Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Shame - Salman Rushdie

Read: June 2009

Shame in one tweet-sized chunk:
A targeted satire of Pakistani politics yet presenting the characters in a human light, Shame is of the very first order.

Shame is one of Salman Rushdie's least considered novels, falling as it does between the megastardom of Midnight's Children and the public controversy of The Satanic Verses. But for many reasons it is one of the most interesting. It sees Rushdie narrating his own novel, offering commentary and personal insight into the events which take place in a way he does not do elsewhere. Given his Islamic upbringing, disappointment at his parents decision to move to Pakistan in 1964, and hatred of religious fundamentalism in all its forms, it is easy to see Shame as his most personal and angry novel too.

Having looked at the effects of partition on India in Midnight's Children, Shame sees him crossing the border into Pakistan to look at the social currents and political imperatives which led to the turbulent decade between one military dictatorship and another. Most specifically it a re-imagining of the lives of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Zia-ul-Haq who between them ruled Pakistan for seventeen years. Having known each other since a young age and with their wives being distantly related, Raza Hyder and Iskander Harappa's lives have always been tied up with each other. They each rise to powerful positions in state apparatus, Old Razor Guts as a successful military leader, and Harappa as a beguiling politician, and for a while it seems that together they can take on the world. But things are not as they seem: the affairs of state are set to be the stage for feelings of shame and all the righteous vengeance it engenders to be played out on a grand scale. What is begun by a shameless man with a loose mouth ends many years later in a military coup, dictatorship, and execution. “Wherever I turn,” Rushdie comments early on, “'there is something of which to be ashamed. But shame is like everything else; live with it long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.” As a work of targeted satire, which lampoons the absurdities of major political trends in Pakistan and yet presents the characters in a human and understandable light, Shame is of the very first order.

This shame is not solely confined to politics however, it is everywhere. This is most clearly seen in the life of Sufiya Zinobia, the damaged daughter of Raza Hyder and his wife Bilquis, born blushing and thereafter referred to by her mother as 'Shame,' a personification of the many faces of shame. Throughout the novel it is she who suffers when shame is experienced until finally the shame takes her over completely which disastrous results and unmistakable portents of doom.

Packed with a host of characters, thought provoking themes, and the usual vibrant exciting prose, Shame is typical Rushdie. If you like his smart, conversational style, fusing of cultures, and desire to get his teeth into an idea then you'll love this. One of the things I love about his work but only finally understood halfway through this book is the way he brings his prose to life, not just figuratively but physically as well. He doesn't only use metaphor to shed light on something, but actually makes it a physical aspect of the character or plot. Here not only does he have characters which represent 'shame' and 'shamelessness' but when he says that Sufiya is engulfed by her shame that is exactly what happens. Ideas aren't just explored in theory, they are brought to life in vivid detail through the many events of the vast novel.

Shame can even be read on many levels. On one hand it is a damning satire of the political mess in Pakistan since partition and an impassioned voice against religious fundamentalism. On another, and like The Satanic Verses it is about the immigrant experience and the value of immigration to society. There is even a way of reading it as a reimagining of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale. And in the end it is all of these. Pigeon-holing is rarely possible in a Rushdie novel. There is just too much going on.

Above all it is a good yarn, driven forward by the hallucinogenic quality of the writing. And towards the end Rushdie even offers a personal and impassioned argument in favour of liberal democracy. Talking about the fate of fundamentalist religious states he writes:
“Few mythologies survive close examination, however. And they can become very unpopular indeed if they're rammed down people's throats...In the end you get sick of it, you lose faith in the faith, if not
qua faith then certainly as the basis for a state. And then the dictator falls, and it is discovered that he has brought God down with him, that the justifying myth of the nation has been unmade. This leaves only two options: disintegration, or a new, there is a third, and I shall not be so pessimistic as to deny its possibility. The third option is the substitution of a new myth for the old one. Here are three such myths, all available from stock at short notice: liberty; equality; fraternity.

“I recommend them highly.”

8 out of 10

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