I want to first say that I am not especially well versed in Pakistani, Indian, or postcolonial history/literature. Although I did take one class in college concerning this topic, I am no scholar. However, I did enjoy many of the books I read during that class, which inspired me to pick up a few other copies of Salman Rushdie’s works. In short, this post will focus mainly on Rushdie’s style, characters, narrator, etc.–that is, I will not pretend to understand the historical events Rushdie is referring to in many of the scenes in his novel. If you are interested in reading more about these historical aspects, I found this link that explains some of the parallels. Ok, with that disclaimer of sorts out of the way, let’s get started.
Borrowing a sentence from Robert Towers’s 1983 NYT book review of the novel, “It is probably easier to play croquet (as in Alice in Wonderland) with flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls than to give a coherent plot summary of Shame.” And I strongly second this statement. Though there is a succinct family tree at the beginning of the book, and it’s definitely necessary, it’s easy to get lost in the maze-like plot and cast of characters. The novel begins with three sisters who collectively have a child, Omar, who is one of the main characters within the novel. In another section of the novel, the reader is introduced to Raza and Bilquis who, despite their desire for a male heir, have a girl, Sufiya, who is another main character in the novel. Omar’s and Sufiya’s lives are discussed in detail during the duration of the novel. There are numerous other plot lines and characters that are connected to Omar and Sufiya, but I personally paid the most attention to these two characters’ stories.
I found myself fervently underlining and jotting down notes while I was reading. Rushdie’s prose is engrossing to say the least. He is able to use the most beautiful yet blunt language to detail characters’ thoughts, emotions, and actions. I think it’s the way Rushdie poetically strings together words that I found really enjoyable. For example: “I have described them as beauties; but they were not the moon-faced, almond-eyed types so beloved of poets in that neck of the woods, but rather strong-chinned, powerfully built, purposefully striding women of an almost oppressively charismatic force.” The second half of the sentence is what I highlighted and underlined; I couldn’t stop rereading powerfully built, purposefully striding. I think that phonetics also plays a part here, as the words not only read beautifully and construct a mesmerizing image, but they also sound melodic.
I thought Rushdie’s prose also reminded me of David Whyte’s book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. In Whyte’s book, he takes words such as beauty, alone, and work and gives them lengthy and poetic descriptions/definitions by using explanations and emotions that pair well with the ordinary words. In Shame, Rushdie does this as well:
Where do you imagine they go?–I mean emotions that should have been felt, but were not–such as regret for a harsh word, guilt for a crime, embarrassment, propriety, shame?–Imagine shame as a liquid, let’s say a sweet fizzy tooth-rotting drink, stored in a vending machine. Push the right button and a cup plops down under a pissing stream of the fluid. How to push the button? Nothing to it. Tell a lie, sleep with a white boy, get born the wrong sex. Out flows the bubbling emotion and you drink your fill…but how many human beings refuse to follow these simple instructions! Shameful things are done: lies, loose living, disrespect for one’s elders, failure to love one’s national flag, incorrect voting at elections, over-eating, extramarital sex, autobiographical novels, cheating at cards, maltreatment of womenfolk, examination failures, smuggling, throwing one’s wicket away at the crucial point of a Test Match: and they are done shamelessly. Then what happens to all that unfelt shame? What of the unquaffed cups of pop? Think again of the vending machine. The button is pushed; but then in comes the shameless hand and jerks away the cup! The button-pusher does not drink what was ordered; and the fluid of shame spills, spreading in a frothy lake across the floor.
I also found myself tracking a transition/migration/translation trend that seemed to permeate much of the imagery and prose of the novel. Sufiya was an obvious character that transitions from one state of being to another, while her mother, Bilquis, was known to fear change. In speaking of Omar’s poetry, a reference to transition, translation, and change is made: “He was never very popular in his native Persia; and he exists in the West in a translation that is really a complete reworking of his verses, in many cases very different from the spirit…of the original. I, too, am a translated man. I have been borne across. It is generally believed that something is always lost in translation…” This statement reminded me of the various words in other languages that have more specific meanings but cannot be directly translated into English.
I also found the narrator of the novel to be probably the most likeable character, which is something Towers mentions in his review as well. Right away, I noticed the humor the narrator possessed, and I was immediately taken by it. I also enjoyed the various side notes in which he explained some of the actions or scenes that were about to take place.
To Read or Not to Read?
If you’re willing to tackle a worthwhile challenge and enjoy Rushdie’s lyrical prose, I would suggest picking up a copy of Shame.
Have you read any Rushdie or other postcolonial literature?