Rushdie, Ishiguro, and the Art of Story-Telling

Heidie Joo '93 (English 34, 1991)

Rushdie and Ishiguro call upon the art of story-telling to convey a political statement in their works, Shame and The Remains of the Day. However, the two authors unfold reality by means of fiction in two very distinct ways. Rushdie comments on the formation of Pakistan and its ramifications by venturing into a grotesque fantasy. On the other hand, Ishiguro critiques the British political practices of the twentieth century and in particular, its system of colonialism. Unlike Rushdie, Ishiguro bases his story within the restraints of daily happenings. Even though Rushdie and Ishiguro diverge in technique, their use of story-telling points towards a greater understanding of real situations.

The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exist, like myself , at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centring to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate. My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan (23-24).

Rushdie deems it necessary to portray shame, a very real emotion, by allegory--"a slight angle to reality" (24). Interestingly enough, he explicitly connects Pakistan, "a miracle that went wrong" (92) and Sufiya Zinobia, "the hero of our story, the wrong miracle."(92) In essence, Sufiya Zinobia characterizes an entire nation. She blushes from Pakistan's shame: the violence, the corruption, the displaced people. Stretching his allegory to fantastic proportions, Rushdie makes Sufiya Zinobia's shame literally unleash a beast from within, suggesting that shame manifests itself through violence.

Rushdie chooses to depict the raw and sensitive emotion of shame in gory detail. In his case, the author needs to displace the personal and painful into exaggerated fiction bordering on satire. "I have found this off-centring to be necessary."(24) Perhaps the distance from reality protects the writer and enables him to touch upon particularly difficult subjects. As a result, Rushdie strews Shame with images of decapitated bodies, shit, dead chickens, and vomit.

At the same time that Rushdie slips into the realm of fantasy, his interjections constantly remind us of his presence. His self-consciousness distances us from the novel; the story we hear is only that which Rushdie chooses to tell. The addition of the author's own voice disorients the reader. For instance, he fascinates us with the circumstances of Raza Hyder and Bilquís' chance meeting, only to tell us a few pages later, "Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy tale, so that's all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously...What a relief!"(72) Again, we see the author articulating important points by way of fiction. However, his personal rhetoric serves to frame the fiction within a very contemporary context. That is, Rushdie intermingles his Western rhetoric into an Eastern tale. This fusion of East-West brings to attention the consequences of colonialism and Rushdie's own identity as a man living in two worlds.

If the word "explicit" comes to mind when describing Rushdie's style, then the word "implicit" should aptly define Ishiguro's style. In essence, Rushdie and Ishiguro both focus on the concept and consequences of shame. But whereas Shame clearly shows us this central theme, Ishiguro's work approaches the same theme by not showing; the issue of shame remains unspoken.

The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit:he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he is entirely alone. It is as I say, a matter of 'dignity'. (42-43)

However, I can not help wondering that there is something fishy about the constant exaltation of dignity in this novel. If England already epitomizes this virtue, then why dwell on it? Furthermore, Stevens grapples throughout the novel for a definition of dignity. He cites various examples but can not ever seem to put his finger on it. He can not quite grasp the notion of dignity because dignity is just a notion, it doesn't exist. Thus, Ishiguro adopts a very proper tone to portray a seemingly stable front. Yet the novel's own stability undermines itself. For beneath Stevens' restraint, emerges a fear of shame that hides itself under the auspice of dignity. The opposite of dignity is, after all, shame.

Like Rushdie, Stevens' rhetoric describes the context within which Ishiguro writes. Stevens exercises enormous restraint and impersonality in his speech. I am hardly surprised that Stevens does not adapt well to bantering. Stevens' speech characterizes the society which places such emphasis on professionalism and duty. Ishiguro further comments that the effects of such a society zaps the individuality out of the individual. For instance, Stevens denies any personal feelings for Miss Kenton. In fact, he justifies his visit as a professional necessity, "that is to say, I could drive to the West Country and call on Miss Kenton in passing, thus exploring at first hand the substance of her wish to return to employment here at Darlington Hall."(10) Unbeknownst to Stevens (yet so obvious to us), Miss Kenton occupies a special place in his life. Why all the references to her letter and all the flashbacks to the their days of working together? One also notices the way in which Stevens tries to dilute his personal feelings. For instance, he often uses phrases such as "That is to say, it was, on the whole," to preface what is truly important, "extremely pleasing to see her again" (232). Stevens is not unlike the characters in Shame . The British virtue of dignity, of "not removing one's clothing in public," embeds itself so deeply into Stevens that he portrays a kind of grotesqueness (210). This grotesqueness, Ishiguro implies, results from colonialism. The servitude which colonialism breeds leads to the denial of self.

Rushdie and Ishiguro are two very different story-tellers who express concern about the politics of the twentieth century. On a final note, their distinctive styles may reflect the relationship of the author to his subject matter. Since Rushdie writes about himself and his people, he sees the need to distance himself before he can tell his story, whereas Ishiguro delves into everyday British life perhaps because he sees himself as already separated from his subject.