Salman Rushdie, Shame (Knopf, 1983; Vintage, 1989)

The concept of sharam underlies this complex and quietly compelling novel. Sharam translates inadequately into English as "shame" but it encompasses nuances such as "embarrassment, dicomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness in the world, and other dialects of emotion for which English has no counterparts."

The novel begins with an account of the unusual birth and circumstances of Omar Khayyam Shakil. After the death of their father, three sisters sequester themselves in their home, using a specially built dumbwaiter to send out items to be pawned and to bring in supplies. One of them is pregnant, but all three exhibit symptoms and all three are considered the child's mother. In addition, the sisters become indistinguishable. They are resolved to raise their son without any sense of sharam. Omar eventually escapes the house physically, but he carries with him the impact of his upbringing.

Omar becomes a secondary character as the plot shifts to track the rise and fall of two men and their families: Iskander Harappa and Raza Hyder, characters based on Pakistan's Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq respectively. The two families' fates intertwine, with Omar providing what is likely a fatal link. Rushdie, whose voice weaves in and out of the narrative, states that he is not writing a novel about Pakistan but rather "a sort of modern fairy tale ... nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously."

Hyder's daughter, Sufiya Zenobia, is the personification of shame. Born a girl when her father expected a son, brain damaged with fever so that she is left a child mentally, she is the essence of sharam for her parents and sister. As she grows older, the shame appears to manifest in a kind of inner creature as it intensifies. Sufiya, whom Omar eventually marries, is consumed by this Beast until it is all that is left. This final transformation essentially cuts any mooring the story has in reality; the dreamlike magic realism takes over.

Shame gets your attention quietly and holds it firmly. It is possible to put the book down and go do something else, but the characters go with you, insisting that you recognize them until you have to pick it up again. Rushdie's writing is lucid and frank, offering an accessible perspective into a culture unfamiliar to many Western readers. One of his earlier novels, Shame sets the stage for the even more complex and daring works to come.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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