History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it--and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it. As a living soul, I am the very contrary of history, I am what belies it, destroys it for the sake of my own history. . . -- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
As Barthes suggests, history can never be a complete tale of what was, for the narrator can never completely sever her own story from the story that she attempts to share. Without beginning or end, history can not be mapped out neatly on a timeline, nor placed between two book covers. Indeed, gathering historical data proves messy, and the act of peeling away sediments of the past, the so-called what was, becomes even messier in regards to human sensitivity. Despite the imperfect nature of the task, however, humans continue to engage in the seemingly futile yet necessary search for explanations of the here and now by bending back in order to reel forward. Graham Swift addresses the dual character of history in his novel Waterland (1983): "It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours" for "there are no compasses for journeying in time" (132). Like history, the narrative structure of Waterland takes detours and moves both backwards and forwards simultaneously, driving the reader to experience the synchronic essence of memory and alinear nature of history. Moreover, the theme and technique of Swift's text merge, weaving the messy trope of history into a rather tidy project--at least it fits between two book covers.
Similarly, Chinua Achebe crafts a historical meditation that merges theme and technique in Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Exploring questions regarding the intimate relationship between history and the self, the importance of storytelling, and notions of progress, the detective stories Anthills of the Savannah and Waterland problematize historical production and narrative. Of course, the two texts take different detours and assemble quite different stories; however, all stories intersect and invariably rely on other stories which lead to other stories. Beatrice, a character in Anthills of the Savannah, describes this codependency among stories as a "world inside a world inside a world, without end" (77). This essay will explore how the two novels probe the essence of history, the function of storytelling, and the triumph of natural history.
Swift's text reads as a detective story, demanding an active reader to gather clues in order to piece the mosaic of stories together. This assemblage of stories proves necessary as Crick, Swift's protagonist, attempts to explain to his secondary-school history students the inevitable curiosity which drives humans forward and back all at once. Humans need to straighten-up the inevitable mess caused by living, the unexpected disorder invited by curiosity, and according to Swift, history provides an order for this chaos. Throughout the text, Crick proffers lessons, to both his students and the reader, in an attempt to explain--both to his audience(s) and to himself--how he has arrived at his present locale. That is, Crick embarks on his narrative in an effort to demonstrate to his students why their much championed Here and Now must always lead backwards and forwards. Crick describes the illusions of Here and Now to his students:
It comes so rarely that it is never what we imagine, and it is the Here and Now that turns out to be the fairy-tale, not History whose substance is at least for ever determined. . .Yet the Here and Now, which brings both joy and terror, comes but rarely--does not come even when we call it. That's the way life is: life includes a lot of empty space. We are one- tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. For most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here. (61)
Crick locates his fractional Here and Now by tracing back to his ancestors and childhood sexual exploits; to stories of love and nature and tragedy.