The Conversational Narrator in Shame and Waterland

Cynthia Henry '91 (English 34, 1991)

Both Salman Rushdie's Shame and Graham Swift's Waterland utilize the technique of a narrative bard, rather than the more traditional narrator. Unlike the traditional narrator, the bard talks, rather than thinks. This technique lends itself to a certain flexibility in the construction and shaping of these novels in ways in which novel forms which have come to represent the norm may not.

Through this figure of a narrative bard, Rushdie and Swift reach back to an ancient form of literature, the epic. The responsibilities of the epic bard included remembering and passing on the history of a civilization, to ensure that a civilization lived on in memory long after it had ceased to exist. This aspect plays a vital role in both novels. Both narrators pass on stories to future generations in order to ensure that certain events do not go unrecorded.

In Waterland, the novel unfolds as a series of tales told by a history teacher to his class as a way for him to understand himself or to come to terms with his present life. Ostensibly, he chooses story-telling as a means of communicating with his students because other, more traditional, methods of teaching have failed. Tom Crick also senses in his class a restlessness, a fear for their future, for the future, that leads him to tell stories which will capture their imaginations, temporarily displacing those fears. Before he attempts this new mode of teaching, he says to his classroom:

Children to whom, throughout history stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives...listen. Your history teacher wishes to give you the complete and final version... (Washington Square Press edition,p. 6)

The novel develops into an oral tale of grand proportions, one which traces not only the story of Tom's life, but the story/history of his ancestry. Through his stories, Tom places his ancestors - many of whom would have been eradicated from history- in the foreground of history, he makes sure that they will not be easily forgotten.

The narrator of Shame also has a similar purpose, he sets out to record the history/ies of a people who would otherwise have been forgotten in more mainstream versions of history. While this narrator has a more explicitly political agenda than Tom, both narrators bring history down to the level of the individual, making it more personal, more relate-able, and more accessible. In Shame, Rushdie records the history of a troubled nation, but he does so from the point-of-view of individuals. In one of his explanations for writing this text, the narrator says that the work tells the story of a friend whose achievements would have gone unmarked by history, so he takes upon himself to make sure that his friend's notoriety lives on, no matter the opposition :

Maybe my friend should be telling this story, or another one, his own; but he doesn't write poetry any more. So here I am instead, inventing what never happened to me.. Outsider! Trespasser! You have no right to this subject. [Vintage International edition, 23]

Through the history of families or groups of individuals, both Swift and Rushdie reflect the history of a nation, both the triumphs and the downfalls.

In addition, the stylistic technique of writing through the persona of an oral story-teller permits the author to tell his tale in a seemingly erratic manner. The author can achieve a certain level of naturalism, or at least a certain type of naturalism, not possible with other literary forms of novel writing. That is, the author attempts to simulate the manner in which natural ("real life") speech occurs. Narrators have the freedom of time and space to tell their stories in whichever manner they "occur" to them - narrators can digress, pause, or move on to different parts of the story with the only apparent connection often being their particular stream of consciousness. However, the narrators often use this freedom to create intrigue and suspense.

Related to this point is the communal nature of this form of writing, since story-telling implies both a speaker and an audience. Swift clearly defines the community in Waterland with Tom Crick as the tale-bearer and his students as the listeners. On the other hand, Shame has a much larger, more general audience - all the readers. In both cases, the narrator demonstrates a keen awareness of the audience. Neither narrator rambles on monotonously, instead they tell a series of mini-narratives rather than one long narrative, and constantly intrigue the audience in order to keep the minds of the listeners active. In fact, both texts require active participation on the part of the reader in order to comprehend ,or to begin to comprehend, the many levels at which the stories work.

Thus the technique of using a bard allows the authors flexibility in their work. A sense of improvisation, making up the story as it goes along is essential to both texts at least on the level of the narrator. Furthermore, both texts are consciously communal in ways previous novel writing was not. In this regard, Rushdie breaks more boundaries than Swift. Swift chooses to confine his community to the text whereas Rushdie speaks beyond the narrative directly to the reader. Both Swift and Rushdie reject more "traditional", more formal notions of novel writing, opting instead for a more "natural" -- albeit perhaps more stylized -- method.

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Shame OV