Australia & the Post-Colonial Novel

Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Quadrant.

When Shiva Naipaul had a fatal heart attack at his desk in August 1985, at the infuriatingly young age of 40, he was at work on a book about Australia. Quite literally at work on it—the beginning of a first draft was in his typewriter when he died. Like his brother the Nobel laureate, Shiva Naipaul was a travel writer as well as a novelist and in both capacities interested in the colonial condition in all its permutations, from neo- to post-. His first non-fiction book, North of South (1978), had been a travelogue of Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia that peeled back the prevailing cliches about liberated Africa to discover that the innovation known as “African socialism” was no freer or more prosperous than the old kind. Disillusioned with one continent’s solution to the post-colonial conundrum, Naipaul came to wonder if the answers he sought might be found in Australia.

The reasoning by which he arrived at this hope began with a photograph he saw as a child. “In one of my text-books there was a photograph of a Queensland canefield. A man—European but not, I would guess, ‘Anglo-Saxon’—stood nearby, holding what looked like a machete.” For a descendant of the indentured laborers brought to Trinidad to replace the liberated slaves, this was a revelation. “Sugar-cane! Cultivated and reaped by Europeans!” For the Caribbean, sugar had been the “bitterest of crops, uprooter and enslaver of dark-skinned peoples,” yet here was a continent that had embraced the crop and somehow evaded the curse. There were the “black-birded” Pacific Islanders, yes, but their descendants seemed to Naipaul to pose no greater moral challenge to Australian society than groups that had arrived in gentler circumstances, their trauma having vanished into the generic problem of “multi-culturalism.” To top it off, the tins of ghee Naipaul’s mother bought at the shops were imported from Australia, to young Shiva’s bemusement. A land that made sugar without slavery and ghee without (as far he knew) Indians—Australia had to be some kind of wonderland.

These reflections, along with other fragments of the book that would have been, were collected by Naipaul’s surviving family and published under the title An Unfinished Journey (1986). The brief accounts of his visit to Australia suggest that he did not, in fact, find it a land devoid of imperial hangovers, but did find it a post-imperial society unlike any he had known. His Australian seatmate on the flight from Bali to Sydney gives him a hard time, not for his dark skin, but for hailing from London (“I don’t like Poms”). The Aboriginal street singer he meets in the Sydney CBD dresses and speaks like a Jamaican Rastafarian (“I and I want to be free / For I Aborigine / Never will I lose my identity”). The impression conveyed is of an upside-down sort of post-colonialism, which Naipaul was just beginning to make sense of.

Of all the tragedies encompassed by Naipaul’s early death, the bitterest one for those who did not know him personally is this: that his intuition was correct, that Australia really was uniquely placed to shed new light on the problem of empire and its aftermath. What’s more, the moment when this accomplished novelist might have brought freshness to the topic was one of crisis for post-colonial writing in general and the post-colonial novel in particular, when such freshness could have done some good.

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By the 1980s, the post-colonial novel had written itself into a corner. It had occupied a pretty narrow corner from the start, with each region straining against its own self-imposed limitations. African novelists faced the strictest de facto rules: no style other than straightforward realism, no themes other than the political, no plot other than the confrontation between tradition and modernity. One could choose to be a militant Marxist, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or merely a left-wing pan-Africanist, like Ayi Kwei Armah, but not much else was up for negotiation.

These requirements were established by the novel that rang the starting bell on African prose fiction, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1954), which the London reviewers praised as “guileless and unsophisticated” and thus “authentic”. Thereafter no African writer dared be too wily or refined, or to stray too far from the “authentic” themes of colonialism’s baleful effect on native institutions.

In addition to the soft power he enjoyed as the father of the Anglophone African novel, Achebe exercised power of a more concrete sort as “editorial adviser” to Heinemann’s African Writers Series. The AWS was practically the only publisher of English-language African fiction in the 1960s and into the 1970s, since most London houses thought African titles were sales poison and there was no native publishing industry to speak of. As the editorial board’s chosen representative of African literary taste, Achebe did not hesitate to skew their selection in favour of his own political and literary hobby-horses: lots of dastardly men in topees, lots of simple declarative sentences.

It is tantalising to think of what might have been if Achebe had not exercised such a stranglehold at such a pivotal moment. (Some idea of the possibilities can be inferred from the Francophone African novel, which developed along less monotonous lines.) The one African novelist to make a splash among British readers before Things Fall Apart was a far more interesting writer than Achebe: Amos Tutuola, whose Palm-Wine Drinkard was published by Faber & Faber in 1952. It is said that Geoffrey Faber himself read the manuscript on the train to Oxford one evening and came back insisting that not a word of its Yoruba-inflected prose should be changed. The result was something that Dylan Thomas in a rapturous review called “young English”:

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. In those days we did not know other money, except COWRIES, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town. My father got eight children and I was the eldest among them, all of the rest were hard workers, but I myself was an expert palm-wine drinkard. 

This could easily have degenerated into a gimmick, though presumably Tutuola’s editor at Faber, one T.S. Eliot, could have continued to bring out the best in him. Alas, a promising branch of African prose was deliberately stunted by Achebe and his allies, who erased Tutuola from the history of African literature. They accused him of making Nigerians sound childish and put it around that to praise Tutuola was about as retrograde as to praise Kipling. In the small world of African prose fiction, such pronouncements were far-reaching. Achebe’s dominance faced no such serious threat again.

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Like Africa, India had no native tradition of the novel before the mid-twentieth century. Literature, yes, and an older tradition than the West’s at that. The subcontinent had also furnished the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. But the novel remained a foreign import. The dilemma facing the Indian novelist was the opposite of that facing the African: circumstances had established far too precise an idea of what the African novel could be; the idea of the Indian novel was not precise enough—too uncertain, too diffuse.

Was it necessary, for example, to write in an indigenous language? English versus bhasha had been a flashpoint of Indian nationalism since Macaulay. But if an authentically Indian novelist had to write in an Indian language, how to choose which one, when even Hindi enjoyed no more than regional currency? The 1949 Constitution, as many people know, provided that Hindi should be “phased in” as the official language within fifteen years, but the changeover was cancelled due to resentment in regions where Hindi was no less a foreign language than English. In any case, what was the use of ostentatiously throwing off the coloniser’s language when the novel was inescapably the coloniser’s form? Should one not stick to more authentic forms, like Urdu poetry? What about a novel about Urdu poetry, like Anita Desai’s In Custody? Would that be something all of Mother India’s children could rally around?

British taste-makers had proven admirably willing to champion Indian writers—E.M. Forster finding a publisher for Mulk Raj Anand, Graham Greene doing the same for R.K. Narayan—but their patronage extended only to the limits of the languages they could read. For Indian fiction to take its rightful place in the world of letters, while still performing the unifying function that the nationalist establishment felt it should, some compromises would be required. In the decades after Independence, their literary world wrangled over which compromises were acceptable and which gave too much ground. The fruitlessness of these internal debates can be deduced from the fact that the first Indian novel to truly break open the world market came only in 1980, by an independent-minded author who was quick to mock “the folly of trying to contain writers inside passports.” In Salman Rushdie, Indian letters faced a puzzle: the son who made good and the prodigal son were one and the same, and he showed not much inclination to come home to his father’s house.

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Such was the state of “post-colonial” fiction by the 1980s: on one hand, a powerful ideological party insisted on shoehorning all Third World writing into a strict set of conventions, relentlessly subordinating the aesthetic to the political. The dignity of indigenous languages was held to be a basic post-colonial principle, so all writers were bound to agitate for their recognition—and if a country had no indigenous language, then a good-enough substitute would have to be found. Thus did “kitchen” languages like Surinamese talkie-talkie and Seychellois creole (pardon me, “Seselwa kreol”) find themselves elevated to the same rank as English and French. The critic Fredric Jameson carried this dogmatism to its natural conclusion when he declared in a notorious 1986 paper that all Third World literature should be read as “national allegories.”

On the other hand was a loosely affiliated counterparty of writers like Rushdie and the elder Naipaul who wanted to junk these stale debates and just be writers. And yet these rebels against the stultifying orthodoxy of post-colonialism were nonetheless drawn, again and again, to imperial themes. Finding the British Empire a mountain in their path, post-colonial writers had either made camp or tried to vault over it. The first led to stasis, and the second didn’t work. They would have to find a path around and through.

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In general, writers are very bad at drawing useful lessons about colonialism from empires other than their own. It’s not simply a problem of cross-cultural communication. Some messages travel quite well from country to country—like the schoolteacher in British Nigeria who found that his students had no trouble grasping the Highland–Lowland dynamic in Kidnapped, corresponding as it did to their own ethnic tensions. But the subject of empire in particular seems to bring out even a good writer’s talent for getting things wrong.

It is truly bizarre, for example, that a generation of African authors should have chosen Joseph Conrad as their imperialist bête noire. Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” which is still printed in the Norton Critical Edition of that novel, is the most famous assault, and it inspired other African writers to have a tilt at Conrad. Ngugi wrote his third novel, about the Mau Mau, as a rebuttal to Under Western Eyes. The main charge against Conrad—apart from the crime of having dared to write about Africa at all—is that he shows no appreciation of what it is like, how dehumanising it is, to live under an oppressive foreign regime that denigrates everything native as a matter of policy. An astonishing charge to level against Jozef Korzeniowski, whose grandfather, two uncles, and father sacrificed life, land, and freedom in the cause of Polish independence.

J.M. Coetzee, in his long essay on Joseph Roth, draws such odd moral lessons from the fall of the Austrian empire that one grows indignant on Roth’s behalf before realising that Coetzee, of course, is projecting. Once nationalist agitation began among the subject peoples, Coetzee writes, the empire’s mistake had been not giving in sooner, not perceiving that “there has been a change in the air that makes the old idealism unsustainable”—brought in on winds of change, perhaps. Coetzee denigrates Roth’s allegiance to the old regime as nostalgia and bemoans “the apologist for the Hapsburgs he later became.” As a South African, Coetzee might find it difficult to imagine that a critic of violent nationalism could be, not nostalgic, but righteously unhappy that an injustice was perpetrated against a regime that deserved to survive.

The same mistranslation, with the continents reversed, can be seen in the recent revival of interest in Albert Camus’s Algerian writing, which began in 2013 with the belated publication in English of the non-fiction Algerian Chronicles (1958) and has continued with the novel The Meursault Investigation and a film version of “The Guest” starring Viggo Mortensen. The Meursault Investigation, by the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, is narrated by the younger brother of the Arab killed in The Outsider, and it describes what befell the family of the man Camus never names (he was called Musa, according to Daoud).

Proponents of this revival have challenged the old conventional wisdom that Camus blundered as badly on Algeria as Sartre did on Stalin, which is laudable, but in the process of its defence, Camus’s position is usually reduced to a vague humanitarianism. His position was hazy, but not as hazy as that—like Roth, he genuinely wanted his side to win. Worse, some reviewers have vaguely alluded to Camus’s “continued relevance” in the era of the war on terrorism. Even assuming that violent Arabs in unlike contexts and with entirely different beliefs can be collapsed into a single category, Camus’s lessons are not especially applicable to a problem like Al Qaeda, or for that matter Iran or Libya. “He seeks him out, not so much to meet him as to never have to,” Daoud’s narrator says of Meursault’s annihilation of his brother. In this case it is the Left that will apparently go to great lengths to avoid learning to tell Arabs apart.

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So why think that Australian literature might have broken through the deadlock that had beset the post-colonial novel by the time Shiva Naipaul set out on his unfinished journey? Because it had the same issues to work through as the other fledgling literary traditions but could not rely on the same clichés. The insistence that every novel be a statement of political protest against the metropole, the sterile debates over language and translation, the sentimentalised celebration of native customs that furnished lesser Third World novelists with a substitute for plot—Australia, by its nature, escaped all these. In his 1983 provocation “‘Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist,” Rushdie attempted to exclude the white dominions from consideration on the grounds that “the post-colonial dialectic,” for them, “does not exist, or at least is far more peripheral.” But the very first great Australian novel, Henry Handel Richardson’s triple-decker The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, sees its protagonists ruined financially and socially in their abortive return to England because they cannot shed “the digger’s brand.” No patients seek out Dr Mahony’s medical services, no hostesses his wife’s company, all because they are Australian—and this after Richard spends the first volume scheming how to abandon his thriving practice in Ballarat to get back to England and civilisation.

After Richardson’s trilogy was finished, the Australian novel entered three decades of doldrums when a handful of unimaginative social realists held an otherwise empty field—a silence which suggests certain post-colonial anxieties of its own. By the time Australian fiction flowered again, in the mid-1950s, authors had begun to show an interest in the other side of the colonial relationship, their own treatment of Aboriginals in particular. That, of course, is the other great advantage Australia had over other post-colonial literatures: its people were colonials and colonisers both, poised midway between the total mastery of Britain and the total subjecthood of the non-white colonies. The strength of David Malouf’s allegorical story of Ovid’s exile, An Imaginary Life (1978), is that it is a triangular tale, not just of Roman and barbarian but of Roman, barbarian, and the wolf-boy beyond civilisation altogether. In an autobiographical chapter of Crossing the Gap (1993), Christopher Koch tells of visiting India with another Australian in the 1960s and being treated, against their inclination, like sahibs: “We clowned, we made fun of ourselves, we insulted the British empire; it was no use.” And yet at the end of the trip Koch concludes that as fellow colonials “it was those Indians who were our brothers under the skin—not the British.” He would develop this theme of the Australian’s dual nature in The Year of Living Dangerously (1978) through the characters of Kwan and Hamilton.

One of the richest explorations of imperialism, not just in Australian literature but in the English language, is Randolph Stow’s To the Islands (1958), which tells the story of a Lear-like Anglican priest nearing the end of his life, and his rope, at a mission out in the Kimberley. He arrived with the first generation of missionaries, and he dreads handing over to second-generation men like Reverend Way:

“I don’t want to pass piously to a quiet grave. I’ve built something nobody wanted, and now the thing I think would give my life its full meaninglessness would be to smash it down and take it with me. Let them regret it when it’s not there if they won’t appreciate it when it is.”

“But it’s not yours to smash,” Way said evenly.

“I’m the only one of the builders left. All the others are dead. They had my ideas, they made my mistakes, they used the whip sometimes, they were Bible-bashers and humourless clods, they were forgotten while they were alive and attacked when they were dead. You don’t like the work we did—very well, we’ll take it back.”

Stow exercised his own authorial right to tear down what he had created in the revised edition of To the Islands in 1981. As he explains in his introduction, he had deliberately filled the 1958 edition with praise for the work of West Australian missionaries, which he had observed first-hand, in the hopes of stirring public support for their labours. “Most of those passages have gone now, as the cause was lost long ago.”

To the Islands was republished this year by the indefatigable Aust-lit boosters at Text Publishing, so any reader can easily verify that the pared-down version is still a masterpiece. That is the test of a truly post-colonial novel: one can tear out all the political statements and still have something left. It is a condition the Australian novel achieved sooner than most.