Magic Realism and Self-Conscious Writing in Waterland and Shame

Adrienne T. Chisolm '93, English 34 (1991)

Historia, ae, f. 1. inquiry, investigation, learning. 2. a) a narrative of past events, history. b) any kind of narrative: account, tale, story. [Swift, Waterland, ix]

When a revolution occurs, when a group of people declares its refusal to believe in or follow the authority of the existing powers, their next and perhaps even more difficult step is to find or create an authority that does merit loyalty and obedience. Revolution, in other words, reveals the weaknesses in the entire concept of rightful hegemony. But revolution is not a necessary factor in the hypothesis; the phenomenon can occur in any situation that involves a shift in the power relationship between any two (or among any several) cultures. And it is not only law and government which may be doubted, but also the authority of the powerful tool called History. Many post-colonial works of literature call into question the very nature of history. They serve as "testament to the inadequacies of historical absolutism" (Seth J. Kalvert, "Graves, Death and Travel Writing in Chatwin's In Patagonia").

History is, according to many post-colonial works, "a yarn" (Swift, 53), told by the ones who have the power to be heard. Truth is nothing more than a cultural definition or acceptance, and while all cultures define themselves in relation to others, the important question in constructing History becomes one of identifying which culture has the military, political and economic power to spread its own definition most effectively. Independent nations that were once colonized find themselves in a unique position; though the piece of land may remain constant before and after an independence movement, natives and imperialists perceive the significance of that land and the nature of the events that have taken place there simultaneously but not identically. Like revolutionaries who now must redefine an acceptable form of authority while questioning the workability of any form of government, the formerly colonized must enter a similar process of reevaluating History -- the history of the nation as the colonizer has told it, and the feasibility of the existence of History as any sort of absolute entity at all.

Of the legends that contribute to the history of a post-colonial nation, it sometimes seems that all are true and none is reliable. The post-colonial author must convey this paradox effectively within what is, essentially, just another legend. Magic realism often results since fantasy becomes a virtual necessity when representing the meshing of two cultures, because at least two separate realities, both of which are relevant and neither of which is completely accurate, work simultaneously. One may argue that facts are facts, and that they remain uncontestable; but the choices a storyteller makes in presenting data are all-important to their interpretation (in the long run, it seems there is no such thing as complete accuracy, and perception outweighs so-called reality in importance). Sometimes by juxtaposing local history with world events, and sometimes by juxtaposing two or more versions of the same events or locales, a post-colonial author presents a story with so many facts that it necessarily becomes unclear.

Waterland calls itself a fairy-tale. The setting is fantastic, though Swift's narrator presents the story as the telling of truth, matter-of-factly stating at the onset, "we lived in a fairy-tale place" (1). By describing cynically what people assume is agreed-upon world history as "stranger-than-fiction" (5) and what some would consider accounts of true lives as "those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales" (6), Swift quickly achieves an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion regarding any stories that claim to be more exclusively absolute than one of several possible accounts.

Rushdie juxtaposes pieces of town gossip to create the mystical setting of Shame; many different accounts admittedly have contributed to the sketches of his peculiar characters and their actions. His narrator develops large portions of plot in passages introduced by shaky statements like "Tongues began to wag" (Rushdie, Shame, 45) and "Gossip is like water. It probes surfaces for their weak places until it finds the breakthrough point; so it was only a matter of time before the good people of Q. hit upon the most shameful and scandalous explanation of all" (46). After passages of dubious accuracy such as these come the express intentions of the narrator to "get back onto solid ground" (47), but the tone of the text that follows remains unchanged in its gossipy nature.

When an author calls for the reader's scepticism of stories within a story, subtly pointing as evidence to contradictory information or unlikely authority, the inevitable challenge that follows is to convince the reader to accept the author's own account, which is, after all, just another story. Swift and Rushdie, however, both bypass this option, choosing instead to highlight the problem. Beyond using admittedly unreliable and contradictory characters' stories and legends to piece together supposedly believable accounts, the narrators that the two have created both play active roles within their texts as self-referential storytelling characters, themselves, throwing in constant reminders of their presence. Casual asides like "it is my unshakable opinion" (Rushdie, 13), and "I leave it to the reader to decide" (Rushdie, 16); addresses directed at the audience such as "Believe me when I tell you" (Rushdie, 26) and "if you haven't guessed already" (Swift, 48); self-conscious introductions of the text that is to follow ("So let me tell you another [story]" (Swift, 54)); and an onslaught of questions directed at no one in particular are some of the tools they use.

The result is the sense that the authors themselves have no more reliability as sources of absolute truth than do any of their fabricated characters. Swift's and Rushdie's narrators make no denials, apologies or excuses for the inherent power they hold as narrators. When Rushdie's writes, ". . . but there is no need to repeat his speech, or Farah's course reply" (Rushdie, 50), when in effect he announces that he controls what is and is not included in the story, he admits to his readers that by means of his deliberate representation he actively is shaping legend and history both, and implies that this is how the creation of all legend and history happens.

The relatively small dosage of self-referential writing interspersed into large blocks of factually-presented narrative makes Swift's and Rushdie's work effective; it also makes it difficult to point to a specific, illustrative paragraph-length passage in either of the two books. However, the following two passages, both very short, do, in self-conscious voices, make important and similar points about one's right to personalize history.
[I]t dawned on you: old Cricky [the narrator] was trying to put himself into history; old Cricky was trying to show you that he himself was only a piece of the stuff he taught. In other words, he'd flipped. . . . (Swift, 5)

Outsider! Trespasser! You have no right to this subject! . . . I know: nobody ever arrested me. Nor are they ever likely to. Poacher! Pirate! We reject your authority. We know you, with your foreign language wrapped around you like a flag: speaking about us in your forked tongue, what can you tell but lies? I reply with more questions: Is history to be considered the property of the participants solely? In what courts are such claims staked, what boundary commissions map out the territories? (Rushdie, 23)

Spokespeople for the inclusion of oneself in the representaion of history, the narrators in Waterland and Shame both echo a sentiment that most likely prevails in post-colonial nations -- nations exercising their right to take part in the telling of history as they see it.

The question a reader should ask of Swift and Rushdie's narrators: If no stories are reliable, why should I listen to you? The answer: Maybe you shouldn't; my story is no more reliable than any other, except that I am stating just that. That the narrators create an aura of doubt around their own credibility is okay; in fact, it is exactly what they want. Readers, they seem to say, should throw their stories into the ambiguous bank of History with all the others. The people in Waterland who are accustomed to telling stories treat history as legend when they hear it:

[W]hen echoes from the wide world began to penetrate to the Cricks, when news reached them at last, though they never went looking for it . . . they listened and repeated what they heard with wide-eyed awe, as if such things were not the stuff of fact but the fabric of a wondrous tale. (16)

Because this is all that Swift and Rushdie ask their readers to do, it makes sense that they continually force their own presence into their own intentionally fantastic narratives.

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Shame OV