Salman Rushdie Rushdie, (Ahmed) Salman (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(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.)

Blake Morrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'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...

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Timothy Hyman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Margo Jefferson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Una Chaudhuri

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leon Wieseltier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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D. J. Enright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Michael Gorra

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 952 words.)