Cosmopolitan Retellings and the Idea of the Local: The Case of Salman Rushdie’s Shame
This essay brings to the issue of imagining Asia in historical fiction an interest in how history is imagined, recreated, and politically interrogated in literary texts. The interface and interflow between history and fiction has long been the subject of critical attention. What has been far less attended to is the “textual” dynamics of this interface—in terms of the organization of meaning through specific formal ordering—which bears crucially on questions about ideology, social power, and cultural identity, and registers the complexities of the transfer of the “historical” to the “fictional.” My discussion of Salman Rushdie’s Shame (1983) approaches the political interventions made by historical fiction in history through the lens of what Hayden White has termed “systems of meaning production” or the structuring horizons of socio-cultural intelligibility in-forming historical narratives. This critical approach becomes especially relevant in Asian post-colonial “cosmopolitan” contexts with their historically mixed (or split) epistemological and aesthetic legacies. Examining Shame in this light, I highlight the text’s aesthetically hybrid magic-realist negotiation of gender issues in the early decades of the history of Pakistan, and consider the ways in which local marvelous narrative forms contribute to such a negotiation. This essay, thus, explores the prescience and historical resonance of Rushdie’s choice of genre for the task of imagining a nation and the fault lines of its social (gender) organization. Also, given the mixed cultural and formal cast of Shame, and the transnational or “cosmopolitan” conditions of its production, I situate the novel’s intervention in Pakistani history vis-à-vis critical debates around the global travel and circulation of aesthetic frameworks in a postcolonial context. The questions I ask are: What can a culturally “cosmopolitan” literary retelling of history offer to our understanding of that past? What can be the value of this specific optics to read history? And what relationship can such a historical novel have with various modalities of the local?