(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

During the past twenty years, Henry Luce’s proclamation forty years ago of the “American Century” has come to seem increasingly hollow. Politically, militarily, economically, and culturally, the United States has witnessed a reduction in its capacity to dictate the terms on which the world will operate. Not the least of the reasons for this decline in American global hegemony has been the increasing ability of the nations of the Third World to assert a measure of autonomy and to achieve, in varying degrees, self-determination and national identity outside the orbit of American power and influence. It has by now become commonplace, in some circles at least, to assess the Reaganite jeremiad as an attempt to recapture the aura of American imperial glory in which the nation basked through the early 1960’s. In the corridors of power, this rhetoric has continued to fall on sympathetic ears, but outside of Washington, D.C., Wall Street, and the bourgeois press, one can hear doubts expressed about the historical and political rationality of this effort to turn back the clock. The realities of Third World revolutions and counterrevolutions have rocked the self-confidence of American chauvinism, as ever larger numbers of American citizens are made aware of the signal differences that separate the social and political structures of Third World nations from their counterparts in the advanced industrialized West.

One of the reasons for this shift in perspective toward the nations of the Third World has been the rapid dissemination of fiction written by and about people native to these countries. The awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1982 to Gabriel García Márquez was, in a way, a watershed moment in this development. It is hardly a secret any longer that the older industrialized nations have lost the edge in the production of active and exciting high culture, that, particularly in the area of fiction, much of the finest writing is now being done in the post-colonial world—and often enough treats the transition from colony to nation-state, which has been the energizing condition for its very production.

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Shame, falls within this broad pattern. Like his previous novel, Midnight’s Children (awarded the Booker Prize in 1981), this one deals with the politics and history of the Indian subcontinent, in particular with the emergence of the Muslim confessional state of Pakistan. It is an attempt, in a sense, to bring the story up-to-date, to try to account for the rise and fall of Ali Bhutto and the coming to power of General M. Zia-ul-Haq. The novel is historical in the classical tradition of Sir Walter Scott, Honoré de Balzac, and Leo Tolstoy.

On the other hand, too much has happened in the history of fiction since the advent of high modernism for a historical novel to be written in the twentieth century with quite the same easy good faith Scott could muster. As Rushdie’s narrator remarks: “My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centering to be necessary: but its value is, of course, open to debate. My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan.” Yes, and Andrzej Wajda’s recent film Danton (1982; Danton, 1983) is not only about Wojciech Jaruzeiski and Lech Waiesa, but it is “about” them nevertheless, and it would be mistaken to dismiss the political or allegorical dimensions of these works.

The parallel with Wajda is not fortuitous. Rushdie himself brings up the Georges Danton-Maximillian Robespierre rivalry (as it is represented in Georg Büchner’s play, Dantons Tod) in trying to account for the actions and views of the two political opponents, Raza Hyder and Iskander Harappa, in his novel:The people are not only like Robespierre. They, we, are Danton, too. We are Robeston and Danpierre. The inconsistency doesn’t matter; I myself manage to hold large numbers of wholly irreconcilable views simultaneously, without the least difficulty. I do not think others are less versatile. Iskander Harappa was...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)