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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

GS Mumbles: Salman Rushdie, Doctor Who, and China Mieville

(GS Mumbles -- or Grad School Mumbles -- is the second of my new seasonal columns in which I talk about things I'm working on as a grad student, often in relation to geeky things.)

I suspect this post is going to be an attempt to make a silly connection between a favorite TV show in the geek community and one of the great literary figures of our time.

In his novel, Shame, Salman Rushdie's autobiographical narrator interrupts the narrative to tell us that the novel is quite clearly not about the things we think it's about.  The scene goes as follows:
The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite.  There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space.  My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality.  I have found this off-centering to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate.  My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan. 
I have not given the country a name.  And Q. is not really Quetta at all.  But I don't want to be precious about this:  when I arrive at he big city, I shall call it Karachi.  And it will contain a "Defense."  (23-24)
In discussing this passage in class, I was consumed by the image provided by the following scene from "The Stolen Earth" (Doctor Who):


I wouldn't say that being "one second out of sync with the rest of the universe" is an adequate explanation for the Rushdie passage, but it does provide a way of thinking about this line:  "The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite."  Shame is, perhaps, about an out of sync representation of a place, one which at once seems like the proper thing, but is also something else entirely by the nature of representation itself.  To write fictionally about a country as Rushdie does in Shame, you also take away the possibility of writing about that country.




Of course, Rushdie might be up to something a little more clever, which is perhaps why I didn't bring up the "out of sync" comment in class.  If I had been smart enough to think of it then, I might have brought up China Mieville's The City and the City, which more accurately captures this idea of a representation which is two places compacted (almost) into the same place in the form of a literary reference.  But even that comparison is an unfair one.

I think the crucial part of the scene is where Rushdie says, "My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan."  It similarly connects to J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, though in less abstract or dislocated terms.  Coetzee's novel could very well be about any number of different former colonies, as all the references are ambiguous enough to point in multiple directions.  Shame is not necessarily so ambiguous, though the antihistoricity of the text suggests that the fictional Pakistan and the real Pakistan are, if not separate in concrete terms, then certainly held apart by a blurred boundary -- the boundary that normally is embodied by the fictional allegory in the strictest of separations.  You'd have to think of Shame as an anti-historical novel -- that is, a novel which actively fights the idea of the empirical truth of a real place in a narrative which challenges, at every step, the nature of reality and truth itself.
In other words, there is no Pakistan, only the imaginary shared "idea" of "nation" the people who call themselves "Pakistanis" have bought into, just as those who call themselves "Americans" have bought into the idea of a stable thing called "The United States of America."  There's no point pretending something is when the conditions of its existence are always already compromised by the near-fictionality of the imagined community (this is Benedict Anderson's concept, which, if reduced, reads something like:  the nation is neither real nor fake, but the imagined or dream-like entity people accept as a nation -- i.e., we make the nation by believing it exists).

Does anyone have any thoughts here?  Whether about Rushdie, Mieville, Coetzee, or nationalism?  The comments are yours...

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1 comment:

  1. Aside from my general urge to fetch Mr Rushdie a smack upside his head and tell him to get over himself, I do have something to share. If he's writing about Pakistan in particular, why not write about Pakistan? And if he's writing about a society in general, that includes but is not specific to Pakistan, then why not use an entirely fictional country? If you set your fictional country too closely to a real one, people will spend their time nitpicking about the differences and miss the point of the story.
    On a side note, China Mieville's "The City" made my head hurt. Very clever stuff, but I have no idea how you figure out a novel like that and then write it. Very impressive.

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