Book of a Lifetime: Shame, Salman Rushdie
Friday 21 March 2008
Chronologically, Shame falls between Salman Rushdie's most acclaimed novel (Midnight's Children) and his most controversial (The Satanic Verses). It has subsequently been the most ignored by critics, as if its title predestined it to slip into the background, blushing. Fortunately I read Shame as an undergraduate, and in those 200 or so pages I witnessed nothing less than a coming-back-to-life, a resurrection that has affected me and my writing ever since. I had become like the two Marys – that biblical pair – who on Easter morning went and found the tomb empty.
This time it was the author whom I believed was dead and buried. Literature students the world over heard, as I did, an obituary which proclaims "the death of the author". For a long while, I believed in this critical stance, and also its parallel aesthetics popularised long before by Flaubert, who told us the author must make no moral judgement, must slip into the background and allow the story to tell itself. It seemed to me a very sensible privileging of the story, and not the storyteller. An author's name on the cover is the only appearance he or she would be allowed.
In Shame, Rushdie rebels. He will not be confined to the dust-jacket, and reading this novel with all the giddiness of witnessing magic, I realised this was not "authorial intrusion" – that pejorative invented by critics to keep authors safely mute behind their tombs – but rather, this was "authorial inclusion". Rushdie had invited himself to his own party. And I was glad he was there, because what a charming and entertaining host he was! Many are alarmed that, in Shame, Rushdie stops the narrative to tell us why he is in fact writing it, to comment on the deficiencies of his hero, to tell us how and why a character is invented.
It is the strength and playfulness of his voice that make these interruptions never feel like interruptions, and in fact they aren't. They always add layers and texture to the story he is building and are an integral part. The character we fall in love with is not Bilquis in her black shrouds, or Suffiya who blushed at birth, or Omar who is fat and peripheral. Instead, it is Rushdie, and nothing is wrong with that.
Growing up in the Caribbean, and everywhere I have been since, I've met incredible storytellers, and on some level had always realised that a teller was as important as the tales – that it was in the twinkle of their eyes, the places they paused, the many wonderful registers of their voice, how they smiled, that combined to make a story work. But it was Shame that gave me the courage, when I began to write my own stories and poems and novels, to allow myself in, to smile at the reader, to wink, to be resurrected and become a teller of tales.
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