I’m reading (listening to) Ian McEwan’s Atonement, having watched the movie long after buying the book years ago, when I was recreating my home library after returning from eight years abroad. There are always differences between books and films, clearly, and what’s missing (what has to be telegraphed) is always the inner life, the thought, the meditation.
But more on that later.
Now that I’m halfway through the Africa Reading Challenge, including the works of young female writers alongside the spaces filled in my mind by Ngugi and Achebe and Soyinka, something else is growing clearer as well. It doesn’t seem to matter that the generations have changed and the gender is different. The stories we’re writing and publishing continue to be coming-of-age stories, by and large.
Now I’m not saying, as it would be easy to do, that our countries are still young, that our countries are coming of age, and so our literature, which is a metaphor for our countries, which provides for those people who have never visited and probably never will a psychic existence of our countries and cultures and people, is also coming of age. That’s true and it isn’t true. It’s true only in so far as one makes the error that anthropologists did for decades and believe that cultures are self-reproducing, bounded, stable, and discrete and are only minimally or extraordinarily affected by outside influences — the theory of impermeable/semipermeable culture.
When in fact the postcolonial world is perforated by the ideas and the concepts, often carefully taught and learned, of the metropole. We are all writing in the masters’ language, after all, and so the masters’ literature influences us all. You have only to refer to Soyinka and Walcott and their fascination with reclaiming and renaming the classical foundations of western civilization to know that.
It’s true only in so far as we writers ourselves fall into the trap set for us by the theory (myth) of impermeable culture. And it’s about time we move away from that myth — even development economists have jettisoned it, after all, and no longer expect the two-thirds world to follow the same trajectory of “development” that was followed by the first third — the trajectory that many accept uncritically as the Rise of Civilization, that’s followed in the Civilization games created by Sid Meier et al: settlement, agriculture, literature, philosophy, industrialization, world domination.
The thing is, so many of us see the trap is open and walk right in. It may not be our choice entirely; it may be that the coming-of-age novel is what publishers of postcolonial literature expect and seek, and thus it may be a cycle that’s tight and unbroken. The thing is, the coming-of-age story — which Joyce mastered, and differently, a hundred years ago in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is still enacted again and again and again by writers of colour of postcolonial literature, whether they are on the periphery or in the centre. After all, what were Toni Morrison’s Sula and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple? What were Native Son and Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room?
Reading Atonement is quite different. It begins with a moment of coming of age — the moment in which Briony, the main character, sheds her innocence and stops seeing the world as a fairy tale:
Even as her sister’s head broke the surface — thank God! — Briony had her first, weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew, and what power one could have over the other, and how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong … This was not a fairy tale, this was the real, the adult world in which frogs did not address princesses, and the only messages were the ones that people sent.
But it doesn’t stop there. McEwan has infused this moment with a sense of morality, of choice, of destiny and of agency that makes the moment Briony loses her innocence far more than a moment in which she simply learns the truth about the world (which is what happens over and over and over again in postcolonial novels of the same kind — the youngster realizes that the world is not as it is in films or books, the way Naipaul’s narrator learns it from Bogart and B. Wordsworth in Miguel Street, or where Lamming’s narrator gains revelation from crabs and school and emigration, or when Kambili learns about love and politics). What I find limiting about the typical postcolonial coming-of-age novel is what McEwan avoids here: the fact that the stories are predictable, that the coming-of-age moment is an epiphany that brings the narrative to a close by changing the main character into an adult, and usually that traps that adult in the Real World, which is oppressive and bullying and in which the narrator is no more than a cog in a machine. Very between-the-wars, late-industrial-age stuff. The revelation is the ending, the place where the story stops. In Atonement, it’s where the whole thing begins.
And in Atonement, the moment is a moral moment, a place where a thirteen-year-old makes a choice, and where that choice is wrong, and affects real things, lives, people beyond the thirteen-year-old. Perhaps this is the metaphor of the metropole. Perhaps it’s appropriate for a British writer to be infusing that moment with that weight of consequence, the kind of consequence that is reserved in postcolonial literature for the other heavy model, the one that predominates on the African continent, the model of the Big Man whose choices destroy nations (think A Man of the People, think The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, think Devil on the Cross). Briony’s coming of age results in a choice, and that choice changes the lives irrevocably of three people, or more. It’s a small moment, the kind of moment that’s little and personal, and yet it changes things fundamentally anyway. It’s a moment that has the kind of power and agency that don’t occur so much in our literature — unless you count Ondaatje in and claim him, because it’s the kind of moment like the moment Anil calls her old mentor to come and get her: not a coming-of-age moment, but a moment of choice.
McEwan fuses the two moments. Our literature keeps them apart.
Am I making sense here? This is growing into something that’s too long, really, for a blog post, so I’m going to wrap it up now. But it’s beginning to make me understand something at least — that while Briony’s revelation — which extends beyond the loss of innocence, the draining away of the magic from the world, and extends into a different sort of magic, the magic of literary endeavour — has a moral consequence, it also has a side that rings very true for me. Here it is:
Briony resisted because she wanted to chase in solitude the faint thrill of possibility she had felt before, the elusive excitement at a project she was coming close to defining, at least emotionally … As she stood in the nursery waiting for her cousins’ return she sense she could write a scene like the one by the fountain and she could include a hidden observer like herself … She could write the scene three times over, from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbersome struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains. None of these three were bad, nor were they particularly good. She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.
Quite, quite so.