Thursday 16 October 2008

'Shame' by Salman Rushdie


Sorry. Let me start again.

You enter Salman Rushdie's realm at your own peril. And you are entirely responsible for it. Do not come back to tell me that I did not warn you, that you did not know, that you were lured. The odds are that once you are in Rushdian territory you will either leave in haste, or you will stay until the end. Whichever way you go, you will have a strong reaction towards the book you have just read. But that's Salman for you.

And 'Shame' reinforces that view in my opinion. This novel is based on the contemporary politics of Pakistan, not that you would know it, though, as Rushdie plays 'now you see it, now you don't', whenever it becomes too obvious that the country featured in the novel might be that Asian land. The shame of the title comes as the result of the political intrigues in this imaginary nation. However, far from being a political or historical narrative, the book bathes in dark humour. There's even a little nod to Walt Disney's abstract animation 'Fantasia', in my opinion, with the novel's myriad surreal characters. At some point I expected some of the personages to start performing 'Dance of the Hours' in tutus and ballet slippers.

'Shame' centres on the figure of Iskander Harappa, the Prime Minister du jour, and his relationship with his rival Raza Hyder, the President. But these two gentlemen are merely supporting characters in a tapestry that incorporates a mentally disabled woman transformed into an avenging angel (Raza's daughter Sufiya, whose name gives the book its name), another progeny, Iskander's offspring monstrous, cold-hearted daughter Ironpants, who is the real power behind the power; and last but not least, Omar Khayam Shakil, son of three sisters who claim to jointly share his maternity.

It is this last character who is left in charge of sketching out the course of action in the novel from the beginning. At his three mothers' six breasts, Omar is warned against all feelings and nuances of shame. Through his marital union with Sufiya, Rushdie explores the contradictions and problems of Pakistan, circa the Bhutto and Zia eras. The result is a devastating political satire and exquisite, uproarious entertainment.

The only flaw I can spot in the novel is that unlike its predecessor, 'Midnight's Children', 'Shame' seems effortful in parts due to Salman's indulgence in too much verbiage in certain passages, a trait seized upon by his detractors. However, the result is far from detrimental to the book, rather it is like seeing someone gorging themselves with too much chocolate. We nod silently and smile complicitly.

It is hard to believe that Salman's fatwa came only after the publication of his most famous oeuvre 'The Satanic Verses'. 'Shame' puts Islam under the microscope in a way that most imams would find at best unappealing, at worst downright antagonistic. That this critique is delivered by a brilliant mind in a florid and baroque style, is a message lost on people for whom religion is their strongest identity marker.

My conclusions are that 'Shame' is a book that deserves to be read.

Copyright 2008


  1. I will follow your advise and read it. Thanks!


  2. I'll add it to my list, but there's currently about 17 books ahead of it. ;^)

    Nice review. I like your line "we nod silently and smile complicitly".

  3. If I enjoy the book as much as your review I'm already in trouble!

    I've got a teaching break coming up-I'll shelve Silverstein and pick up Rushdie then. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for your kind comments. Yes, I, too, have become a Rushdie enthusiast and defender, especially in dear ol' Blighty where he seems to generate more antipathy than admiration.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Lei hace mucho tiempo 'The Satanic Verses', aun recuerdo vivamente algunos pasajes... el padre, la obsesión por el acento, las ganas de cambiar la vida. Es curioso como siendo tan diferentes las historias (casi el reverso) una de la otra, aquella novela me recordó muchísimo a "The Lover" de Marguerite Duras.
    Hay algo en el ritmo y la composición de los personajes que me hace trocar -en la distancia- a una con la otra.

    Tratare de echarme la novela tan pronto pueda cuban. Gracias por la sugerencia
    ;) tony.

  6. Tengo el libro, todabia no e podido leerlo pues tengo 3 mas alante de el. Gracias por pasar por mi blog, siempre me encantan tus observaciones. Eso fue en chiste lo que leistes en mi blog. Pero sabes que la guerra en la que estan las personas aqui, sobre las eleciones es grande. Muchas de las personas viviendo aqui son super religiosas, racistas y hay mucha ignorancia. Ya sabes por quien yo boy a votar esta en mi side bar of my blog. Como siempre excusa my Español estoy practicandolo cada vez que te escribo.


  7. Thank you all for your kind comments.

    Yoli, I know it was written with your tongue firmly in your cheek :-)

    Greetings from London.

  8. i read Rushdie many years ago but have not thought about him in a very long time. i would say he could use a defender or two. it isn't easy (read; popular) writing the kind of truths he takes on. very astute review.
    thank you very much for your generous comment on my blog! greetings from Oregon :)

  9. This sounds intriguing. I will definitely check it out! I love book recommendations. :)

  10. Thanks, birdtweet and karma.

    You're right, birdtweet, Rushdie is not easy read, but then again, I love challenging literature :-)

    Greetings from London.

  11. Ricordo quando ci furono le polemiche per Salman Rushide. Dove l'avevano messo sulla lista di morte, Ayatollah Khomeni! Per il libbro di Saman "i versi satanici"!

    Che leggendolo, poi cosi satanico non l'ho trovato sinceramente ;)

    In quei tempi fu´ uno scandalo da tutte e due punti di vista!

    Iniziarono dopo Salman, a cercare anche altri versi in altri monumenti letterari. Imagina un po´ questa cosa: L'Itala negli anni ottanta ricevette la minaccia, che qualcuno voleva far saltare con esplosivo la tomba di Dante Alighieri, perche sosteneva che nel capolavoro di Dante, "LA DIVINA COMMEDIA", ci fossero versi che parlassero contro l'Islam. Dovettero mettere dei militari per proteggere la sua tomba.

    Buon Post, come abitualmente da te.


  12. Gracias, salva, recuerdo también el barullo de "Los Versos Satanicos" y cuando lei la novela me preguntaba "Los Versos Qué?". 'Shame' apunta al mismo tema pero desde otro angulo y con otro calibre y a mi me parecio un enfoque excelente.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  13. Making notes. I also will follow your advice. Thanks a lot!

  14. Thanks, eu, always welcome 'en estos lares'.

    Greetings from London.



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