Time and Chronology

It is a truism to say that history is written by the victors, but this idea carries a particular resonance in post colonial literature. We have seen that the colonisers’ particular attitudes to, and beliefs about, the colonised peoples and countries guided their acquisition and rule, so it is only to be expected that a colonial view of history will be marked by these attitudes. In addition, European understanding and intellect has tended to understand the world in terms of linear development, an ordered sequence of events, which has brought control and civilisation to large parts of the globe.

It is not surprising that the perception of history from the colonised perspective is different, often, as we have seen in Week 2, challenging the basic assumptions made by the colonisers about the lands of their conquest. Another key aspect in post colonial literature is not just the history itself, but the way that history is told. In creating an alternative to imperialist history, post colonial writers have often chosen to undermine the assumptions of linear time, creative new perspectives by rearranging the history, fracturing and dislocating the chronological narrative pattern. A freedom in form is often therefore a feature of post colonial writing.

Beatrice, a central character in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, refers to the “many broken pieces of this tragic history”, which suggests something of the post colonial tendency towards dislocation, a piecing together of a shattered history. In this novel, this piecing together takes the form of different narrative voices, each with a different perspective on the unfolding events.

In A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi also uses different voices within the narrative as different characters relate their views of the story, though the controlling narrative is in the form of the omniscient third person. What is really striking here is the dislocated chronology of the novel. Though at its centre it has Kenyan Uhuru, or Independence Day, the narrative repeatedly switches to different moments in the past. The narrative, though, gives no direct indication that the time focus is changing, as it does not only between chapters but also between paragraphs, which can sometimes leave the reader momentarily disorientated. This demands an alert reading, which pays rewards as at times the same event is returned to from a different angle at a different place in the novel, or the reader’s response to event is coloured by their prior knowledge of what the consequences will be. Most crucially, it means that the day of Uhuru itself is inextricably linked with Kenya’s painful and violent past, where courage and betrayal have been evident in equal measure. This explains why the longed-for independence is accompanied by “a disturbing sense of inevitable gloom”.

This concern with time itself and the link between the past and the present, is also central to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The family business is an attempt to trap and stop time’s progression, being Paradise Pickles and Preserves, and it is appropriate to the novel’s direction that this business ultimately fails. At the novel’s latest point, Estha and Rahel are in their thirties, but the bulk of the novel concerns their childhood. It begins with Sophie Mol’s funeral, which the reader then discovers occurs at a later stage of the first chronological stage of the story. Like Ngugi, Roy does not prepare the reader for the timeshifts; they happen at the changes of chapters or paragraphs. Her concern with time, however, is not just with the duration of the story, but with ancient time and its effect on the present, “History’s chickens coming home to roost.” There is the effects of the ancient Love Laws, which “lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.”

Ondaatje treats chronology even more fluidly in The English Patient, which constantly shifts character and time focus, sometimes even within paragraphs. In this way the story of the eponymous patient is gradually assembled like a jigsaw, with pieces placed and replaced as the reader picks up fragments about his desert explorations, his affair with Catherine Clifton and his role during the war. The English Patient is deliberately obfuscatory about his past and identity, which is not confirmed until about halfway through the novel. His story resembles his own notebook, a combination of “Herodotus’ Histories… other fragments – maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books.” This remarkable looseness of structure is perhaps reflective of the chaos of the Second World War, during the final stages of which the novel is set, or it could be argued that it parallels the shifting nature of the desert sands he spent his time exploring.

The absence of conventional narrative structure in each of these novels is also used to withhold information from the reader and to offer multiple perspectives on events rather than a logical sequence of cause and effect. It also suggests the inextricability of the present from the past.

White Teeth is less flexible in its chronology than the other novels discussed on this page, but there are crucial stages of the narrative where Smith delves into the past in order to give insight on the present. In particular, there is the section about Archie’s and Samad’s wartime experiences to which they constantly refer, the formation of their friendship, and the mystery of Dr Sick, which only gets its denouement in the final pages of the novel. At other times, the narrative revisits the colonial past of the Caribbean and India/Bengal/Bangladesh in order to show the cultural roots of the Bowden and Iqbal families.

Of course the technique of dislocating narrative chronology is not peculiar to post colonial literature; it is one of the literary features characteristic of post modernist writing. However, it is one which is particularly appropriate to post colonial literature, where the juxtapositions of different timeframes have particular effects relevant to a post colonial reading.

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