Salman Rushdie is a writer famous for his seemingly unstoppable exuberance on the page â€“ although, surprisingly, he has quite frequently spoken about his fragility when it comes to the writing process. In particular, he says he fears revealing anything he is still working on, when it is too â€œdelicateâ€. He tells a story of once showing an early part of The Moorâ€™s Last Sigh to a few people and how even though they said they liked it, the experience clammed him up for three months, during which he was unable to write another word.
The way to get round such problems, he says, is that when youâ€™re writing, you must â€œfool yourself into thinking itâ€™s a private actâ€. During the years he shuts himself away to work on his novels, he tries not to imagine any audience at all. It sounds like a sensible strategy. But after the instant success of Midnightâ€™s Children in 1981, putting the publicâ€™s interest out of mind for the next one must have been a serious challenge. He must have been aware that his first paragraph, especially, would have to bear an unusual weight of expectation and excitement â€“ I felt a frisson myself when I opened Shame almost 35 years later. And hereâ€™s what I found:
In the remote border down of Q, which when seen from the air resembles nothing so much as an ill-proportioned dumb-bell, there once lived three lovely, and loving, sisters. Their names â€¦ but their real names were never used, like the best household china, which was locked away after the night of their joint tragedy in a cupboard whose location was eventually forgotten, so that the great thousand-piece service from the Gardener potteries in Tsarist Russia became a family myth in whose factuality they almost ceased to believe â€¦ the three sisters, I should state without further delay, bore the family name of Shakil, and were universally known (in descending order of age) as Chhunni, Munnee and Bunny.
Iâ€™m unsure how I feel about that first sentence. I like the cheeky not-quite-fairy-tale-feel. And now Iâ€™ve read more of the book I understand the heavy irony in calling the sisters â€œlovelyâ€ and â€œlovingâ€. But when I first read it, I was mainly distracted by trying to work out exactly what an â€œill-proportioned dumb-bellâ€ looks like.
But distraction may well have been part of the intent. The real power of this sentence is the way it softens us up for what follows. That familiar once-upon-a-time rhythm and the sense it gives us of flying above the map, makes the plunge into the dark cupboards â€“ and extreme strangeness â€“ of the next monstrous bit of prose all the more vertiginous. Who else would dare write like that? I canâ€™t think of another author who would get away with those interruptions. Who could bring in such dizzying circumlocutions. And then delay getting to the point still further by talking about the â€œdelayâ€ he has already caused. And then finally give us that closure with a gong-banging tricolon of rhyming spondees. Itâ€™s outrageous.
And I say that even before Iâ€™ve started working on the meaning. Here too, the sentence is overloaded and full of delights. Itâ€™s impossible not to start speculating about the nature of that â€œtragedyâ€. I also started wondering what kind of place they lived in, where you could lose not just the china but the cupboard it was stored in. And then, oh boy, you realise itâ€™s a 1,000-piece China set, and itâ€™s travelled all the way over (to where? and when?) from tsarist Russia â€¦ what kind of huge house must this story be set in? There are so many hints and allusions about wealth and loss and about soon-to-be-teased-out story strands that it left me reeling.
Which made the punches of the next one-sentence paragraph land all the harder:
â€œAnd one day their father died.â€
Only â€œfatherâ€ in that sentence has more than one syllable. Itâ€™s like a left and a right, a left and right, a left-right and a final killer left. As I say: outrageous.
If Rushdie was nervous about how people might embrace the opening of Shame, he clearly decided to meet them head on, horns down. Heâ€™s also, obviously, showing off. I can just about imagine there could be some readers who might not enjoy such an all-out assault of words. But I was immediately enraptured. These two paragraphs made me stop worrying about the shadow of Midnightâ€™s Children. And, better still, once heâ€™d pummelled me into submission, Rushdie then got down to the more straightforward and important business of storytelling.
Reading a whole novel as excessive as that opening would be exhausting, so Rushdie sensibly smooths things out quickly. The third paragraph is still brilliant â€“ but itâ€™s far more regular, as in this first sentence:
Old Mr Shakil, at the time of his death a widower for eighteen years, had developed the habit of referring to the town in which he lived as â€˜hell holeâ€™.
Thereâ€™s far less to get worked up about there. And so it goes on through most of what Iâ€™ve read so far. Every so often, Rushdie will let off a bright and fizzing firework â€“ but not at the expense of the story and the deeper meaning.
On this latter subject, it quickly becomes apparent that Shame is a book with a lot to say. It is a â€œnovel not totally removed from politicsâ€, as Tariq Ali said with charming understatement, while interviewing Rushdie back in 1983. Behind that ecstatic language and giddy prose, thereâ€™s a steady, cold anger. That intriguingly large house, which only has inward looking windows, and whole wings rotting with neglect, isnâ€™t just an enjoyable imaginative feat. It quickly starts to feel like a tragic metaphor. The novel may start with a wonderful unworldly fairytale feel â€“ but it soon becomes an urgent commentary on real-world politics. It starts, in short, to feel like a book that matters for its own sake.