Salman Rushdie's Shame -- Leading Questions

Members of English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, Autumn 1997

1. One of the interludes Rushdie's narrator makes in the midst of the story told in Shame, is to compare emigration to anti-gravitation. What is it doing there? The uncharacterized narrator momentarily develops his own persona (as on page 84 and following), as he rattles off about an anti-gravity pill, more worthy of science fiction than suited to the historical fiction he is telling. Supposedly there is a connection between anti-gravitation and emigration, in that both constitute an act of liberating oneself from the ground and from roots by taking flight. The comparison relies on a semantic meshing of the figurative and literal senses of the concepts used in either case (taking flight, or standing on roots). By inserting such interludes then, Rushdie juxtaposes different dimensions: the story teller's with the characters', the fictional with the actual, the historical, the present and the hypothetical, the literal with the figurative, and surely others. Is Rushdie attempting to thrust disjunct dimensions together, and if so, why? How is this relevant to his themes, his style, his writing in general? [Emilie Cassou]

In Shame, Rushdie characterises time very interestingly. At the very beginning of the book we are shown a hierarchical, class-oriented society (which I assumed to be colonial or neocolonial), and are soon informed of being in the Fourteenth Century. After a moment of confusion, the reader is introduced to an alternate calendar, and chastised simultaneoulsy for so easily believing that "such stories" necessarily take place long ago, and forhaving believed in a universal time measure. Later we find out we are much closer to the present than we (or at least I as the reader) thought, when we are referred to the late twentieth-century invasion of Afghanistan.

Ends must not be permitted to preced beginnings and middles, even if recent scientific experiments have shown us that within certain types of closed system, under intese pressure, time can be persuaded to run backwards, so that effects precede their causes. (150

Rushdie plays with the paradox of effects preceding causes, under "closed" systems of "pressure," (of which no better example of circumstances could be found than the ones of solitude and shame from which the story originates). All subsequent (and recurring) images of inversion bring to mind then (for me at least) that very first referenct to time moving "backwards," or in any case, not preceding in any logical or necessary sequence: The imagery of the birth of Omar (held and perceiving upside down), the myth fo heaven below the mountains, and hell above, the poet being tortured upside down, and there are others..."

Strange references are made to the future, for example, the infant-child Omar's future wife's death, which implies the story is being told from some point in the future, yet the author continually professes to be speaking form hearsay, unable to give a completely factual or objective account. This seems like a strange combination of self-validation and self-disclaiming. Yet doesn't it relate well to Rushdie's depiction of a little boy exploring the ancient labyrinth of his ancestral mansion, vandalizing and destroying priceless and dusty artifacts?

"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?" (22)

What is Rushdie really saying about time and truth? Is the present or future a more reliable perspective? Or is objectivity even a goal? [Jenni Ellingson]

2. In Rushdie's Shame we find a persistent narrator; this voice just won't shut up, rather seems obsessed with reminding us that we're Reading a Story. It's a rather postmodern tactic, but what else is it indicative of? Is it a ploy to deflect political persecution (he couldn't be that naive could he?) Is it a way to (paradoxocally) make the story more absorbing? Or is it a way to explicitly (although a tad obliquely) explore the postcolonial nature of the tail? The narrator seems to be of a Western descent or education (like Rushdie), so what does this do to our reading of the story? Should we be reading this novel as imaginary ethnography, "exceedingly extended acquaintances with extremely small matters," or as a political statement in which "small facts speak to large issues"? (both, Clifford Geertz) Is it possible to read it both ways? [Greg Gipson]

3. Though it appears early on in the novel, I believe the following passage from Rushdie's Shame raises questions that can be asked of all the books read so far in the course. He writes: "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?" (22)

The issue of ownership and the legitimacy of storytelling has come up again and again in differing ways in books read in this course. Apply the above quotation to these previous works, as well as to Shame. It seems to me that Hove and Vera were both deeply concerned with giving the dead a voice (Hove in particular with his imagery of the Bones), yet how are we to receive their claims? What is Vera's role in her own nation's history? She is a rightful heir to it, yet created some of the cultural specifics of her texts. The same could be said of Graham Swift, a young man creating an old universe. With Rushdie, writing from London, many of the same concerns are raised. Who has the right to speak and what are we, readers in a postcolonial classroom, to make of them? [Andy Greenwald]

See also some questions with longer accompanying texts involving (a) outsider characters in Shame and Waterland, (b) Rushdie's manipulations of narrative time, (c) his use of mirror imagery and (d) migration, Rushdie's style, and (e) the relations between gender and shame. You may also wish to look at the questions posed by the Spring 1997 class

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Shame OV