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42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 29, 2006
This, Rushdie's third novel, explores the universal theme of shame in the context of an - somewhat imaginary but simultaneously all too real - Islamic society. The characters swim up to their necks in the stuff. From the three sisters, Chhunni, Munnee, and Bunny (who remain locked up in "Nishapur" with their deadly dumbwaiter), who think more of their inheritance than their father's death to the immaculately conceived, fat, passive, and eternally inverted Omar Khayyam (but rumors fly that the sisters - who share in all the burdens of Omar's birth - scandously seduced Angrez men) to the self-proclaimed "simple soliders" who ultimately turn into brutal dictators (and some shamelessly use Islam to gain public support) to the public that grieves "Did we really do that? But we are ordinary people..." shame fills up and drowns every letter of this novel. And not just "shame", but the nearly untranslatable ultra-nuanced Urdu word "sharam". Even the "family tree" at the beginning of the book, with its numerous nicknames and references to "illegitimate children", seeps with shame. Most of all, the central character (according to the opening of part II), Sufiya Zinobia, physically and metaphorically embodies all of the horrors that shame can produce. The most violent and stomach-churning scenes in the book involve the manifestation of this "Beast" inside of the tiny, innocent girl. By the end of the novel she takes on the role of the classical Greek furies. She leaves a venegeful sopping bloodbath on her way to President Raza Hyder's compound. But, as always with Rushdie, the expected doesn't occur.

Much like Rushdie's second novel, "Midnight's Children", "Shame" contains an obstrusive narrator. This character (Rushdie himself?) pokes in and out of the story to make salient points or to "clear up" matters of language and history. This nameless narrator intrudes far less than Saleem Sinai. And one wonders if he also feels the sting of shame and so meekly hides behind the paragraphs. Regardless, this narrator admits early on that "The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space." He also states that he's writing a "modern fairy tale", which arguably suggests a moral. Even so, a cursory glance into the history of Pakistan will reveal that many of the events related in this book reflect the actual history of that young country. The real General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq gets fictionalized as Raza Hyder; Zulkifar Ali Bhutto becomes the comic-tragic Iskander Harappa; and Benezir Bhutto receives the name Arjumand Harappa. But this knowledge only expands the book's possible intentions. It does not preclude enjoyment of the actual text. Enough universal themes and cliffhanger stories scatter the words as to make their potential source in reality almost irrelevant. Though it does admittedly increase the controvery of the book. And, as we all know more than twenty years later, Rushdie has a flaming penchant for political and religious controversy.

"Shame" has a very similar literary voice to "Midnight's Children": funny, sad, comic, and tragic all at once. It contains stories about the rise and fall of dictators. It ruminates on the oppression of women (the ayahs, the lonely wives of military men, the female children, the burden of creating sons, the heavy weight of child bearing - see the story of "Good News", and the shame of having illegitimate children). It exposes some hard to digest truths about human behavior via the concept of shame ("Did we really do that?"). In some ways it suggests that we reap what we sow, and if we reap shame, well...

The west figures much smaller here than in "Midnight's Children". Rushdie said in a 1983 interview that "...there is a tendency in Pakistan - and I do it myself - to blame the west for all the problems, and I thought it would be worth writing a book to say that there's no point in blaming other countries, because actually we're doing it to ourselves." Though "Shame" never comes off as didactic, politics evidently lies just beneath the surface. It quickly becomes difficult to conceive of "Shame" as mere fiction, mostly due to the anonymous narrator. So here, just as in "Midnight's Children", fiction and history dance, intertwine, and mingle. This fact makes Rushdie a thrillingly provocative read. And though his methods hadn't caused him any great personal trouble up to 1983, his next work of fiction would have him literally running for his life.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2001
"Shame" is an absolutely brilliant allegory about the political and social chaos that helped give birth to Pakistan and, later, to Bangladesh. If you're up on your modern history, some of the characters will be instantly recognizable. Benazir Bhutto is the Virgin Ironpants; and Zia ul-Haq, who wanted to throw Pakistan back into the middle ages, is General Raza Hyder, who ends up fleeing for his life, only to be destroyed, in an ending similar to a Greek tragedy, by the Three Furies, in the guise of the three "mothers" of the protagonist, Omar Khayyam, a lazy, indolent man without shame or much of a conscience either.

Neatly balancing Omar is the book's other protagonist, a little girl so engulfed in shame that her blushes burn everyone who touches her and almost set water to boil; when she grows up and loses her shame and thus her modesty, all hell breaks loose. Rushdie is also a terrific humorist, and some sections of the book will have you on the floor laughing. Above all,"Shame" is a tour-de force, a non-stop page-turner, a dizzying melange of allegory, parody, fantasy, mythology and modern history, told by a writer whose love/hate relationship with his country is reflected all over the book. It's Rushdie at his finest and helps to secure his place as one of the best writers of his generation.

Judy Lind
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 1997
Shame is, in my opinion, the finest novel Rushdie has written yet. It's much darker thanany of his other work, disturbingly so, and the violence is of a kind not found in his other novels.The book traverses the sub-continent, moving through Bangladesh, India and Pakistan as effortlessly as the consciousness of most of the people who call themselves Bangladeshi, Indian or Pakistani. The emotion of Shame is a hook on which the novel is built. It isn't the center, though Rushdie often focuses on instances where his characters flush with redness. Rushdie spent part of his childhood in Pakistan (and has gone back since), the novel is pieced together, like most of Rushdie from a remembering that is incomplete and where the gaps are filled by fantasy. Shame attains a balance between the imaginatively outrageous and the real as it moves through time in the "other" country on the sub-continent. The story of a man/child who grows up in and, perhaps, out of a house with three aunts, each of whom is his mother, Shame stands for the people of the north-western sub-continent as only a work infused with divinely sharp humour can. Before the Satanic Verses, there was Shame, and Shame engaged in the same mode of literate heresy that Rushdie employed later in Satanic Verses. Only in Shame it was the root of all middle-eastern religions, Zoroastrianism that Rushdie focused on. And his repetition of a similar ancient heresy, like SV questioning the sharp distinction made between darkness and light (in God and creation), in the context of a faith that acknowledges, even births the Manacheean heresy. In a similar manner, Shame explores the realm between the human and barely human, and the madness that is in all of us. Shame isn't an easy read, it may even be so disturbing as to irritate you. But for me it is the supreme height of Rushdie's fiction to date, the strangest and most penetrating of all his work. -- Subir Grewal
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 1998
Everything's relative, but compared to _Midnight's Children_ and _Satanic Verses_ Rushdie's novel about Pakistan left me a bit dubious of my distinction of him as an unwavering literary superstar. I always enjoy his writing style, but I wonder if his strict political satire of the ruling classes in _Shame_ is as powerful as the epic parody in _MC_. This novel just appeared a bit more of a closed text with such seemingly visible agendas that I wondered to what extent crossing the fictional borders of countries could affect someone's writing.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2001
Let me start by saying that if you have never read a Salman Rushdie book before, I do not recommend that this be your first. My first encounter with Rushdie was Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a friend of mine began to appreciate his writing after reading Midnight's Children. Stick to those (or perhaps East, West) if you are a Rushdie neophyte. Shame is not necessarily the best introduction to one of the best writers of the 20th century.
Why, you might ask? The fact is that Shame homes in on a specific theme and doesn't let go. The book is essentially about the birth of Pakistan and its painful, turbulent early years. It is so focused on these themes that Rushdie goes so far as to include personal asides in the middle of the prose in order to further clarify the points he is making. Shame is a fun, clever and tremendously enjoyable novel but I can see people being put off by an almost educational, preachy tone in these little asides.
Don't get me wrong.... Shame is a GREAT book! For any of you who are familiar with Rushdie's style, you will find that he is up to form here. The plot is full of clever devices (much like in The Moor's Last Sigh) which will have you placing the book down, simply awestruck at the inventiveness and foresight.
What else can I say? I am enraptured with Rushdie. Anyone interested in reading simply astounding prose needs to do themselves a favor and read this author's work. Be forewarned though, this in not a light afternoon read, it requires a certain intellectual investment.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2000
I have to say that I found this book much more comprehensible than The Satanic Verses. It's basically about Pakistan with all of its contradictions, faults and absurdity. It's eitehr a love letter or a hate letter to his home country and it's a history told in the magical realism style where every major political movement is started by a private incident and evey private exchange is fraught with dangers. He also calls Bhutto Virgin Ironpants - which I'm sure would have annoyed many feminists as much as the Ayatollah passages in The Satanic Verses annoyed the entire country of Iran. (oh, I'm sorry the official stance is that it was the Muhammed passages)
But for all its brilliance and nuance what I and my friends remember is the debate among the rebels over whether to have sex with teh docile sheep or the wild goats. Not even the people fighting the hostile regime are safe from scorn and ridicule.
The central metaphor is in two characters - one a man without shame and the other a woman who is embarrassed and overtly modest from birth. When she loses her modesty, she becomes a vicious animal destroying all in her path. I think that is the theme in that the country might be run by the shameless and the crass, but when the silent ones are pushed too far - watch out.
Even as a minor book this proves Rushdie's clarity of vision and his place as one of the greatest writers of teh 20th century.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2002
Rushdie is absolutely brilliant in this novel. I have not seen any book that contains such a confluence of histories, comedies and tragedies wrapped up so neatly in 300 pages.
This novel operates in several layers. The first layer is the rough history of Pakistan -- with the characters of Jinnah, Bhutto etc. The second layer fictionalizes the entire history, by changing the names of the historical figures and finally, adding Rushdie's patented "magical realism." The result is half fiction, half history and brimming with hilarious anecdotes, mysterious mythology and a gripping chronicle of the rise and fall of a military dictator and his rival, a debauched elite.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2005
this was my first foray into salman rushdie's world and i was captivated. in this novel he weaves together mythology, history, geography, politics, and so much more that defies categorization. the character of sufiya zinobia is beautiful and tragic. although she is a monster, she is not a mere one. she is born into shame, shame for not being a boy, shame for not being what her parents expected of her, so it is easy to empathize with her. even the episodes where she goes crazy contain a kind of terrible beauty -- and it is this portrayal of her as both utterly human and unspeakably monstrous that sets her apart in the novel. the other female characters have their own quirks which make them so much more accessible than the men, who are deeply religious, god fearing, power hungry, and extremely selfish -- almost two dimensional, without many traits that we, as readers, feel we can identify with.

as a side note, i found rushdie's style charming and self-referential. he's constantly interrupting the narrative with his own voice as the raconteur, which gives a more personable feel to the book and many, without this wry touch, might otherwise find the elements of the story disaffecting.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2003
Although Rushdie makes a half-hearted attempt to argue otherwise, Shame is obviously an allegory of Pakistani politics from the time of Pakistan's creation to the downfall of General Zia. Many of Rushdie's trademarks are on display. Historical and cultural influences are important to Rushdie, as he likes to trace families back several generations in order to explain the development of his main character(s). Once again we have several characters representing chauvinist, extremist elements, and Rushdie astutely portrays how they gain influence in political circles at the highest level. Rushdie also likes to blend fantasy with reality, and it is often difficult to know when to take him literally or not. I just recently read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" for the first time, and I realize retrospectively how much Rushdie borrows from Marquez and other magical realists. Thus, if you like this kind of writing, you will love this book. Even if you don't care for the magical realist style, however, you can still appreciate Rushdie's political and social insights. And even if you don't know or care about Pakistan, you can enjoy his remarkable wit and his flowing prose.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2002
Salman Rushdie's offbeat sense of humor and incredible ability to mix folklore with realistic storytelling take centerstage in this dead-on satire of Pakistani history. Rushdie himself narrates the story with frequent asides to the reader that take on a talky style similar to the narration of Graham Swift's equally great novel Waterland. At the center of the novel are Raza Hyder and Iskander Harappa, based on former Pakistani leaders General Zia Ul-Haq and Ali Bhutto, respectively. As in "Midnight's Children", Rushdie deftly handles a large supporting cast of eccentric characters who each fit into the story perfectly. My personal favorite is Hyder's wife who wanders around her home all day long locking doors and speaking only in metaphors.
This is highly reccomended for anyone interested in history, but even if you aren't, it is to Rushdie's great credit that he manages to spark an interest in histoy in even the most apathetic of readers. Researhing the historical context of Shame was almost as much of a joy for me as reading it. Do not blow it, read Shame immediately and while you are at it be sure to pick up the rest of Rushdie's catalogue along with Waterland by Graham Swift. You won't regret it.
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