Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

Shame by Salman Rushdie

287 pages, 1983, Picador (Pan Books Ltd.)

Years ago (1992, to be exact) I studied for five months at the University of Melbourne. It was my worst semester grade-wise in college (come on, I was in Australia - I scheduled my classes so I would have Mondays and Fridays off, as Thursday was a big drinking night in Melbourne), but I took three excellent classes, including an English class on postmodern literature. It introduced me to some excellent literature that I never would have picked up otherwise, including White Noise by Don DeLillo (which is probably my favorite book EVER), If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino (a brilliant book, half of which is in second person), and Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut (for some reason, still the only Vonnegut book I've read - don't ask me why, since it's wonderful). Included in the course work was this book, but for some reason, I never read it, and have never read it in the subsequent years. Beats me why - maybe the hype over The Satanic Verses made me resist it. I don't know.

Anyway, I finally got around to it, and wasn't happy after two pages. Why? This sentence appears on page 12 (the second page of the novel):

Through one of the building's few outward-facing windows Mr Shakil on his death-bed was able to stare out at the dome of a large Palladian hotel, which rose out of the intolerable Cantonment streets like a mirage, and inside which were to be found golden cuspidors and tame spider-monkeys in brass-buttoned uniforms and bellhop hats and a full-sized orchestra playing every evening in a stuccoed ballroom amidst an energetic riot of fantastic plants, yellow roses and white magnolias and roof-high emerald-green palms - the Hotel Flashman, in short, whose great golden dome was cracked even then but shone nevertheless with the tedious pride of its brief doomed glory; that dome under which the suited-and-booted Angrez officers and white-tied civilians and ringleted ladies with hungry eyes would congregate nightly, assembling here from their bungalows to dance and to share the illusion of being colourful - whereas in fact they were merely white, or actually grey, owing to the deleterious effect of that stony heat upon their frail cloud-nurtured skins, and also to their habit of drinking dark Burgundies in the noonday insanity of the sun, with a fine disregard for their livers.

Yeah, I know. I'm sorry, but I had to show you what you're dealing with not even two full pages into the novel. But I stuck with it, because I care about English-Indian-Pakistani literature! Shame is a brilliant novel, at turns comical and deadly serious, with an indictment of Pakistani politics, Western imperialism, and Muslim family structure. Rushdie traces the interconnectedness of several main characters, all of whom end up marrying each other and rising high in the political hierarchy of Pakistan. I'm not even going to go into the characters' individual stories, because there are too many of them and I'd get myself, and you, the humble reader, confused.

Needless to say, the overarching theme of Rushdie's book is shame. Shocking, ain't it? He shows how shame affects lives and relationships to the point of destruction and death. His "hero," Omar Khayyam Shakil, has no shame, and his "heroine," Sufiya Zenobia Hyder, feels nothing but shame, so of course they end up marrying each other, to the detriment of both. Sufiya Zenobia's mother, Bilquis, is ashamed both of Sufiya Zenobia, who suffers a brain fever when she is young and is subsequently "simple," and of Naveed, her other daughter, who rejects, on her wedding day, the match her parents have made for her. She marries a polo champion who can no longer play polo, and his shame at this is translated into virility in the bedroom, as he begets 27 children on his hapless wife, who eventually commits suicide. The patriarchs in the story, Iskander Harappa and Raza Hyder, rivals, friends, and successive rulers of the country, feel shame over their relationships with their wives and their inability to lead the country correctly. Both come to tragic ends - Raza overthrows and executes Iskander, and Raza himself is overthrown and murdered.

This is just a taste of the various overlapping plots, but shame imbues all of it with a farcical and horrible inevitability. These people are locked into courses they cannot overcome because of their shame, and Rushdie shows that we are all bound by history and family and our inability to break free. In one of the book's first-person passages (I'll get to Rushdie's presence in the book in a moment), the author writes:

I, too, know something of this immigrant business. I am an emigrant from one country (India) and a newcomer in two (England, where I live, and Pakistan, to which my family moved against my will). And I have a theory that the resentments we mohanjirs [immigrants] engender have something to do with our conquest of the force of gravity. We have performed the act of which all men anciently dream, the thing for which they envy the birds; that is to say, we have flown. (p. 85)

The characters in the book cannot break free and fly; they are trapped in their cycles of behavior. That, Rushdie implies, is the true shame - never breaking free of what society believes are our true roles.

Since this is a postmodern novel, the fiction is aware of itself as fiction (see my examination of Animal Man for another example of postmodern fiction, and Rushdie stops the narrative plenty of times to insert his own thoughts. Readers who don't like this sort of thing will ask, "Why does he do that?" I happen to like that sort of thing, but it still needs to be asked. Why does he do it?

Well, Shame is, as Rushdie reminds us quite often, a fairy-tale. It is what I would call "hyper-real," in that these people could not possibly exist in the real world, yet Rushdie is using them to demonstrate universal truths about humanity. When he interrupts his narrative with his own thoughts, he is not necessarily explaining what he has written, but he is grounding his occasional silliness in real-world terminology. He is not letting us off the hook that he has constructed, where we watch these characters and think them foolish and never consider that we might act in the same ways, with perhaps less of the external trappings. Rushdie is damning us along with his characters, and his asides in the first person illuminate this point. Without them, we would understand his point, but we would be able to remain aloof and arrogant about our own self-perceived perfection. By highlighting the absurdity of his own characters, Rushdie lets us know he's in on the joke, but also that we cannot dismiss the characters simply because their actions make us uncomfortable. We are Sufiya, and Omar Khayyam, and Bilquis, and Raza, and Iskander, and all the others. We are indolent, slovenly, cruel to those we profess to love, narrow-minded, haughty without reason, and torn apart by forces beyond our control. Rushdie wants us to break out of these molds that have been set for us, but he recognizes, through his first-person asides, how difficult it is. He could, conceivably, end things well for all concerned, but he explicitly tells us that the characters must find their own way through their problems, and that it might not go well. This is aspect of fiction that only writers, perhaps, can understand - the characters take on a life of their own, and must, be necessity, follow their paths to redemption or doom. I read an interesting take on the controversial (tempest-in-a-tea-cup controversial, perhaps, but still) ending of Constantine, when Keanu chews some nicotine gum after getting cured of lung cancer instead of lighting up a cigarette, as the comic book character does. It's John's nature to smoke again - he thinks he can always get away with things, even though events often prove otherwise (the whole article is here). Rushdie understands that his characters, even though he created them, have their own personalities, and by bringing us in on the "joke," (it's more ironic than funny, I suppose) he makes us aware that we are also characters, and although we feel we have free will, external forces are working on us as clearly as they are working on Rushdie's grotesqueries.

This is the brilliance of postmodern fiction, when it's done well. It tells a fun story (and Rushdie's story is funny, ironic, and horrific in turns) but it also does not let the reader off the hook. We are drawn into the world that has been created and we are challenged to look at our own world with the same critical eye and with the same detachment. Rushdie is a talented writer with an agenda, but because he turns his political tale into a fairy-tale and then lets us see behind the curtain, it doesn't feel preachy. This is a book by a mature writer for an audience willing to take a chance with their fiction and what fiction really means.


Blogger B2 said...

WHen I decided I wasn't well-read enough (despite my B.A. in English), I put Rushdie's Verses on my list of books I should have read but didn't. I loved it, and proceeded t oread through his entire oeuvre -- loved every word in every work.

10/3/05 1:51 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Yeah, now I might have to go find more Rushdie. He's really wickedly funny.

10/3/05 9:43 PM  

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