small degree a roman à clef about the relationship between Pakistan's last two dictators, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Zia ul-Haq, but any clef is strictly secondary to Rushdie's consideration of Pakistan itself as a failed act of the imagination. The country's very name is an acronym, he writes, meant to denote the peoples and regions of its western portion—while ignoring the Bengalis who comprised the bulk of its population until the founding of Bangladesh. That irony makes the country's history grotesque from the start, and yet Rushdie hesitates before assaulting it…. "Is history," he asks, in one of the many passages in his own voice interpolated into, and commenting on, Shame's narrative line, "to be considered the property of the participants solely?" Well, perhaps—but if so, Rushdie can take certain liberties with it, can avoid "the real-life material" that would otherwise "become compulsory," in favor of a symbolic version. Rushdie's compromise with history is to write about a country that is "not quite" Pakistan, one that occupies the "same space" but exists at "a slight angle to reality," an angle that gives him the freedom upon which this "modern fairy tale" is predicated…. His prose prances, a declaration of freedom, an assertion that Shame can be whatever he wants it to be, coy and teasing an ironic and brutal all at once. He's been compared to Sterne, but the eighteenth-century novelist who comes to my mind is Fielding. To read Rushdie is to re-experience the novel as novel, as new, to recapture Fielding's claim, in Tom Jones, to be "the founder of a new province of writing [in which] I am at liberty to make what laws I please." Shame is, like Tom Jones, full of narrative games, a fiction about fiction that is nevertheless crammed, and finally most concerned with, the vibrant stuff of life.
Shame, like its predecessor Midnight's Children, hangs on the knife edge between comedy and horror…. If Rushdie never falls off the edge of the knife, the events he describes nearly always do, existing first on one side of it, now on the other. What begins as a joke develops into nightmare. General Hyder's mentally retarded daughter. Sufiya Zinobia, blushes at birth for shame at not having been the boy her parents wanted, and that blush looses the devouring Beast of Shame within her. Shame is for Rushdie a perversion of honor, calls honor's sense of self-worth into question, and attempts to re-assert it through violence. Shame turns Sufiya Zinobia into a more clearly seen version of Midnight's Children's Major Shiva, into a juggernaut, a destroyer…. And as the Beast grows within her, a sense of horror begins, with a Fordian progression d'effet, to supplant the comedy in which Sufiya Zinobia, and the novel as a whole, were born. Pakistan's botched name becomes, in the glow of such destruction, something other than a joke.
Earlier reviewers of Rushdie's work have compared it to that of Grass, Kundera, and García Márquez. That conjunction of names suggests to me that perhaps one can finally begin to isolate a fictional mode that is to the late twentieth century what realism was to the nineteenth. Realism is or was an attempt to enact the belief that the way of the world is rational and sensible. It depends, as George Levine has argued [in The Realistic Imagination], upon "the quietly dishonest assumption that the real world is not rife with extremes of action and feeling," and attempts to transform that world into "a subtly disguised version" of the form's own dreams and desires. It is a form inextricable from liberalism, and as such has persisted in England and America. In the works of the writers I've named, among others, one can begin to see the outlines of a similar transformation, one springing from the fact that, as Joseph Epstein said in [The Hudson Review] a year ago, "the great sad central experience of our century has been to live under one or another tyranny." Such tyranny seems to me far more responsible than any Joycean revolution for realism's decline internationally, and perhaps for its loss of confidence and amplitude in those countries where it is still the norm. For realism is impossible in such a world…. [Rushdie's work] is responsive to the world rather than removed from it, and it is because of this responsiveness that the mode in which he works represents the continued life of the novel. That mode—and one wants something better to describe it that the term "magical realism"—is an assertion of individual freedom in a world where freedom is strangled, a proclamation of the imagination's ability to reshape from within the lives upon which brute force is imposed from without.
One learns, almost as the foundation of the liberal arts education whose historical roots are the same as realism's, that such imaginative resourcefulness can save, if not your life, at least your sanity. Most of us don't quite manage to believe in that foundation, however much we profess it. Rushdie's work reveals the essential truth beneath the truism, and suggests as well the kind of world in which one must, sadly, live before one can feel the importance and urgency of such resourcefulness as something other than an intellectual platitude. What remains alive in the world of Sufiya Zinobia is Rushdie's style, a style whose flexibility is not a luxury but a necessity, a way of surviving in a world split between laughter and bloodshed without falling into pieces oneself. Shame restores one's faith in the novel's ability to matter. (pp. 162-64)
Michael Gorra, "Laughter and Bloodshed," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII. No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 151-64.
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