peteg's blog - noise - books - 2019 09 08 Rushdie Shame

Salman Rushdie: Shame.

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Kindle. I've been meaning to re-read this for a while. It's a quasi-historical-fictional account of Pakistan's political upheavals of the 1970s and early 1980s: the unsteady rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and concomitantly his nemesis Zia-al-Haq. They and their families are lightly disguised; Rushdie winkingly denies that the "virgin Ironpants" is Benazir Bhutto and so forth. I liked his authorial insertions, though they are strongly normative and unsurprising, and my history remains too weak to draw deeper parallels with actual history or fathom his mythology. Mohammed Hanif is far funnier in his account of al-Haq's end days.

The book is very quotable.

Politeness can be a trap, and Bilquis was caught in the web of her husband's courtesy. 'As you wish,' she wrote back, and what made her write this was not entirely guilt, but also something untranslatable, a law which obliged her to pretend that Raza's words meant no more than they said. This law is called takallouf. To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words. Takallouf is a member of that opaque, world-wide sect of concepts which refuse to travel across linguistic frontiers: it refers to a form of tongue-tying formality, a social restraint so extreme as to make it impossible for the victim to express what he or she really means, a species of compulsory irony which insists, for the sake of good form, on being taken literally. When takallouf gets between a husband and a wife, look out.

On the dangers of a theocratic state (Rushdie claims that only Iran and Israel were such at the time, but Wikipedia suggests he was blinkered):

So-called Islamic 'fundamentalism' does not spring, in Pakistan, from the people. It is imposed on them from above. Autocratic regimes find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith, because people respect that language, are reluctant to oppose it. This is how religions shore up dictators; by encircling them with words of power, words which the people are reluctant to see discredited, disenfranchised, mocked.

But the ramming-down-the-throat point stands. In the end you get sick of it, you lose faith in the faith, if not qua faith then certainly as the basis for a state. And then the dictator falls, and it is discovered that he has brought God down with him, that the justifying myth of the nation has been unmade. This leaves only two options: disintegration, or a new dictatorship ... no, there is a third, and I shall not be so pessimistic as to deny its possibility.

The third option is the substitution of a new myth for the old one. Here are three such myths, all available from stock at short notice: liberty; equality; fraternity. I recommend them highly.

As with everything Rushdie, coverage is legion on the web. Shehryar Fazli provides a broad perspective from 2012.