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Dead Narrators

With mentions of How to be both by Ali Smith
&The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

Lately I’ve noticed a not-uncommon trope, notably in literary novels: the dead narrator. A few examples that spring to mind are How to be both by Ali Smith and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka. I’ve spotted it in a couple of other books, enough so to make me wonder why it was a recurring literary device. What are the advantages of a dead narrator?

Firstly, the dead narrator is no longer at risk of dying. This may seem obvious, but it means they can take risks, and so show us things that no living person could without putting their lives on the line: the eponymous Maali Almeida shows us the sordid underside of Sri Lanka’s regime, for example. There is no way he could tell us about the secret torture rooms the government funds, or about the corpsemen dunking bodies in the bay, if he were still alive. If so, he couldn’t be there without being either complicit or at risk of being caught. He can reveal truths without being persecuted for it, although that doesn’t mean the story holds no tension. Threats to (live) friends and family mean that characters are at risk in the story.

Another thing dead narrators can do is travel: Maali can ride winds to get himself anywhere in Colombo without struggling with traffic. Ghosts spare the writer long trips between places. It means it’s easier to flit from scene to scene without struggling with the nitty-gritty reality of getting to different locations.

Ghosts are good for travelling, not only geographically, but also chronologically. Francescho in How to be both travels in time, from the Italian Renaissance to the modern day, without needing any lengthy exposition. He is summoned in front of his paintings being exposed in a museum – that’s all we need to know. In general, ghost stories tend towards magical realism: unlike fantasy, there is no need to explain the rules, as we have an understanding of what a ghost is, so we accept their existence and their links to our own lives without needing much information.

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Ghosts are also cultural artefacts, so the way they’re portrayed is an interesting window into a culture. Francescho appears alone, linked to one other person who understands his paintings, and meets no other ghost; Maali meets not only a plethora of dead humans, anywhere on the spectrum from helpers to the recently-deceased to demons preying on their souls, but he also meets and chats to the souls of dead animals, in an overly crowded afterlife. I find these different approaches intriguing, in what they reveal of how we perceive ourselves as connected – or not – to the other people (and, by extension, the dead) around us.

A dead narrator can also offer fresh insights, as they have the distance most narrators don’t have on their own experience: Francescho in particular, being from another time, has an unusual way of seeing our world. Maali can reflect on his world in ways he couldn’t, when alive and too involved in it.

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In another article, I’ve studied a novel’s structure when the main character dies in the first few pages. I do think dead narrators lend themselves to certain sort of stories. For example, there is nearly always a question around how they died, and they generally can’t remember (it’s the case for both Maali and Francescho). There is often a strong recurring theme of what needs doing so they can move on into the afterlife: Maali needs to expose his photographs and the truth they reveal, Francescho needs the other POV character to grieve her mother and thus symbolically let go of him.

Which brings me to my last point: ghost stories lend themselves to stories about grieving and letting go, forgiveness, and putting behind us the things that used to trouble us.

The novels always tend to be bittersweet because the MC is already dead – but they are nearly always positive, because death isn’t what we focus on. Paradoxically, it isn’t the conclusion/crux of the story, there is always a form of moving on after death near the end of the novel.

So there are a couple of advantages to a dead narrator, as well as some storyline/structures and themes it naturally encourages, which may explain its popularity as a trope. Depending on the story you might want to tell – or the expectations you might want to subvert – it could be an interesting narrative choice.

3 July 23

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