Tristram Shandy made Sterne famous, and Midnight’s Children did the same for Salman Rushdie a couple of years ago. Yet would one want—could one endure—any sort of sequel to Tristram Shandy? A Sentimental Journey is considered no more than a pendant to it, but can Shame, itself the reverse of a sentimental journey, be thought of as a pendant to Midnight’s Children? On the whole British reviewers have been grudging in their praise: like second novels, sequels—or what look like them—are notorious objects for carping at. Yet the new novel has all the welcomed virtues of Midnight’s Children, and most of the vices (peculiarly hard though these are, in a work whose “logic” is partly that of the fairy tale, partly that of the nightmare, to separate from the virtues), and it possesses an extra virtue. It is considerably shorter—which, in a writer whose riches are embarrassing, can well indicate a firmer control. Shame is often exasperating, in the way of Günter Grass’s best novels, but never (or so I found) to the point of blinding one for long to its sheer power—in horror, humor, slapstick, shrewd wit, and even pathos.
The novel is “a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge” set in a country which “is not Pakistan, or not quite,” a country existing—“like myself,” adds the author—“at a slight angle to reality.” How slight that angle is, is bound to exercise us. While the story owes much to Salman Rushdie’s imagination, Rushdie owes much to Pakistan, to the reality afforded by a real Pakistan, even while his dealings with that reality are (to say the least) highhanded. Or, as some would protest, below the belt. Of course we shall agree with the author that he is not writing “only” about Pakistan. He is writing about sexual rivalry, ambition, power, betrayal, and so forth—matters found everywhere and always—and about politics and religion and history and ghosts. Pakistan happens to provide these in abundant and striking forms.
The core of the story consists in the protracted and intensifying feud between Rushdie’s prime minister Iskander Harappa, a clever and debauched civilian, and his president, Raza Hyder, a grim, none-too-bright warrior; Harappa dies at the hands of Hyder, and Hyder at the hands of fate, in the shape of three crazy old women. The parallel with actual personages, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, once prime minister of Pakistan, and the present president, Zia ul-Haq (whose government executed Bhutto in 1979), is obvious enough—yet equally obvious is it that the fictitious characters exist at a more than slight angle to the real people. Harappa and Hyder are Bhutto and Zia as they might appear, centuries later, in some Thousand and One Nights—magnified, transmogrified, distorted. We may ask, Can an author rightly do this to real persons? Well, think of what these real persons have done or caused to be done to …