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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.1 (2002) 194-215

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The Dialectic of Shame:
Representation in the Metanarrative of Salman Rushdie's Shame

Ayelet Ben-Yishai

I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge. But the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies, obliging me to couch my narrative in all manner of sinuous complexities, to see my "male" plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverse and 'female' side.

--Salman Rushdie, Shame

This passage from Salman Rushdie's third novel has been pivotal in most analyses of the novel, and indeed will also prove important to mine, if more peripherally. Shame is probably the least written-about of all of Rushdie's novels, and when they did write about it, many critics have centered their argument around his treatment of women, hence the importance of the passage quoted above. Opinions have varied, ranging [End Page 194] from charges that his treatment is misogynist (Ahmad 144, 148; Cundy 52) to praise for his emancipatory vision (Needham). Within this range we find readings of "ambivalent" feminism (Hai 16-50) and, more complexly, "critical-therefore-emanicipatory because of its ambivalence" ones (Levinson; Mufti 1 ). In this paper I too take up a feminist reading, but attempt to approach it from yet another angle, one that ultimately allows for most of these interpretations but frames them according to a different question, that of representation or mediation. I wish to show that both Shame the novel, as well as "shame" the concept as it is articulated in the novel, are conceptualizations of a dialectic of representation, and as such necessarily engage a feminist dialectic. Ultimately, I argue that the novel formulates a critique of the domination of women not through the women represented, but through the representation of these women.

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. My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centering to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate. My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan.

--Salman Rushdie, Shame

As exemplified in this passage, the question of representation is overtly thematized in the novel with the overarching question of Pakistan versus Peccavistan. In this and other passages, the narrator interrogates the question he posits himself, whether the novel is about the fictional "Peccavistan" named in the novel or "really" about the real Pakistan. The obvious answer is that the novel retraces the historical, real-life infamous struggle for power over Pakistan between General Zia Ul-Haq and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, respectively portrayed in the novel as Raza "Razor Guts" Hyder and Iskandar "Isky" Harrapa. But the answer is also "not quite," for the novel--as shown in the quote above--purposefully and overtly evades an isomorphic correlation between historical "fact" and textual "fiction." Furthermore, the novel cannot be easily classified: despite its allegorical moments, the novel is not an allegory because its levels of meaning are not distinct from each other. This is not a story [End Page 195] about an imaginary country that is meant to be understood as Pakistan but a story about Pakistan that is not quite Pakistan. Likewise, the novel cannot be classified as "historical fiction" or even the textual equivalent of a "docu-drama" because instead of striving for verisimilitude as these genres require, the narrator shies away from it. The Pakistan/Peccavistan question thus serves to foreground the centrality of the question of representation to the novel, in all its levels of form and meaning.

If this were a realistic novel about Pakistan, I would not be talking about Bilquìs and the wind; I...


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