Contrasting Uses of the Narrator: An Analysis of Rushdie and Ishiguro

Josh Newell, English 34 (Feb 14, 1991)

Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro both utilize the narrator in creative, yet vastly different ways. Such a contrast is not surprising due to the fact that their styles differ so fundamentally. Rushdie's Shame is an eclectic collection of a vast number of characters, anecdotes and fascinating snippets of factual information, few of which seem, at first glance, directly interrelated. As the novel progresses, however, Rushdie weaves together these seemingly unconnected realities into a coherent whole. Rushdie's narrator performs an integral role in this construction. He gives the reader a sense of clarity and continuity by revealing the author's reasons for the endless myriad of images within the novel. Without such a friend we would be hopelessly lost.

Ishiguro, in contrast, gives us a novel uncluttered by a multiplicity of characters, develops a limited setting, and offers a crisp style which flows on one level from beginning to end. In contrast to Rushdie, Ishiguro does not shift gears at mid page but the reader must pay delicate attention to the subtle hints that appear throughout the fluid text. Yet the novel's apparent traditional convention is merely a facade as we gradually realize that the purpose of the narrator is not to lead us through the thickets but to deceive us. Ultimately the reader must construct the moral message that flows through the novel. The following passages reveal these very different approaches to the concept of narrator.

By inserting the voice of narrator, Rushdie makes clear his intentions for the structure of the his novel. "As for me: I, too, like all migrants, am a fantasist. I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the ones that exist. I, too face the problem of history: what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on relinquishing, how to deal with change."(Shame, p. 92.) Rushdie informs the reader ongoing juxtaposition between fantasy and reality that provides the tension within the novel. His self-conscious authorial intrusion, which is characteristic of a post-modernist style, gives us a degree of intimacy with Rushdie (see George P. Landow's "Authorial Intrusion in Shame" for an example of this concept). Viewed analogously, his intrusive remarks can be seen as optical instruments with which to construct a coherent message behind the novel. (For detailed treatment of this analogy, see Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Vol. 3, specifically the chapter, "Past Regained") At other times Rushdie saves us from getting completely lost in the book's chaotic structure by intruding into the narrative in a different manner. I have lingered on this business of Army morale to indicate why it was that during his years as Commander-in-Chief Raza Hyder did not have the time or mental energy to pay proper attention to what his daughter Sufiya Zinobia was getting up to in the nights." (Shame, p. 224). Although the veracity of this statement cannot be verified, there are no passages in the novel that make the reader suspicious of any duplicity on the part of the narrator.

With Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, the narrator performs the opposite function.

But life being what it is, how can ordinary people truly be expected to have 'strong opinions' on all manner of things--as Mr. Harry Smith rather fancifully claims the villagers here do? And not only are these expectations unrealistic, I rather doubt they are even desirable. There is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know, and to demand that each and evry one of them contribute 'strong opinions' to the great debates of the nation cannot, surely, be wise. It is, in any case, absurd that anyone should presume to define person's 'dignity' in these terms. (The Remains of The Day, p. 194).

Any conscientious reader would be extremely wary of what Ishiguro's Stevens appears to be advocating here. Not only are his views anti-democratic but they express a passive obedience for authority -- naive trust put in the hands of those in power. Stevens' surface charm and devotion fools the unwary into accepting such statements without critically examining their true nature. We learn by the end of the novel that even Stevens has been fooling himself and that his concept of dignity, after subsequent reflection of his life, changes fundamentally. A reader unaware of Steven's deceit will fail to capture the subtle yet pervasive ethical meassage that Ishiguro leaves for us.

Thus, in conclusion, one can see two very different usages of the concept of narrator. In Rushdie's Shame the narrator is employed to aid the reader in constructing a coherent vision of the novel's content. With Ishiguro the narrator's role performes the opposite function. By means of Stevens we see the slow deconstruction of his facade, his costume. Even in the novel's conclusion, however, Stevens' is still deceiving himself. We as readers though, have learned to look behind his words and hopefully view him what he really represents. It is up to the reader, without the explicit aid of the narrator, to put the pieces of the novel together in an effort to gain a unified vision of Ishiguro's ethical message.

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Ishiguro OV Remains of the Day