Connections between Waterland and Shame

Barry J. Fishman

In 1983 there were six novels competing for England's coveted Booker Prize. Two of these six were Graham Swift's Waterland, a Gothic tale of the English Fens, and Salman Rushdie's Shame, a novel that among other things recounts the history of Pakistan. By remarkable coincidence, interesting nonetheless, these two novels share many common ideas. It could be said that they are about exactly the same things. The differences between the two have more to do with differences in the authors' upbringings than with the tales they choose to tell.

Start, for example, with the manner in which each writer establishes setting in their respective novel:

The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real or fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exists, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. (Shame p.23)

And since a fairy-tale must have a setting, a setting which, like the settings of all good fairy-tales, must be both palpable and unreal, ... (Waterland p.6)

The similarities do not by any means end there. Both novels undertake to tell a regional history, both rooted in fact. For Swift there is the story of the Atkinsons and the Cricks, and a very real tale of industrial progress in East Anglia. Rushdie's story is allegorical, attempting to portray the long and convoluted history of Pakistan, its separation from India, and Bangladesh's subsequent split from Pakistan. Each of the novel's characters can be linked to major figures from Pakistan's recent past up to and including the now murdered General Zia. Both novels also pose their story in terms of family history. Rushdie goes so far as to include a family tree diagram at the start of his novel, which the reader can use as a type of scorecard to help keep the "players" straight.

Looking backward for the roots of the current world situation, both authors settle upon the French Revolution as the epoch making event of the modern world. That coincidence, at least, ends there. Each author uses Robespierre and Danton to his own ends, Swift focusing on the importance of learning history while Rushdie draws the conclusion: "Epicureanism is subversive." (p.265)

There are of course major differences between the two novels. The greatest of these lies in the direction each moves in before concluding. Swift brings his tale to a hard and fast reality, the drowning of the narrator's brother, Dick, in grim but realistic surroundings. Rushdie's novel becomes more surreal with each passing chapter until at its end the characters have assumed wholly allegorical roles. Good vs. Evil, Shame vs. Humility, all rush together to meet in a climactic and apocalyptic finish.

If you liked Waterland, I highly recommend Shame (Vintage Books, 1983). Each book has something slightly different to offer readers, and their many similarities will suggest new readings of previously misunderstood or unsolved problems.