This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.
Austin Clarke's The Origin of Waves is the story of two childhood friends who unexpectedly bump into each other during a snowstorm in Toronto in Christmastime. The novel is structured as a long conversation held by the two old friends in the course of which they exchange the stories of their lives and shared memories of the past. The exchange of private narratives or rather the act of telling their stories has a cathartic effect on both men. Like in Ondaatje's The Skin of a Lion, Clarke stresses the restorative and healing power of the act of telling one's story; the constant repetition of verbs that indicate communication like "tell" and "talk" signals the importance of the act of telling. By the end of the novel John and Tim take responsibility for their personal stories in the same way Patrick Lewes does.
Like in Ondaatje's and Alexis' works, the nature of the past is somehow problematic; the constant repetition of the verb "to remember" reveals the importance the characters accord to the past. In this novel, the past is constantly manipulated, recreated and consciously distorted. The act of storytelling is connected to the revelation of one's most precious truths. Tim starts telling John about his life as if he was telling a fictitious story: "Once upon a time" (114). However John realises that it actually is his story: "Your language gave -you-way. The emotion in your story, even the details of the story, the hundred-yard dash reference; and even if the details of the story don't apply, the language in the narrative is yours, brother. The language" (127). When Tim decides to tell John about Lang, the most important person in his life, he says "Let me tell you a story" (80). Tim reveals his life in a series of acts of storytelling. Ironically, John, who mythicises his past, tells his made-up stories as matter-of-fact events. Tim's past is so tragic that he wishes it was only a story; on the other hand, John wants to compensate for the mediocrity of his life by making his fictitious narratives pass as the truth. By means of telling stories, Tim is able to distance himself from a painful past and John is able to recreate his.
The stories the two men exchange are fragmented. Rather than exchanging whole stories, they exchange bits and pieces of them which the interlocutor must gather and put together. Tim refuses to openly tell the story of his life and John, like the reader, wonders about the reason for his extreme loneliness. John, on the other hand, does not reveal the reason for his presence in Toronto until the end of the novel. It is only after Tim has told him all about the "woman that [he] loved very much" (198), that John admits he has "something to confess" (214). The reader is also involved in the ordering and construction of the meaning of the characters' stories and in the elucidation of their silences.
The main "imaginative affinity" (Rushdie, 70) that links the six novels discussed is the celebration of private or personal narratives and human experience which History cannot account for. The personal narratives privileged belong to the silenced, the ex-centric and the marginal. At the thematic level, there is a conscious effort on the part of the authors to give voice to the forgotten of History. In V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, History is portrayed as a monolithic, totalising discourse that attempts at hiding its ideological and linguistic nature. The issues of historical representation and the validity of historical documents and sources are of great consequence in this novel. Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion is mainly concerned with History's oblivion and inability to account for human experience; like in Naipaul's novel, the principle of historical representation is questioned. Naipaul's concern with the totalising nature of historical discourse and Ondaatje's preoccupation with the forgotten of History are craftily synthesised in Caryl Phillips' Crossing the River. This novel subtly discloses the tension between historical accounts and personal narratives. In The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi shows with a caustic sense of humour a clear understanding of the complex relationship existing between power, ideology and historical and cultural representation. André Alexis' Childhood explores the nature of the past and suggests the impossibility of turning it into an object of study; the author shows that historical accounts of human experience are impracticable. Like Alexis, in The Origin of Waves, Austin Clarke shows a deep concern with the past and its unstable and somehow undecidable nature.
At the formal level, these authors resort to similar techniques to avoid the totalisation and closure that characterise historical discourse and to emphasise the richness, complexity, fluidity and mutability of human experience. Fragmentation is a recurring trope in the six novels discussed; it emphasises the impossibility of giving a definite and total account of personal stories. In most of the novels studied, there is plurality of perspectives or a Bakhtinian polyphony; by legitimising many voices, the authors avoid privileging a single discourse. Fragmentation and multiplicity of perspectives create instability of meaning, and thus, openness. Consequently, the reader must creatively participate in the enterprise of constructing meaning by filling in gaps and holes and elucidating absences and silences. Finally, circularity is another meaningful device employed by Phillips, Ondaatje and Alexis. Circularity, as opposed to historical linearity, renders personal narratives universal as long as they transcend time and space.
Clarke, Austin. The Origin of Waves. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997.
Last modified: 16 June 2000