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.