Short Story Spotlight: "The Shelter of the World" by Salman Rushdie

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I'm introducing another new feature this week - my Short Story Spotlight. I have had an appreciation for the short story since eleventh grade honors English, when my teacher, Mr. Dempsey (published here, if you're interested) gave us packet after packet to analyze. My short story reading has dwindled in the last few years, and I decided an every-so-often post devoted to a short story would up my reading and understanding of the art. To me, a short story is a chance to experiment, to try out a plot device or character without complete commitment to the story. You can be a little weirder in a short story than in a novel (and I think authors often are). I think short stories are also occasionally intentionally obscure, which drives me insane.

But enough about that. The short story I am spotlighting today is "The Shelter of the World" by Salman Rushdie. It was recommended to me by my English-genius friend Allison, who has written several blog posts about Mr. Rushdie. (Her own personal blog and our group of friends' book blog) I have two of Rushdie's novels sitting on my nightstand right now, but am still nervous to start - he is intimidating to me. Allison suggested reading a few of his stories as an introduction, so I arbitrarily picked this one and gave it a read.

Very weird - check. This is about the Emperor Akbar the Great (translation: Emperor the Great the Great), who has invented a perfect wife among his harem of beautiful women, a wife who develops her own will and personality after his imagination gives her life. He also begins to experiment with the idea of referring to himself in the singular instead of the plural, thinking this will give new dimension to their relationship. When it fails, Jodha the imagined wife falls in his eyes and their relationship changes.

I'm not sure if I fully grasped the intention of the story. I followed the plot points. I know what happened. But I think I'm missing the undercurrent of meaning. Maybe I would be better at interpreting things if I'd kept studying English instead of switching to neuroscience (which may have been the most random choice in the history of the world, but I think it was a good one other than the fact that I can't understand Salman Rushdie).

However, despite feeling slightly out of the loop, this story is a delight in its writing. Rushdie's style is soothing and elegant, yet straightforward. His tone is that of a storyteller weaving magic words to paint a colorful picture. I had this same impression when I went to Borders and ended up buying The Satanic Verses - as I sat in the chair reading through the first chapter, I was slightly baffled by what was happening (two actors falling through the air, singing to each other? Say what??) but spellbound by the words. And for me, that is the best part of reading - the sheer magic brought by beautiful words. That is the most satisfying thing to devour - not the scandalous stories or the thrilling plot twists.

So while "The Shelter of the World" did not by any means lessen my anxiety about reading 600+ pages by Rushdie as opposed to just 8, it didn't turn me away either. My doubt about understanding everything he says is increased, but my security in knowing I will enjoy the book is equally increased. Now I just have to make the move to pick it up.

1 comment:

  1. I love it. I love it, I love it.

    The post and the story.

    I loved this story because of its discussion of language and how that changes us. The idea that he suddenly thought of himself in an entirely different way just because he changed the pronouns he used is amazing to me. I love that language has that power. I love the imagined wife. I also love the way it is written, and you described it perfectly.

    I've been told that this story makes more sense if you know some Muslim/Arabic history. A lot of the names are references to things that have happened. I think most of Rushdie's work is this way; more dense than you can take in the first time around. But he is gorgeous. I can't wait for you to read Satanic Verses.

    And I can't believe you mentioned me as an English-genius! I'm flattered.


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