The first problem with magic realism is that everyone who writes it, no matter where he or she is from and what he or she is writing about it, seems to be trying to write a sentence as good as the opening sentence of A Hundred Years of Solitude… and failing. Case in point from Rushdie’s Shame: “The day before they passed the sentence of death Iskander Harappa would be permitted to telephone his daughter for one minute exactly” (107). There are more where that one came from, too.
The second problem with magic realism is that I find it impossible to pace myself while reading it. On the one hand, I find that I have to read it all in one sitting, because if I get up for even a minute to think about something else I’ll lose my footing in the novel’s imaginary world, and when I come back I won’t remember which character it was whose body temperature is so high that no one can touch her, and which one it was who turns into a fish whenever she has sex, and which one it was who broke out in horrible boils after she killed two hundred and six wild turkeys. To be honest, whenever I put this book down, I had no real desire to pick it up again – not because it isn’t good but because entering its world is so overwhelmingly disorienting. On the other hand, I have nowhere near enough stamina to read it straight through, and every twenty pages or so I have to get up and cleanse my system by reading a cookbook, or a Wikipedia article about Oklahoma, or an instruction manual on how to grow cat grass.
The third problem with magic realism is that it’s about all kind of crazy shit THAT COULD NEVER REALLY HAPPEN!
But other than those three things, I like magic realism a whole lot.
But in all seriousness. This book is fairly baffling, although it’s baffling in familiar ways. I do understand that magic realism is really nothing more than a lot of overdone extended metaphors, and I also understand that to really understand a magic realist text one must immerse oneself in the culture from which it comes – in this case, Pakistan. I find it interesting that magic realism almost always seems to emerge as a postcolonial phenomenon (although I know, I know – it has its roots in mythology and other ancient traditions, but still) as a way by which colonized and oppressed individuals discover or rediscover a sense of their authentic voice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book or course devoted to studying magic realism from a Freudian or psychoanalytical perspective, but if such a book exists I would very much like to read it. In fact, I would probably enjoy that kind of book more than I enjoy the magic realist texts in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When stripped down to its basic elements, the plot of Shame is relatively simple. It is the story of the relationship between two families: that of the military commander Raza Hyder and that of the more liberal (and libertine) but equally power-hungry politician Iskander Harappa. A third family is present in the shadows: that of Omar Khayyam Shakil, who has three mothers (but in the magic realist kind of way, not in the P.C. kind of way) and who marries the oldest daughter of Raza Hyder and is a good friend of Iskander Harappa’s, and who therefore serves as a sort of link between the two families.
If I knew more about the history of Pakistan in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, I could probably do a lot more to tell you about how these characters do and do not align themselves with historical figures. Rushdie does a good bit with the idea that the country portrayed in this novel “both is and is not Pakistan,” and if I’m going to introduce that idea, I also need to tell you that Rushdie is playing in this novel not only with magic realism but also with metafiction. He is more than happy to interrupt his narration every so often to tell his readers all about how he is sitting at his desk in London and thinking about his youngest sister and feeling angry at his parents for moving to Pakistan and how he spend a great deal of time developing a character named Anna whom he eventually decided not to put in the novel. And as far as I’m concerned, there is only one problem with metafiction, and that is that almost every time I encounter it, the metafiction is invariably vastly more interesting than the plot of the novel itself, and I find myself shuffling pages ahead and thinking All right already about all these CHARACTERS – when is he going to get back to the part about spying on the neighbors and intending to put them in the book and then deciding not to? I am a sucker for reading what writers have to say about their creative processes – I find it fascinating. Give me a little metafiction, and you’re almost guaranteed to bore me once you’re back to the nitty-gritty business of crafting a narrative.
It is Rushdie’s metafiction that allows him to write passages like this one: “If this were a realistic novel about Pakistan, I would not be writing about Bilquìs and the wind; I would be talking about my youngest sister. Who is twenty-two, and studying engineering in Karachi; who can’t sit on her hair anymore, and who (unlike me) is a Pakistani citizen. On my good days, I think of her as Pakistan, and then I feel very fond of the place, and find it easy to forgive its (her) love of Coca-Cola and imported motor cars” (65-66). There are any number of paragraphs like this one in the novel, paragraphs that begin with “If I were writing a realistic novel about Pakistan…” It’s almost as if Rushdie is saying, Yeah, you guessed it. I don’t really want to be writing magic realism any more than you want to be reading it. But there’s some kind of cognitive or emotional wall up that’s preventing me from just writing the people and places of Pakistan for who and what they are (or maybe I worry that if I did so, you wouldn’t believe me), so here goes.
Presumptuous of me, no?
Back to the story. This novel works around a series of paired characters and families. I already told you about the Hyders and the Harappas, but there is also a thematic pairing of sorts between Omar Khayyam Shakil and Sufiya Zinobia Hyder, whom Omar eventually marries. I’m not even going to go into details about why Omar Khayyam Shakil has three mothers, but let’s suffice it to say that for reasons that combine magic realism with good old-fashioned classical conditioning, Omar Khayyam Shakil is incapable of experiencing shame – the emotion and motivational device that gives the novel its title. On shame in general, Rushdie writes, “Wherever I turn, there is something of which to be ashamed. But shame is like everything else; live with it long enough and it becomes part of the furniture… You can find shame in every house, burning in an ashtray, hanging framed upon a wall, covering a bed. But nobody notices it anymore. And everyone is civilized” (21); and on Omar Khayyam Shakil’s strange congenital shamelessness, he writes, “It was not only shame that his mothers forbade Omar Khayyam to feel, but also embarrassment, discomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world, and other dialects of emotion for which English has no counterparts” (33). On the other hand, Sufiya Zinobia Hyder suffers some kind of brain fever when she is a young child, and thereafter she is “simple-minded” and also has developed some kind of magic realist ailment that prompts her to take on all shame that comes anywhere near her: “Where do you imagine they go? – I mean emotions that should have been felt, but were not – such as regret for a harsh word, guilt for a crime, embarrassment, propriety, shame? Imagine shame as a liquid, let’s say a sweet fizzy tooth-rotting drink, stored in a vending machine. Push the right button and a cup plops down under a pissing stream of the fluid. How to push the button? Nothing to it. Tell a lie, sleep with a white boy, get born the wrong sex. Out flows the bubbling emotion and you drink your fill… but how many human beings refuse to follow these simple instructions! Shameful things are done… and they are done shamelessly! Then what happens to all that unfelt shame?” (124-125). The answer, of course, is that it is felt by Sufiya Zenobia Hyder Shakil.
All this is interesting, right? And if I summarized other parts of the novel for you – the ongoing jockeying for power between Raza Hyder and Iskander Harappa, the subplot involving Iskander Harappa’s nephew Haroun and his short-lived European education, the many, many bizarre notions that characters in this novel have about sex – you would find those interesting too. But reading this novel is different, and I feel this way about almost every work of magic realism that I have ever read. The characters and plot are interesting, but the storytelling technique throws up so many obstacles between the reader and the text that it makes me want to throw the book down in frustration. I am well aware that one such obstacle is my own lack of context, as I really don’t know as much as I should about the history of Pakistan in the years after the 1947 Partition, and it is not Rushdie’s job to fill in these gaps in my education. He is not required to make reading this novel easy for me – but it seems to me that through his use of magic realism he actually makes it harder than it has to be – and for me (and I emphasize my subjectivity here) this is the problem with magic realism that trumps all of the other problems with magic realism: that this narrative technique always seems to operate as a sort of code or secret handshake or combination to a locked safe. Magic realism does through metaphor what writers like T.S. Eliot and Faulkner and Joyce did with endless layers of allusion: it makes a text inaccessible (or partially inaccessible) to readers who lack certain elements of context. And I suppose that Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others have every right to do this if they want to, to surround their stories with so many traps and dead ends and halls of mirrors and other tricks that not only do we never really know what’s real but we also never know when we are being tricked and when we aren’t. I feel a little bit like the kid in the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, wondering what all the fuss is about but also suspecting that maybe, when all is said and done, I’m just missing something. And I don’t like feeling this way, since I came to this novel with the genuine intention of reading about a culture I don’t know very well and maybe learning something.
So there you go. I still respect Rushdie as a writer and as a person, and I still intend to read more of his work. If the time ever comes when I do learn more about the history of Pakistan, I would consider returning to this novel and seeing what more I can make of it. But I don’t think magic realism will ever be my thing, and ultimately I don’t know how much of my limited brainpower I want to spend puzzling over this novel and others like it.