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The Teller and The Tale - Crafting novel ideas

Parag Bhatnagar

What are the differences in style between an early modern novel like Cervantes Don Quixote
and a late postmodern novel like Salman Rushdies Shame?
The role of the novel as a storytelling medium and the role of the narrator in a
story are perhaps just as telling about the nature of the tale as the plot itself. Ranging
from omniscient puppet master to humble scribe, the narrator comes in different styles
and flavours which have the potential to redefine the way we look at the story. It is two
such texts that I shall be analysing Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote and Salman
Rushdies Shame. Due to the many interjections and extra background information that
we get out of the story, the medium of the novel and the role of the narrator are
significant. Yet, there are nuances. In analysing and comparing the role of the narrator
it is important to remember that Don Quixote was written in 1605, whereas Shame was
crafted in 1983. This puts Quixote at the juncture between Renaissance and
modernity1, while Rushdies novel is a classic example of post-modern literature. As a
result of their places in history, they reflect the different characteristics of their genre.
By comparing the setting, the authors voice as well as the role of the protagonist in
these two texts, I will show how postmodernist texts subvert the various archetypes
created in modernism, changing the nature of the readers relationship with the text
and with the author, thus making the reading of the postmodern novel much more
While both Shame and Quixote address historical events, Cervantes makes it
abundantly clear that the story is historically and geographically specific. Quixote is set
1 While Quixote was not written at the height of the modern period, it can be still
classified as one of the earliest modern texts. After all, In the words of Milan Kundera,
Cervantes is the father of the Modern Era.
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in La Mancha, a region in central Spain. In Don Quixote, Cervantes sticks closely to the
history of the land and the details of the time and makes an effort to characterise the
land as being Spain, including detailed contextual information and historical references.
He refers to La Araucana, by Don Alonso de Ercilla, La Austriada, by Juan Rufo, a
magistrate of Corboda, and El Monserrate, by Cristobal de Virues, a Valencian poet
(Cervantes, 2005, p. 52). He also refers to La Galatea one of his books, as well as
making direct references to the Holy Brotherhood and the wars between Spain and the
Ottoman Empire. While he may occasionally take some liberty with the details, he
remains consistent about the time he discusses, creating the illusion that the novel is
recording actual historical events. Indeed he credits Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab
historian, for chronicling the life and times of Quixote. It almost seems as if it would be
possible, if one were to go back to La Mancha during this time, one would see a mad
knight and his squire wandering around the district. This is a classic trait of modernity
trying to directly capture reality and the nature of society and reflecting directly the
socio-political elements of the time.
However, in Shame we see intentional obfuscation of historical context. Rushdie
actively subverts the creation of a historical land by claiming that 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 (Rushdie, 1983, p. 22). While he still provides a
cutting socio-political commentary on post-partition Pakistan, he does not limit himself
by fact or history. Like an impressionist painter, Rushdies intention is more to capture
the essence of Pakistan and the way it feels, rather than the way it is. This nonrepresentational abstraction is a trait of postmodern media, be it art or literature. By
subverting the nature of the novel as being defined by the modern era, and works like
Don Quixote, Rushdie is able to make his story much richer, and exploit the potential of

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this zeitgeist that he portrays. He employs magical realism to create characters that
exist without existing a funhouse mirror version of real-life characters in Pakistan.
This abstraction of setting allows him to create a character as powerful and as
explosive as Sufiya Zinobia Hyder, for she is a character that can only exist in Rushdies
world. A woman in real-life Pakistan would not be able to do what Sufiya does because
she is limited by reality. She would not be able to decapitate four goondas after they
sexually assaulted her, for one. The conclusion to the tale of a real-life Pakistani woman
would look more like Rani Harappa, who chronicles the shameful details of Pakistani life
on eighteen shawls. Sufiya, on the other hand is not limited by physical realities, but
she serves her purpose. She is unreal, yet possible, which Rushdie uses to his
advantage, proclaiming that this is what will happen in Pakistan if things continue the
way they have been going. Thus we can observe the increasing use of surrealism and
abstraction to subvert the nature of the modern novel.
In both Don Quixote and Shame, the authors display a sense of self-reflexivity by
inserting themselves into their work. However, when Cervantes includes himself in the
text it is to remove or detach him from the story. He focuses more on getting the story
out instead of trying to interject with his opinions. The story has an episodic quality
similar in many ways to epics like the Ramayana or the Odyssey, with brief interludes
which function as segues into a different narrative (such as a flashback or short
allegorical tale), but otherwise the narrative is linear and ab initio. Moreover, Cervantes
makes very few references to his own opinions and life and focuses more on
expounding on the narrative. Indeed, he attempts to distance himself from the story by
saying that he is not the original author. In Chapter IX he describes how he chanced
upon the text in the Alcana market in Toledo, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an
Arab Historian (Cervantes, 2005, p. 67). Cervantes credits him with originally

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documenting the heroic exploits of Quixote. Interestingly enough, he thus adopts the
role of the step-father in his own creation.
Rushdie, however, takes more liberty with the narrative, not only using a nonlinear flow of events but interjecting in the story to incorporate himself as a character
in his own novel to attach, rather than detach. He tells the narrative in pieces,
eventually combining all the stories into one overarching story. The result is more
chaos, but the arrangement of the narrative provides more depth to the story. The text
is timeless due to the lack of chronological flow and the episodic quality of the writing.
It shows how there is no difference between female oppression then and female
oppression now instead of just being a story about female oppression. Thus, Rushdies
choice of scene order helps us to see that these acts of female oppression could
happen any time. Like Cervantes, Rushdie is acutely aware of the fact that he is telling
a story, but he makes no effort to conceal his involvement, going so far as to interject
with what he feels about the situation and explaining decisions he chooses to make in
the telling of the narrative. He says, I, too know something of this immigrant business.
I am an immigrant from one country (India) and a newcomer in two (Rushdie, 1983,
p. 84). He also talks about his sister, who lives in Pakistan, and how he knows Pakistan
like he knows his sister in frames. He even talks about a joke he was told in Pakistan
about Ayub Khan. Rushdie therefore seems more narcissistic in this aspect, practically
making himself a character in the text he tries to insert himself into the story and cast
his opinion on the events, establishing a direct communication with the reader and
blatantly colouring the entire story in his opinion. The fact that Rushdie makes no effort
to hide his involvement in the story goes to show the increasing role of the narrator in
the novel.
In Quixote, we can see the traditional protagonist-as-hero archetype, which is a
classic feature of the modern novel. Don Quixote, as a protagonist, is the archetypal

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hero brave, chivalrous, daring and intelligent. Despite not being any of these things
from the start, his madness leads him to subscribe to these stereotypes and he
ultimately mimics the archetypal hero. The clearest example of this can be seen in
Chapter XXV, where Don Quixote tries to imitate Amadis of Gauls penance on Pea
Pobre when he was scorned by the Lady Oriana (Cervantes, 2005, p. 193). The element
of capturing reality and dispelling fantasy is perhaps clearest here. Cervantes, through
comedy and satire, creates a sense of bathos (when something high is brought low)
demonstrating what happens when a normal man attempts epic deeds. Don Quixote
demonstrates the limitations of humanity and is a satire of the epic hero, but, he is still
a hero in the traditional sense.
Rushdie, on the other hand, completely rejects the notion of a traditional hero.
Firstly, he does not have a central, archetypal protagonist. The stories of several
families and individuals collide to form the plot of Shame. In the style of a classic Indian
soap opera, it is these characters as a whole, not any one individual, who make Shame
interesting and even possible. It is not the story of an individual, or even a family it is
the story of an entire country. In that way, Pakistan is really the true protagonist of
Shame. The closest thing to a hero he has is Sufiya Zinobia female, mad, ostracised
by society, unloved by her own parents. He subverts every known character trope of
the hero in his casting of Sufiya as the hero of his novel. Even his main male
character, Omar Khayyam Shakil, is dizzy, peripheral, infatuated, insomniac,
stargazing, fat: what manner of hero is this? (Rushdie, 1983, p. 18). He is a peripheral
character in his own story, living on the fringe of society, neither revered nor respected
by anyone a voyeuristic, manipulative and impassionate individual. He is not brave,
chivalrous, ethical or even handsome for that matter. The closest thing to a hero in the
traditional sense in shame is Talvar ul-Haq, who conforms to all the usual heroic
requirements, being tall, dashing, mustachioed, with a tiny scar on his neck that looked
exactly like a love-bite (Rushdie, 1983, p. 169). Yet even he is more of a parody of the
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archetype and has only a small part to play in the larger scheme of things. Rushdie
subverts this character trope as well, by creating a traditionally heroic character and
making him force his wife to have baby after baby until she eventually hangs herself
when she finds out she is pregnant with octuplets (Rushdie, 1983, p. 241). Thus, we see
how Rushdie completely subverts the traditional role of the hero in a novel, further
evidence of the departure of post-modernism from the modern novel.
We can see how the nature of the novel and novelist has evolved from the
modern to the postmodern changing definitions of protagonists, intentional
subversion of reality and embracing surrealism as well as the role of the narrator as
more of a character in the story. The subjectivity and style of the narrator lends just as
much to our interpretation of the story. The use of the novel to advance an agenda or
social cause politicises the nature of the text, making it more than just a story, but an
idea meant to be thought about, discussed and hotly debated. It is meant to be edgy,
provocative and not necessarily beautiful in the traditional sense, which makes it a very
different experience for the reader.

Works Cited
Cervantes, M. d. (2005). Don Quixote. (E. Grossman, Trans.) New York, NY: HarperCollins
Rushdie, S. (1983). Shame. New York: Random House Publishers.

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