Temporal Disjunction in the Postcolonial Historical Novel: Re-Reading Time with Achebe and Rushdie
Readings of the historical novel, both scholarly and popular, usually focus on the genre’s epistemological ambiguity – the combination of invention and documentation that makes it frequently an object of intellectual anxiety. Other genres have been accused of corrupting morality, or of leading their readers from ethical and religious truth. Yet the historical novel is unique in the extent to which its mixing of imagined and recorded events has been seen as threatening knowledge itself. As Richard Maxwell observes, “No one ever worried reﬂexively about the corrupting inﬂuence of novels obsessed with or pervaded by geography; the historical novel, by contrast, has often been thought an oﬀense against reason and truth” (Maxwell 2009, 12). Such anxieties might be expected at times when a new genre is emerging, but recent cases in which authors have touched on issues of public concern demonstrate that epistemological paranoia continues to shape readings of the historical novel. For example, when the Australian writer Kate Grenville published The Secret River in 2005 she presented her novel as a contribution to popular knowledge of the violence that attended the foundation of Australia-a claim rejected by some professional historians, who denied that ﬁction could be a medium for historical understanding (Clendinnen 2006; Grenville and Koval 2005; McKenna 2006). Conversely, when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie oﬀered her bestselling Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) as an attempt to “make Nigerians [ … ] aware of their history” (Adichie 2008, 53), she won acknowledgement for the value of her contribution not only to literature, but also to popular knowledge of the Biafran war (Arana 2010; Gurnah 2007; Hawley 2008). What these examples demonstrate is that whether it is being feted as a unique window into earlier times, or disparaged as corrupting “real” understanding, it is the frisson produced by the genre’s mixing of real and imaginary things that makes it interesting for both scholarly and public audiences. This essay oﬀers a diﬀerent perspective, not in the hope of dislodging episte-mological interpretations but in order to demonstrate a diﬀerent approach to the genre’s hybridity. In the ﬁrst part of this paper I suggest that we can indeed understand the historical novel as disjunctive – not only in terms of its epistemology, but also its ontology. I argue that the historical novel is characterised by a disjunction in the qualities of the objects that constitute its subject matter.