"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: Shame

Not to be confused with the movie. This is not a book starring Michael Fassbender. Probably the only thing it shares with that movie is that it makes its audience uncomfortable, in this case, by setting up heros, storylines, and an identity as a historical novel, and then tearing each of them, carefully, lovingly, apart, gutting them, and hanging them out to dry like carcasses (the simile is particularly apt for the book, as it's full of corpses and grossness). I don't recommend this book for the lover of the book equivalent of Jane Austen adaptations. Or maybe I do, because it attacks the idea at the heart of classic historical fictions - the assumptions that history can be told as a straightforward narrative and consumed for idle pleasure and escape.

The book is set in the aftermath of Pakistan's separation from India and follows the intertwined fates of three families - the Shakils, the Hyders, and the Harappas - who intermarry, feud, succeed each other as leaders of the new country, and eventually all die, more or less gruesomely. Oops, sorry, spoiler. Except it isn't really a spoiler. First of all, Rushdie has a frustrating/tantalizing habit of telling you what's going to happen before he gets there in his story. He'll hint at someone's demise or future, then loop back to continue the novel chronologically, leaving you simultaneously annoyed that he gave away the future, and impatient to get through the present. But wait, didn't I say it was a historical novel? So the future of the novel is our past, and we know that all these characters are not only fictional, but also already dead in the parallel chronology of historical fiction.

Second of all, Rushdie makes the idea of spoilers a moot point by systematically disengaging us from sympathy with any of his characters. Even the man he labels as his 'hero,' Omar Khayyam Shakil, is painted as terribly unappetizing, and Rushdie even devotes a couple of pages in the middle of the book to how disappointed he is in his hero, how morally repugnant Shakil has become, what a lousy hero he has turned out to be.

Finally, Rushdie sets up, rather brilliantly, a very particular atmosphere that makes each character's fate seem inevitable. As the story progresses, each piece seems to fall into place as thought we knew it would belong there all along. This is partly because of the way Rushdie constantly hints at the future, but also because of his use of magical realism. There's a really strong sense of Fate with a capital F, some ulterior force (History with a capital H?) drawing all the characters along their tangled paths toward the ultimate roles they will play in each others' lives and in the history of their country.

So, without a linear chronology, an emotional through line drawn by a certain character, or the rational worldview of cause-and-effect that one might expect...well, spoilers just don't seem that relevant.

This is not a fun book to read, but it is fascinating. Rushdie has a great command of storytelling techniques, even though he breaks a lot of the rules, and I found myself almost morbidly riveted to the book, disgusted by intrigued. And the book certainly sparks interesting questions about the forms historical fiction can take, and the purposes of writing about history. Rushdie's authorial voice is very strong, and he comes in as himself every so often to talk about the events (stories of Pakistani immigrants in London, for example) that inspired the book. He manages to seem incredibly honest and transparent about his process and goals, and at the same time to slip you into such an intricately woven pattern of different realities and different voices (he's especially good with character's voices and the use of dialect) that you barely know where you are. And that's the point of the book, I think - or one point - that history is deceptive, that we can't trust it, but that it is seductive and compelling all the same. He advertises the book as a fairy tale but winds up saying a lot about both the nature of storytelling and about the reality he's trying to tell.

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