Barbarism in Cultured Soil: Rushdie’s Great Pakistani Novel

Shehryar Fazli in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

1353658437In the simplest terms, the novel is about the transformation of a country’s identity, the rise and fall of two men, the civilian leader Iskander Harrapa and the dictator-to-be Raza Hyder, fictional parallels respectively of Bhutto and Zia, who try to control the process, and the tragic outcomes of their missions. Its raw material is the history of Pakistan. At first glance, the book’s oft-quoted description of Pakistan as “a failure of the dreaming mind” seems mischievous and intended to provoke. But the failed dream here is an oppressive one: it is the dream of Urdu-speaking migrants who, after Partition in 1947, had to govern an essentially foreign nation, feeling compelled to impose a neat formula — the founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s ‘one nation, one culture, one language’ — onto a diverse, unwieldy polity. The dream disappoints because the country is too multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, too multidimensional for the imposition.

Shame’s narrator argues, “It is possible to see the subsequent history of Pakistan as a duel between two layers of time, the obscured world forcing its way back through what-had-been-imposed.” This duel forms the novel’s locus. Throughout, the censored and stifled rise to the surface, whether in the real-life secession of East Pakistan and insurgency in Balochistan against a brutal state, or in the gruesomely murderous acts of Sufiya Zinobia, General Hyder’s underdeveloped and repressed daughter. And then there is the deposed Iskander Harrapa, refusing to be quiet even after his execution: “O unceasing monologue of a hanged man!” Hyder wails as he starts hearing the dead prime minister, head still in the noose, taunting his executioner, “Never fear, old boy, it’s pretty difficult to get rid of me.

More here.