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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Representation of Memory in Time's Arrow and Shame


In Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, time runs backwards, whilst Rushdie's Shame deprives us of narrative order and a singular version of events. Both novels express the increased importance of memory, in a modern world characterised by fragmentation and dislocation, in recovering a character's sense of security to be found in the past from which he or she originated.


Particularly since Einstein described his theory of relativity in 1920, we have become highly aware that 'time' is both that numerical system of units by which we measure temporal progression - forwards moving and consistent - and an abstract concept which depends on the relative perception of the observer; a particular sequence of absolute time units may seem to occupy a longer or shorter duration, depending on its context, its significance in relation to that individual or in relation to the environment. In terms of human life, Stefan Zweig lucidly suggests in his preface to his biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, "Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings." (Stefan Zweig, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, Macmillan, Toronto, 1935).

Time then is both an empirical scale and a fluid interpretation of progress. Rituals (such as birthdays) are able to locate their participants simultaneously on an annual timeline and in the context of a momentary event. The word 'momentary' itself suggests the dual definition of time both as a specific temporal period, but one weighted for its relative importance by emotion. If man has a desire to position himself in relation to significant events, the novel can, temporarily at least, satisfy this desire since its "invisible speedlines suggest a different nexus of sequence and progress" (Time's Arrow, p.95). No matter how much it may disrupt time or present a fragmentary world, a narrative always has coherence by being bounded by, even if only signified by the opening and terminating words, a beginning and an end.1 Every event within its frame can be orientated to its textual limits.

If time has two categories, the novel has analogues to these. The narrative as it runs technically - words following each other, with fabula as the scheme of events in temporal order - links to time as an empirical force, progressive and linear. The plot, by contrast, might be seen as corresponding to time as it is distorted by consciousness and imagination, able, through prolepsis and analepsis, to make leaps forwards or backwards in time and, in making selective choices of how much text to dedicate to particular episodes in a character's life, demonstrating judgement about the importance of some segments of time over others. Traditional narrative asserts meaning, order and closure through the diagram of beginning, middle and end and most of what happens in the narrative can be seen to have a logical relationship with the culminating significant movements, which are often 'momentous' for the characters, in the conclusion to the novel.

Although post-war fiction is characterised by disunity, in which heroes (or often anti-heroes) fail to position themselves in a world in which traditional moral, religious or social means of judging position and value are themselves unstable, the modern period is also marked by the ability to synthesise individual experiences across boundaries as history is being made. With the growth of television, historical events can be shared across space and cultures, and are celebrated or recalled in an almost ritualistic way. Most people in the West, for example, can remember where they were when they first learnt that Kennedy had been assassinated or Princess Diana killed. Time's Arrow suggests that a memory receives additional importance (though not necessarily moral value) when it recalls an individual as having influenced, or shared with others in this unifying way, a global event. By being able, through plot, to disrupt empirical time in a way physics can not, the novel temporarily escapes the insistent narrative progressive drive of real life, making it possible for a character to return and perceive himself in relation to that epiphanic period. This demonstrates the insignificant nature of those actions by which we seek to achieve an order of time in the present.

Shame, though it deliberately seeks to undermine its historical basis, again suggests that individuals gain self-assurance when they can relate a personal memory to wider social structures, in this case domestic rather than historical. In the post-war novel, the fight for a sense of self-identity becomes a fight to make personal memory have a place in the wider social consciousness. Thus the ability to control memories is shown as a dangerous form of propaganda, because altering memories also alters history, and therefore identity. Rushdie's novel possesses a historical significance which is denied rather than recruited, making claims to be fiction even though this fiction is clearly layered on fact. This highlights the alienation of characters, reflecting that of the modern world, who are archetypal creations and subjects of a political state, rather than self-determining of their identities.

Aside from the general anachronism of Time's Arrow, there is no other symbolic disruption of the temporal sequence and the novel is marked by its close representation of the events of normal life. The combination of naturalistic detail in a non-realistic structure demonstrates the vacuity of the modern world in which conventions and codes of understanding are effectively meaningless. Dialogue in the novel makes almost as much sense running backwards as forwards, depressingly implying that what we say in reality has little significance; doctors cure patients by wounding them, thus proving the common maxim, "you have to be cruel to be kind" (p.41); other people are merely coincidental in the subject's environment, particularly for Tod whose sexual potency anaesthetises human personality: "the fact that a woman's body has a head on top of it isn't much more than a detail" (p.87). Anything which traditionally requires and asserts order, even the catching of a taxi (p.74), is shown to be, ironically and humorously, orderless, because it can be used with equal validity in a world where order is reversed.

In contrast to the banality of the everyday, the Holocaust represents a surety of order. Its historical significance is doubled because, in this world where "the future always comes true" (p.162), it is not simply likely to happen, it is inevitable. It is placed at the end of the novel, the textual location where conventionally the ultimate resolution of a character occurs. Yet the Holocaust happens towards the beginning of Odilo's life where memory has, comparatively, just started. Effectively, every action of Tod's post-war life is useless memory because it leads away from temporally, even though it advances towards textually, the moment revered for defining the qualities of a character. Only through the reverse time structure can Tod's actions be imbued with any meaning because of their significance in a context to come:

How many times have I asked myself: when is the world going to start making sense? Yet the answer is out there. It is rushing towards me over the uneven ground. (p.123)

In reality, of course, life obeys narrative time rather than plot, progressing physically and linearly and only able to make only mental reversals (memories) back in time.

Memories which are judged to be significant for the individual will automatically gather extra significance because the day-to-day timeline against which they are measured is set at such a low level of activity and consequence. The novel reconstructs this by not placing time (as represented by an amount of textual space) and memory (what is said in that text) in a one-to-one ratio. Thus the Holocaust episode occupies a comparatively large amount of the novel.2 That such events have a great effect on confirming identity is represented by making the Holocaust the moment for the resolution of the body and soul dichotomy present in Tod.

Disturbingly, what we might recognise as the soul of Time's Arrow, the narrative voice, is aware of the event in the past but is forced into retracing the dispassionate and simple physical movements towards it. It is essentially inert, the objective observer (as we are of it) of Tod's self which lacks complete consciousness and which acts in response to primitive bodily whims. By combining himself with his object of observation in the integrative 'we', the narrator is implicitly a part of Tod; but simultaneously that part is detached, judgmental but unable to physically affect Tod's actions. Although the closer Tod and his narrator get to the Holocaust the less disharmonised the relationship between them, the reader's desire for cathartic justice, to see Tod's conscience come into line with our understanding of the Holocaust as the modern paradigm of the human capacity for evil (as suggested by our capitalisation of the word itself), is denied. Rather than providing us with an exemplum of repentance, the novel suggests the tendency of the human consciousness to evade - a fact heightened metaphorically by Tod's physical status as a permanent refugee - facing up to its guilt.

Problematically, however, if history is the nightmare from which he is trying to escape, it is also the period when Tod's (Odilo's) own identity becomes unified into the singular 'I' (p.124) and participates in the wider 'we' of the military machine. This is because it is timeless, like the station at Treblinka (p.151), and self-contained:

Here there is no why. Here there is no when, no how, no where. Our preternatural purpose? To dream a race. (p.128)

It is the reduction to a purity (a zero) of creation or destruction which satisfies Odilo although, of course, it is only in this world where creation and destruction are reversed that slaughter can have a positive outcome. The mundane memories and experiences which follow the Holocaust are similarly timeless, but they are also undefining:

The afternoon passed in...the inspection of various little perplexities: waste disposer, toenail, shirtbutton, lightbulb. Consciousness isn't intolerable. It is beautiful: the eternal creation and dissolution of mental forms. Peace. (p.82)

Mundane actions (such as catching taxis) do not require order but they are nevertheless coupled with a forward physical drive. They take up empirical time (and textual space) but do not possess any significance in abstract terms. Memory is an image, a temporary state of timelessness, which cannot be experienced without a consciousness of its contradictory relationship with the inevitable forward trajectory of physical life. This is paralleled in the reader's experience of the novel which is experienced progressively and textually, in each sequential word, whilst regressing temporally and with surety to a conclusion which will, all too fictionally, undo the horror of the Holocaust.

Time's Arrow expresses, through the inexorable drive towards something definitive, a desire for certainty. The feeling of temporal dislocation is heightened when the individual is physically deracinated, as Rushdie is, having "floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time" (Shame, p.87). Writing is a reclamative act because it fashions new memories in the lives of its characters. Just as Time's Arrow stands for the desire to reverse the clock, so Shame expresses the need to forge new images to replace those which the exiled, writing individual does not possess:

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. (p.87)

The paradox, which Rushdie identifies again in his essay 'Imaginary Homelands', is that the memories which provoke the literary act are uniquely personal and therefore the fictional, imaginative world will also be a personal, rather than universal, representation of the real world upon which it is founded. To refashion something solid into something imaginary is to undemocratically subvert the real, to censor it. Thus history becomes fictionalised with personal biases.

This merging of imagination, memory and history is represented in Shame, where real public history and fictitious personal histories become synonymous. There is no empirical means by which a reader can orientate the timeline of Shame (based on the Hegiran calendar alien to Western culture) so as to correlate a political act in the fiction with a historical coup, even though the book is tightly founded on "the parallel universe of history" (p.64), the political instability of Pakistan. To suggest that the story exists outside of time is a false, and consciously so, denial:

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. (p.29)

The inverse of this diagram is fiction turned into fact. Rushdie is therefore deliberately highlighting the system by which dictators maintain their power - "[I am] the incarnation of the people's love" (p.184) Iskander mythologises - and by which, Derrida has argued, history as we conceive it is itself created, experienced as it is always through texts (Scanlan, p.14). The fictionality of Shame, Rusdie admits, is a form of pre-emptive manipulation of truth to evade those authorities interested in maintaining their own view of history. Had it been realistic, rather than skewed into a "modern fairytale" of magic realism, it would have been banned (p.70).

If in writing fiction you refashion the history, then creative literature is always already a political act; and if literature is the textual construction created from imagination informed by memory, then imagination and memory are powerful tools with political and public implications. Hyder fabricates his wrestling matches with his army so as to replace the disgraceful memory of defeat with the imagined belief that they have beaten him (p.201); by replicating the pregnancy, Chunni, Bunni and Munni, deindividualise themselves, sharing a single experience and therefore evading the humiliation of any single one of them in having an illegitimate child; Hyder imagines his stillborn son to perform political feats, such that he "began to insist on being provided with a living human being who would carry them out and make them real" (p.83). Memory, or false memory generated by the imagination, is not substantial, just as Tod's "inspection of various little complexities" is not conscious life in the combined psychological and physical sense. Rani Harappa's shawls are an attempt to counteract the manipulation of memory by recording physically. She is placed under guard, since "people engaged in building new myths have no time for embroidered criticisms" (p.277). Rani embodies Rushdie's own difficulty in writing a novel which will record textually, rather than orally and hence ephemerally, an alternative version of history. Memory cannot be escaped from when it is recorded, a problem Tod finds in the recurring letters from Nicholas Kreditor which lead him to drink and fear (Time's Arrow, p.65).

Just as Time's Arrow realises the importance of global historical events which link a man with Man, so Shame demonstrates the significance of an oral heritage in which personal, domestic stories locate an individual in relation to his family, which is itself, through the family tree of generations, a function of time. When the three sisters delight in the retelling of shared memories (p.15), it is not the facts which matter, these already being known, but the act of retelling in which there is something incontrovertible, a communal warmth from combining shared and personal experience which proves "the family's ability to survive...to retain, in spite of everything, its grip on its honour and its unswerving moral code" (p.76). However, because memory is related to the domestic, not the (f)actual and historical, there are no definitives against which its truth can be scaled. Thus the three sisters fall silent when recalling the night Omar was conceived, "so that I am unable to clear away the improbabilities which have mushroomed around that party during the dark passage of the years" (p.16). Memories are literally kept in the family.

In Shame, the outside world represented by the narrator and reader - who in Time's Arrow possesses the incontrovertible fact of the self-explanatory Holocaust and therefore can judge Tod's morality by his actions within that context - has no alternative access by which judge the validity of a personal statement. Just as, metaphorically, Omar Khayyam has no idea which of his three mothers is his natural one, each being, relative to the others, equally legitimate, so in the novel each memory, related by a narrator who is himself digressive and with his own agenda for occlusion and censorship, is plausible and contestable. We must accept vicariousness and ambiguities if we are to read, but neither the reader, nor the narrator, endorse this as the best means of objectivity:

I think what I'm confessing is that, however I choose to write about over-there, I am forced to reflect that world in fragments of broken mirrors...I must reconcile myself to the inevitability of the missing bits. (p.69)

The fragmentary world, which manifests itself in Time's Arrow in the disintegration of Tod's body from his narrator and soul, is represented in Shame by the dramatic shifts in time, location and discourse modes.

Although this method prevents, somewhat democratically, the predominance of any single story, and enables the satisfaction of the neat conclusion which links the strands together, it also prevents fully rounded characterisations. In a Pakistan in which Julius Caesar can only be played as a British diplomat it is not what happens, but to whom it happens, that matters. Rushdie enforces the fact that people are reduced to symbols rather than individualised identities by having them defined by as representatives of, rather than participants in, historical events or personal memories. Characters become emblems or archetypes. Sufiya Zinobia is the avatar of all Shame; Iskander represents Shamelessness, playing the role of Danspierre of the French Revolution whilst Raza Hyder represents the popular Robeston (p.242); Arjumand Harappa as 'the virgin Ironpants', defies masculine sexuality; Omar Khayyam, reflecting his structural role as the cultural alien but the one with whom the narrative begins and closes, is "a peripheral man...Other persons have been the principal actors in my life-story" (p.282). Since the history by which they are defined is controlled by the artist, who parallels the machinations of the politician in the real world, characters become victims of the propaganda of memory and creativity.

Rushdie deprives us of ultimate truth, full characterisation, linear narrative. Even in Shame, however, the fragments of the story are held within the novel's circular plot, suggesting the novel's desire to offer temporary order, a sanctuary from a modern world in which physical dislocation and instability leads to the loss of memories. Such memories are vital because, in the domestic realm, they offer a relative certainty by being shared with others. However, in presenting alternative memories the novel functions on a falsehood, presenting the imagination of the author as the memory of a character. To alter memory is to alter reality and because the novel originates from a single author's memory it is an automatic censorship which "prevents the telling of other tales" (p.71).

The novel's second false premise is its manipulation of empirical time. Rushdie suggests that, "Ends must not be permitted to precede beginnings and middles...that way madness lies" (p.22). Through the use of prolepsis, however, fictional time can be run forwards to such an extent that "the future cannot be restrained, and insists upon seeping back into the past" (p.144). What Rushdie suggests is that such projection is confined to the novel's plot, related to imagination and memory, and able to temporarily, and mentally, realise the relationship of the individual to his history. Text and narrative which, running forwards, must end, is the realistic parallel for the incessant physical motion of life.

Likewise in Time's Arrow, as Richard Menke points out, "The novel's narrative reversals, which present literary art as history's double, ultimately ratify the one-sidedness of the relationship between the two" (p.142). The literary is as transient as memory; the historical is certain. Man desires, as evidenced in Time's Arrow, to locate himself within the grand narrative of history. A temporary convergence can be achieved through memory, or through literature as the structured correlative of the remembering process. Time's Arrow is the exception which proves the rule that memory is only a temporary, false escape by running backwards to allow memory and history to physically, hence permanently, coincide.

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  1. See Kort, p.12 [Back to text]

  2. The war, one of the several events which can be linked from the novel to the real historical timeline, takes six years and occupies thirty-six pages. Assuming Tod, who is twenty-five in 1942 (p.146), dies in 1991 (the year of the book's publication) aged seventy-four, this ratio ought to make the novel of Tod's life about 450 pages long. [Back to text]

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This page was published on 2002 | Keywords: Time's Arrow, Shame, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie

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