Some Political Origins of Rushdie's Shame

[Added by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University]

Near the opening of the novel's second chapter, Rushdie locates himself as one who, because he exists both inside and outside a particular society, can safely write about the oppression within that society, which has much in common with the Africa described by Soyinka in "The Fate of Africa's Culture Producers." As you read this characteristically richly complex, grotesque passage, look closely at its style. Why, for example, does he make word play, including surprising and satiric redefinitions of common words and phrases, so important?

Since my last visit to Karachi, my friend the poet had spent many months in jail, for social reasons. That is to say, he knew somebody who knew somebody who was the wife of the second cousin by marriage of the step-uncle of somebody who might or might not have shared a flat of someone who was running guns to the guerrillas in Baluchistan. You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail. My friend still refuses to talk about what happened to him during those months; but other people told me that he was in bad shape for a long time after he got out. They said he had been hung upside-down by the ankles and beaten, as if he were a new-born baby whose lungs had to be coerced into action so that he could squeal. I never asked him if he screamed, or if there were upside-down mountain peaks visible through a window.

Wherever I turn, there is something of which to be ashamed, But shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture. . . . But nobody notices it any more. And everyone is civilized.

Maybe my friend should be telling this story, or another one, his own; but he doesn't write poetry any more. So here I am instead, inventing what had never happened to me, and you will note that my hero has already been ankle-hung, and that his name is the name of a famous poet; but not quatrains ever issues or will issue from his pen.

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?

I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking, my last words on the East from which, many years ago, I began to come loose. I do not always believe myself when I say this. It is a part of the world to which, whether I like it or not, I am still joined, if only by elastic bands. [22-23]

Where does the grotesque force of this passage derive? Does the playfulness distance the subject of the treatment of the poet or make it more chilling? Both?

What contemporary authors writing in English and other languages similarly concern themselves with the nature and role of history and the corollary question of who writes history?

What do you make of such authorial intrusions? Do they weaken or intensify the sense of reality in the novel? From what you know of the Satanic Verses affair, do you think Rushdie was as safe as he believed?

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Shame OV