This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.
In many ways, André Alexis' Childhood can be compared to Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. Instead of being a story told, Childhood is a diary Thomas MacMillan writes to a woman he loves, Marya: "Perhaps writing is the discipline I need. So I will write, precisely, about my mother and Henry, about Love, with you in mind, from the beginning" (4). It can be argued that by means of the act of narration, Thomas MacMillan appropriates or takes responsibility for "his-story" in the same way Patrick Lewes does. Thomas Macmillan's act of telling or narrating aims at reconstructing and organising his past and that of the people he loved, his grandmother, his mother and his mother's lover, Henry Wing. In order to do this, Thomas tries to order the pieces of a puzzle.
Time, which isn't like ground at all, washes things up without regard for order or sense. My life comes back to me in various pieces, from Pablum to tombstones, each piece changing the contour of the life I've led. (264)
His obsession with lists, graphics and records reflects his incapacity to come to terms with the instability and undecidability of the past. Thomas tries to reconstruct the past as objectively as possible, as a historian would; he is greatly concern with facts, incidents and events and he tries to establish their exact meaning and relevance. In this sense, Thomas can also be compared to Raymond; both speculate on facts and events but they disregard people and their experiences. In the same way that Raymond avoided talking to the protagonists of the events he was recording, Thomas neglected talking openly with his mother about the past. Concerning his mother, Thomas says he knows "a name, a date of birth, something of her parentage, and a handful of incidents from her life. Essentially, I don't know her that much more than I know my father, and the things I do know are almost useless where knowing is concerned" (222). He conceives the past as body of precise facts and events he can control; the fact that he cannot completely grasp neither his mother's past nor his renders him vulnerable.
The structure of Alexis' novel, like that of Ondaatje's, is circular and the stories or personal narratives are framed within the macro story which can be considered as an act of storytelling. There are two levels of narration. At the textual level the narrator is Thomas MacMillan and the narratee is Marya. At the extra textual level the reader is the narratee that receives the macro story, namely, Thomas' act of narration, as well as the micro stories, i.e., the stories told.
Alexis' novel ends where it begins and Thomas himself emphasises its circular nature: "An so I've come full circle, or full spiral, or perhaps only up through ground" (261). By the end of the novel, the protagonist has undergone a major change; he has acquired the awareness that the past can be created and recreated with each act of remembrance. Patrick evolves from being Raymond-like in his attitude towards the past to being Patrick-like. The title of the first chapter of the novel, "History", shows that Thomas considers his act of recollection as if it were the writing of an historical account of his family; yet, by the end of the novel he realises that his enterprise is not sound. Like Patrick, Thomas discovers that the past is not a stable, immutable entity. Consequently, the epistemological problem of knowing the past is replaced by the ontological question of the nature of the past. Thomas realises that he "will have thousands of childhoods before time is done" (264) because each time the past is revisited, it changes and reveals itself from new angles.
Alexis, André. Childhood. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ins., 1998.
Last modified: 16 June 2000