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Forked Tongue

Shame

by Salman Rushdie
Knopf, 319 pp., $13.95

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 so many other real persons. Is no one sacred? Not until human life is sacred. Should novelists be allowed to exaggerate? We should congratulate them if they manage to.

The narrative of Shame is hardly less difficult to summarize than that of Midnight’s Children.* It helps somewhat if we see two of the characters, nominal hero and nominal heroine, as the book’s symbolic poles: Omar Khayyam Shakil, literally (it would seem) fatherless and brought up by his three mothers not to know the meaning of the word “shame,” and Sufiya Zinobia, Hyder’s first daughter, who is shame incarnate, carrying within her the unfelt shame of others. Sufiya Zinobia was born blushing—she was meant to be the son Hyder never had—and at first looks much like the traditional holy idiot. The shame-less one, we can see, is going to marry the shame-full one—and the inevitable explosion is bound to ensue.

Without Rushdie’s linguistic verve, the novel would never get off the ground. Hence—and even if he has his mother tongue in his cheek—it is sad to see him selling his adopted language short: “this Angrezi in which I am forced to write.” He may consider “shame” a “paltry” word—he didn’t grow up with it—and “a wholly inadequate translation” of sharam, which (he says) contains “encyclopaedias of nuance” and “dialects of emotion for which English has no counterparts.” But it serves well as the title of his book, a book which, were he in Pakistan, would earn for him a fate worse than shame, or even sharam. I am not suggesting that he doesn’t have the right to carry on so shockingly while living in safety, out of range of reprisals. Such an objection—which if made law would effectively silence a large proportion of the world’s writers—he deals with cogently, once and for all:

Outsider! Trespasser! You have no right to this subject!… I know: nobody ever arrested me. Nor are they ever likely to. Poacher! Pirate! We reject your authority. We know you, with your foreign language wrapped around you like a flag: speaking about us in your forked tongue, what can you tell but lies? I reply with more questions: Is history to be considered the property of the participants solely? In what courts are such claims staked, what boundary commissions map out the territories?

Can only the dead speak?

No, my point has to do with Rushdie’s Nabokov-like complaints against the language that has brought him both renown and cash. And related to it is his interpretation of the true story—recounted here by the author in his own person—of the Pakistani father in London who killed his only child because she had brought dishonor on her family by making love with a white boy (though not, it turned out, actually “going all the way”). When he first heard of the incident, Rushdie was appalled “in a fairly obvious way,” but then he found himself understanding the father:

We who have grown up on a diet of honour and shame can still grasp what must seem unthinkable to peoples living in the aftermath of the death of God and of tragedy: that men will sacrifice their dearest love on the implacable altars of their pride.

This declaration brought to mind Eliot’s epigram in his essay on Baudelaire: “So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least we exist.” The latter is the sort of proposition one encounters commonly in Nietzsche: memorable, exciting to contemplate, but best ejected from one’s mind before it can take root. Eliot’s “human”/”better evil than nothing” is reflected in Rushdie’s “honour”/”sacrifice on implacable altars.” In the event, however, Shame may even persuade us that God, if such are his demands, ought to be dead. And as for tragedy, there are still traces of it left in Britain.

By the supposedly flaccid standards of Western morality, that Pakistani father was a murderer. And it would be interesting, though less than decent, to speculate on what in the man drove him to leave the land, the society, in which his act would have been something nobler than murder and settle in one where it wasn’t. Rushdie is biting the hand of both the language and the society that are feeding him. The thought is one for such as Rushdie to bear in mind. In others’ minds it is merely grudging and mean (quite aside from the declared fact that the poor London-Pakistani girl was, however indirectly, the inspiration for Sufiya Zinobia). Such writers are more than welcome for their additions to literature and their modifications to language; if England can’t always quite take them, then English can, that remarkable language which, incidentally, quite a few remarkable Americans have used, abused, exploited, and enriched.

Shame is more a “dramatic poem” than a naturalistic fiction, and Rushdie’s diction is correspondingly rich and varied, including “straight” English, “Asian” English (once called “babu”), idioms translated out of Urdu, and crossbreeds between all these, such as (Anglo-Hindi) “snack-wallahs.” The conventional grandeur of “the moon-faced, almond-eyed types so beloved of poets” collapses into the colloquialism (originally US) “in that neck of the woods”—the resultant effect of jauntiness being perhaps one of the author’s devices for keeping the reader on his toes. A homely allusion to “the famous forty winks” chimes nicely with “the forty thieves,” not those of The Thousand and One Nights, as it happens, but the forty husbands who sidle into a women’s dormitory to visit their wives at night. As a growing boy, the disreputable Omar Khayyam Shakil exists “in a kind of Eden of the morals”: one wonders in passing whether there is a like phrase in Urdu, that tongue of thunder-claps. “Very big persons, sir, certain executives and also lady stars of a famous bioscope company” is near-babu, or else English made to sound foreign; while a higher-class Indian/Pakistani-English is voiced in “O God your servants, darling, all those fogey types left over from five hundred years ago. I swear you should take them to the doctor and give the painless injections.”

When, following history, the East Wing of Pakistan (later Bangladesh) votes against Iskander Harappa’s Popular Front, the shock felt in the West Wing is figured in cross-cultural wordplay as “the sound of one Wing flapping,” rather as “Peccavistan” (a name the author is tempted to give the country of his fiction) puns on the famous old empire-building pun, “I have Sind.” (The reader might fancy it a characteristic joke when he hears that “Pakistan” is an acronym thought up by intellectuals—P for Punjabis, A for Afghans, K for Kashmiris, S for Sind and Tan for Baluchistan: it’s no joke.) Other ripenesses, we must suppose, arrive via translation from some foreign dialect of emotion: “Sisterfucking bastard spawn of corpse-eating vultures…that sucker of shit from the rectums of diseased donkeys…that nibbler of a crow’s left nipple.” A sharp-edged one-liner is, “You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail”; and best of all, good English, good Rushdie, is the comment when Hyder is on the run, toward the end, penniless and dressed as a woman: “There is no country poorer than Escape.”

Along with “snack-wallahs,” I might have cited the description of Hyder’s second daughter, Good News: “plain-faced as a chapati.” (The Times Literary Supplement reviewer saw the book as an attempt at “crossing a chapati with a soufflé”: if culinary metaphors are to be invoked, I would rather think of it as a generous platter of highly spiced human curry.) Good News marries a police officer whose clairvoyant gifts enable him to arrest traitors before they have committed treason, and readers of Midnight’s Children will remember the telepathic young Saleem, who must pretend to be surprised by the birthday presents he has already seen in the donors’ minds and finds himself embarrassed by the erotic carvings at Khajuraho that someone else is looking at.

It is not the mingling of reality and fantasy that disquiets, but the degree of reality in the fantasy. Compared with Midnight’s Children, Shame is more tightly constructed, yet some of its strands are too lurid for the most willing suspension of disbelief. The fourtimes repeated reference to the umbilical cord that strangles Hyder’s only son as prefiguring the hangman’s noose in which Harappa will die is merely a heavy-handed gimmick whereby a raconteur renews his grip on the audience. But the anecdote about a team of scientists and engineers sent in patriotic fervor to develop newly discovered gas fields on the southwest frontier goes over the top: the “tribals” rape every one of them “eighteen point six six times on average (of which thirteen point nine seven assaults were from the rear and only four point six nine in the mouth) before slitting one hundred per cent of the expert gullets.” Likewise the arithmetical progression of Good News’s babies: first twins, and then, at yearly intervals, triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, septuplets. And also perhaps, comical though it is, the account of Harappa persecuting the representatives of foreign governments by opening diplomatic bags and interpolating scandalous misinformation, so that the US ambassador apparently confesses to a strong and longstanding sexual attraction toward Secretary Kissinger. Like everything else, extremes can go too far, fertility turn into excess, the unbelievable sometimes fail to convince.

The dividing line between what works and what “goes too far” is impossible to locate, but as we read we can tell which side of the border the author is operating on. Among many successes are a macabre incident in which Harappa’s long-suffering wife embroiders eighteen pictorial shawls, perhaps inspired by Philomela’s tale-telling tapestry: “they said unspeakable things which nobody wanted to hear”—about Harappa’s infidelities, the country’s humiliations, jails, and torturers, secret murders, the not-so-secret murder of democracy. Rushdie provides a grim account of Harappa’s two years in the death cell, and sharp satire on a thousand and one ways of salvaging honor from military defeat, and on the Islamic revival: a God brought alive for the purpose of shoring up dictators. Even the sensational transformation of the blushful Sufiya Zinobia into a magical beast given to wrenching people’s heads off and pulling out their guts—even this comes off, because we recognize and accept the allegorical sense: one’s sins will find one out, Nemesis will eventually catch up with Shamelessness.

Rushdie isn’t writing realism, but he is acting coy when he says, at least twice, that he is only telling a fairy story and so “nobody need get upset.” The horrific ways in which, one by one, his characters meet their ends belong to neither realism nor fairy story, but are nearer to the Jacobean revenge plays, the stage left littered with corpses; and the suggestion is that those who live by atrocity can be cast out only by the most extreme means.

Digressions, often playful in nature, do play a part here, and Rushdie could with some justification echo the words of the narrator of Tristram Shandy:

The machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.

And it is worth noting that digressions involving the women of the two feuding families are especially rewarding, whether they are old harridans or young beauties, anorectic victims or bloated beasts.

It is the author’s too-frequent interventions and personal appearances that are truly tiresome. Not when he introduces the nonfictitious Pakistani girl sacrificed to family pride or defends his right to his subject—this is highly pertinent—but when he complains about his characters seeing into the future less clearly than he does himself, or confides in Shandean fashion that he has “idled away too many paragraphs in the company of gossips,” or frivolously accuses his “so-called hero” Shakil of giving him “the most Godawful headache.”

Such behavior led a critic in the London Review of Books to rebuke Rushdie for his “self-regarding tricksiness.” With tricksiness and self-regard too, it is a question of degree. Writers deal in tricks, and—though it is an emotion we do well to conceal—this writer has considerable reason for feeling pleased with himself. For the greater part of Shame, linguistic extravagances, imaginative inventions, and sinuous intricacies of plot march—or scamper—together, seemingly about their own multifarious businesses and yet progressing in one ordained direction, moving through terror (though evoking little pity) toward the nasty death of a couple of mortal gods.

  1. *

    See Robert Towers, The New York Review, September 24, 1981.

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