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10 of the best ‘postcolonial’ novels

Posted by Natalie in Literature - 24 April 2012

In the week that revealed the British government’s destruction of incriminating documents on the mistreatment of its colonial subjects, the time seems ripe to celebrate some of the most valuable, authentic and moving accounts of the colonial experience.

I’m a big fan of postcolonial literature. In fact, you could say I’m slightly obsessed. We never learnt about the British Empire at school, not even in the form of a skewed pride in its legacy. Back then in the eighties and nineties, we were going through a period of outright denial of the empire’s very existence. How embarrassing, then, when I started studying social anthropology at university, that there was this gaping hole in my historical knowledge. The present was completely out of context.

Indeed, the reaction (or conspicuous lack thereof) to recent revelations that the government destroyed records of extreme human rights violations as the empire crumbled, provide more proof – if any were needed – of the trouble we seem to have with acknowledging the past. Simply ignoring it and hoping it will go away is as stubborn and inflexible as the stiff upper lip that got us here in the first place. Living in Germany, surrounded by examples – from architecture to public discourse – of a nation facing up to its past, makes British obstinance seem all the more absurd, hypocritical and outdated.

The debate about how the story of the British Empire should be taught in schools continues, although that it’s even being discussed is progress. My opinion? Brutal honesty, in the vein, perhaps, of Jeremy Paxman’s recent BBC series, Empire.

Some of the most insightful, memorable and original accounts of colonialism can be found in fiction. Postcolonial literature not only lays the foundation for further enquiry; in many cases it provides a unique and otherwise unheard voice that is in itself a valuable cultural or historical product.

In acknowledging that the term postcolonial literature is itself problematic, I use it in its loosest possible meaning – namely, a body of literary writings that engages in the discourse of colonisation. Perhaps the scholarly silence experienced during my younger years has given this kind of story a mysticism that endures no matter how many books I devour. Maybe it’s the gradual realisation of the interconnectedness of people and their histories – again a basic sense of context that was missing throughout childhood, creating a thirst for knowledge in later life.

Probably it’s a combination of these factors, plus a ubiquitous fascination with the human condition, upon which postcolonial writings tend to shed a particular light. Whatever the reason, I’ve read countless books that fall into the ‘postcolonial’ category, and will continue to do so, practically inexhaustible as the options are. First, though, I want to pause and share my ten favourites (in no particular order):

The Heat and the Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Winner of the 1975 Booker Prize, the story flits between a woman who travels to India in the present day and that of her grandmother, who lived there during the British Raj in the 1920s. Evocative observations of Indian quotidiana are brought stunningly to life, with the parallel narratives serving to accentuate both the rapid change and enduring consistencies in Indian society; the ‘before’ and ‘after’ contrasts starkly exposing the strange truths of that most magical country pre- and post-independence.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The Booker of Bookers and deservedly so. An allegorical work of great depth and complexity (just look at the list of characters), Midnight’s Children may well be the quintessential book on the story of India’s journey to independence and its subsequent bloody partition. The children of the title are those born at midnight on 15th August 1947, the exact time that India was declared free from British rule.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

Written in the 1920s about the 1920s, Forster offers a compelling view of colonial India during that tempestuous time, as the independence movement gathered momentum. Based on his experienced in the country, the book is critical of the Raj, exposing its agents as weak and ridiculous. Highlighting the pain of divisive racial and social tensions with characteristic stylistic skill, Forster’s real talent – as always – is in his ability to unite characters in beautiful humanity.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

If you are happy to have your heart broken cleanly in two, read this. Set in Mumbai, India, between 1975 and 1984, the story takes place amid the backdrop of The Indian Emergency, which suspended civil liberties for the population for a period of almost two years. The cruel complexities of the caste system, the politics of the nation and of everyday life are addressed with an unflinching cynicism that rings devastatingly true.

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Part two of Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke is an addictive story about the burgeoning  British Empire’s opium trade with China the  during the period immediately preceding the Opium Wars. A long and engaging read, this novel plays with fascinating references to ancient interconnectedness, fabricating (or elucidating) the origins of familiar phrases and places. An unforgettable lesson in history and in storytelling.

Burmese Days by George Orwell

Burma (now Myanmar) was once a colony, ruled by the British as part of India. This is Orwell’s first novel, but his voice is already dark, critical, and dripping with disdain. He served as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma for five years in the 1920s. Burmese Days chronicles one man’s experience of corruption, racism and an insurmountably inhumane system, with tragically Orwellian consequences.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Widely seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, this book chronicles the life of an Igbo community as their traditional way of life is irreversibly interrupted by the arrival of British colonialists and Christian missionaries. Achebe describes the work’s importance in his own inimitable words: [An American] judge was planning with much enthusiasm to immigrate to Namibia after his retirement and accept the offer made to him to become a constitutional consultant to the Namibian regime. He planned to buy a big farm out there and spend his retirement in the open and pleasant air of the African veldt. His neighbor, no doubt considering the judge’s enthusiasm and optimism rather excessive, if not downright unhealthy, asked him to read Things Fall Apart on his flight to or from Namibia. Which he apparently did. The result was dramatic. In the words of the letter shown to me, the judge said that “he had never seen Africa in that way and that after having read that book he was no more innocent.” And he closed the Namibia chapter.

Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe

The only author to feature twice on this list, Achebe’s importance as a ‘postcolonial’ voice cannot be underestimated. Set in 1987, much later than Things Fall Apart, Anthills of the Savannah can in many ways be seen as sequel to the earlier book, describing military and governmental corruption, censorship and violence in the context of a fictional modern-day African state.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Did you know that Nigeria had a civil war for three years at the end of the 1960s, and that the self-proclaimed state of Biafra attempted to secede? Neither did I. The carving up of Africa along arbitrary borders by colonial forces has left a bloody legacy in the aftermath of independence. A heartrending account of that all-too-familiar story of ethnic groups who live in relative harmony until politics turns violent and rips worlds apart, Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007.

Troubles by J.G. Farrell

The notion of the British Empire evokes stiffly dressed, sunburnt men out of place in tropical, exotic climes. That Ireland was also a colony is another fact they forgot to mention at school. Winner of the retroactively awarded 1970 Lost Booker Prize, Troubles is set in 1919 in an old hotel on the Wexford coast of southeast Ireland. The book’s accomplished, absurd narrative charts the hotel’s decay in parallel to the breakdown of an already strained relationship between the protestant unionist minority and the native catholic population.

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