Dueling Stories in Rushdie and Ishiguro

Jason Roach (English 34, 1991)

In Shame, Salman Rushdie faces the complex task of bringing together the narratives of numerous individuals into a coherent whole. Although a smaller number of characters are arrayed as a supporting cast for Stevens, the protagonist in The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro's task is no less difficult, for he chooses to relate his story by means of a series of scenes which occur non-causally, ordered only by the reminiscing mind of the narrator. Underlying both authors' stories is a notion of dueling histories or dueling realities. Rushdie's notion of a palimpsest country makes this explicit in Shame, in which his imaginary tale is laid out over the real and troubled history of Pakistan. This notion is less obvious in Ishiguro's novel, wherein Stevens' interpretations of the past are gradually and continually eroded by the persistence of facts he has refused to recognize. Rushdie and Ishiguro rely on their respective narrative styles and tactics to achieve the timely revelation of clues, secrets, and hints. Their success at revealing this information is central to the impact of their novels, and to the reader-novelist relationship.

The Remains of the Day is inhabited by a single narrator, Stevens. Having served one Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall for well over thirty years, Stevens has since the death of Lord Darlington been in the service of Darlington Hall's new owner, an American named Farraday. As Stevens progresses on his motoring trip, we come to know him and his style very well, and indeed to enjoy that style. In and of themselves, Stevens' use of language and the manner in which he relates both his current motoring holiday and events from his past serve to reinforce the reader's feeling that he is a genuinely likable, humble, happy individual engaged reviewing his past with a harmless sense of nostalgia. Stevens' language is such that the reader comes to view him in the same manner in which he views himself, an utterly professional and reserved English manservant. Part of the cited passage reads, "I led Dr Meredith downstairs, showed him into the billiard room, then returned quickly to the smoking room where the atmosphere, if anything, had grown more convivial" (109). Such language is typical of Stevens, whose memories are related in a consistent and even manner. The reader realizes that the circumstances portrayed are Stevens's recollections of them, but comes largely to accept them as uncolored owing to Stevens' seemingly impeccable relation of them in his self-deprecating, reserved manner of speaking and narrating.

Rushdie's narrative stands in marked contrast to the style employed by Ishiguro. Rushdie enters the story not only as the voice of several characters, but as a self-aware narrator, enlightening the reader by means of a series of folk tales, legends, and prominent images, as with his analogy of Shame to "a liquid, let's say a sweet fizzy tooth-rotting drink, stored in a vending machine."(131). Shame confronts the reader directly as Rushdie disturbs the continuity of the narrative, interjecting questions and anecdotes addressed explicitly to the reader. The cited passage contains no direct references to characters in the story, yet effectively and immediately poses vital questions concerning the concept being defined--Shame. In this vein, Rushdie asks, "Where do you imagine they go?--I mean emotions that should have been felt, but were not"(131).

Rushdie also narrates directly from the perspective of several characters in his novel, enabling him to execute his jumps forward and back in time more nimbly. This is particularly effective in the cases of Omar Khayyam and Sufia Zinobia, the former's immunity to Shame making it slip off his back, the latter's sensitivity to Shame so acute that she absorbs even poorly aimed ill feelings not directed at her. It is, however, to a great extent through his anecdotal and consciously narrated interruptions that Rushdie reveals the most important information to the reader--in this case his allusions to the potential for an emotionally based explosion in Sufia Zinobia. Earlier he revealed to us in such passages the initial inspiration for the novel, as well as laying the foundation for the dueling histories--the imposition of his imaginary country over Pakistan.

Rushdie takes it upon himself, through self-conscious, linguistically distinct, direct addresses to the reader, to provide foreshadowing of events to come, such as the aforementioned "Beast" inhabiting Sufia Zinobia. By then returning to the narrative of his various characters, bestowing upon them individual characteristics of speech, thought, and action, he draws the reader back into the narrative, possessed of a new knowledge of his intent. Interruptions such as the one cited here, employing fantastical or technical language, stand apart and in contrast to the body of the novel, with its parade of characters, locale, and events. Although the passage cited here is not one of the more overtly political interludes, the interaction between the dueling histories of Pakistan and Rushdie's Peccavistan are also explicated in these interruptions, hence the novel's unmistakably political nature.

Although Rushdie's narrative interludes by no means obviate the need for interpretation on the part of the reader, the style of speech which Ishiguro provides for Stevens' dictates that moves at an altogether different pace, and the revelations are also of an entirely different nature, emerging slowly and after the fact. As stated earlier, the even and considered nature of Steven's narrative and his position as sole narrator dictate that the reader initially accepts the world as presented by Stevens. Indeed, Stevens' own deferential manner and self-depreciatory style make the reader reluctant to call his assessments into question.

Let me make clear that when I say the conference of 1923, and that night in particular, constituted a turning point in my professional development, I am speaking very much in terms of my own humble standards. Even so, if you consider the pressures contingent on me that night, you may not think I delude myself unduly if I go so far as to suggest that I did perhaps display, in the face of everything, at least in some modest degree a 'dignity' worthy of someone like Mr Marshall...(110)

Only through Stevens' own recollections of the past is the disquieting truth made gradually clear. In the passage above he describes the manner in which he carried out his duties on the night of his father's death. This is one of the early instances that calls attention to the misplaced priorities with which Stevens gauges his life and work. Words such as "humble standards," "some modest degree," and others make it difficult for the reader, even in the face of evidence otherwise, to begrudge Stevens his grasp for dignity.

Rushdie, by bringing the reader out of the narrative and presenting a variety of outside speculation, presents his revelations before the culmination of the events to which he alludes. In contrast, Ishiguro lets us in on the secret truth at only a slightly quicker pace than Stevens himself comes to realize, if not accept it. In The Remains of the Day , the truth is held in reserve, the reader must look backward into the nostalgic recollections of Stevens to discover it. Both authors are concerned with the appropriate divulging of the truth, and both rely largely on their narrative distance, the style with which they tell their stories, to dictate the pace of that revelation. Where Rushdie is more direct and on occasion seems even to be holding the future of the story up for inspection, Ishiguro's employs a more reticent divulgence. Both, however, draw the reader in to a kind of complicity, forcing evaluation, even after the facts are revealed.