This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.
History is a natural selection. Mutant versions of the past struggle for dominance; new species of fact arise, and old saurian truths go the wall, blindfolded and smoking last cigarettes. Only the mutations of the strong survive. The weak, the anonymous, the defeated leave few marks... History loves only those who dominate her: it is a relationship of mutual enslavement. -- Salman Rushdie, Shame.
The novel can be defined as an artistic and cultural artefact that, in significant ways, embodies, reflects and projects the experiences, attitudes, systems of belief and cultural references of a given people at a given period of time. Fiction is actually shaped by cultural forces such as History . Since its emergence, the novel has been associated to History; the relationship between the two has been either one of exclusion or inclusion. The exclusive relation between History and the novel was based on the definition of one term of the pair by means of the exclusion of the other. The long established dichotomy between History and fiction presupposed that the latter belonged exclusively to the domain of imagination and subjectivity whereas History to that of reality and truth.
It was only very recently that the traditional clear cut division established in the eighteenth century with the emergence of the novel as a literary genre, has been questioned. Nowadays, the boundaries between History and fiction are increasingly blurred. In fact, there are theorists that claim that since History and fiction are linguistic and ideological constructs and highly conventionalised in form, they should be treated on the same foot. Evidently, one of the salient and major characteristics of contemporary fiction world-wide is that it explicitly or implicitly questions, parodies, imitates or incorporates History. Thus, the relationship between History and fiction, traditionally defined by its mutual exclusion, is nowadays characterised by their interdependence. Contemporary fiction is also characterised by its undertaking the task of consciously telling the stories of those long forgotten by History. The present essay will be devoted to the exploration of the views on History and personal narratives, here called "her/his-stories", in the following novels: Caryl Phillips's Crossing the River, V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, André Alexis' Childhood and Austin Clarke's The Origin of Waves
Before plunging into the analysis of the works under consideration, a word must be said to clarify the notions of "History" and "her/his-stories". Traditionally, History has been considered as a self-contained, objective and unbiased body of knowledge. Historical representation of past events was believed to be impartial and truthful. However, much of the present epistemological questioning of historical representation and knowledge was triggered by the debate upon the validity of historical sources and documents. The recording of historical facts and events requires a previous process of interpretation and analysis and these obviously imply a high degree of subjectivity. Human subjectivity is largely shaped by culture and its dominant ideology; consequently, History, in its stance as a human construct, bears the imprints of cultural and ideological discourse. Nevertheless, the problem does not lie in the ideological and discursive nature of History but rather in the fact that it is constructed in such a way that it hides its nature under a veil of totality, closure and objectivity.
Since History cannot account for all past events, there is a need for selection. The parameters and criteria according to which such a selection is made cannot be but ideological and somehow arbitrary. As Linda Hutcheon states, "[historical] Facts are not given but are constructed by the kinds of question we ask of events" (71). As it has been previously stated, the problem does not lie in the partiality of History but rather in its false claim to totality. The selection of historical facts and the pretence to totality are subjected to issues of power and ideology. This question is of great relevance especially when it comes to historical representation of oppressed and ex-centric peoples. If all knowledge of the past is based on cultural and ideological representations that hide their nature under a veil of objectivity, how can a reliable knowledge of the past be acquired? Perhaps the key is to counterbalance the totalising discourse of History with private and ex-centric narratives not necessarily defined as historical.
Contrary to History, which is a monolithic and totalising master narrative, personal or local narratives, in this essay called "her/his-stories", are characterised by their fragmentation, indeterminacy, silences, lack of closure and particularly by their privileging the voices of the ex-centric and long forgotten of History. "Her/his-stories" account for the richness, diversity and complexity of individual experience that History neglects. In addition, even if in many cases personal narratives attempt at reconstructing the past, they do not pretend to give a finished and total account of it. The many silences, absences and inconsistencies of local narratives are legitimate and truthful as long as the past cannot be completely accounted for. Certain features of the "her/his-stories" that constitute the core of the six novels under study, such as fragmentation, indeterminacy, polyphony of voices and multiplicity of narrative instances, will be discussed in this essay.
Alexis, André. Childhood. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Ball, John Clement. "The Semi-Detached Metropolis: Hanif Kureishi's London." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. Vol 27, No 4 (October 1996): 7-27.
Bennett, Lerone Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Clarke, Austin. The Origin of Waves. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997.
Hutcheon, Linda. "'The Pastime of Past Time': Fiction, History, Historiographic Metafiction." Postmodern Genres. Ed. Marjorie Perloff. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Naipaul, V. S. A Bend in the River. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1987.
Phillips, Caryl. Crossing the River. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1995.
Rushdie, Salman. "Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist." Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta Books, 1991. pp. 61-70.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Last modified: 16 June 2000