World War Two and Post-Colonial Literature -- History Once-Removed

Adrienne T. Chisolm '93, English 34 (1991)

The collective past. . . . is public property, but it is also deeply private. We all look differently at it. (Lively, Moon Tiger , 2)

Like most other works of post-colonial literature, Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger, Wole Soyinka's Aké: The Years of Childhood, Sara Suleri's Meatless Days , and Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia each concentrates on the nature of history and the way in which history is viewed by the country from or about which the author writes. The author's own storytelling techniques and direct discussions by the narrator (in three of the four, the narrator is the author) address his story not as an absolute entity but instead as a concept to be played with, questioned, seen through, changed.

World War Two left very few regions of the earth completely unaffected. The areas in which the four books are set -- Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Patagonia -- all have colonial connectons with England (a direct participant in the fighting), so it makes sense that the war, the "public property" to which Lively's narrator refers, might play a part in each. It also makes sense that each of the four narratives might "look differently" at the war, and that the private way in which each does so reflects its country's relationship with England. Each country supports England; but the extent to which the characters in these works believe in the fighting and understand or care about the events depends upon the nature of their country's relationship with England as each author perceives it.

There are a few reasons why post-colonial literature might logically contemplate WWII as often as it seems to. If, as Claudia Hampton asserts, even the most seemingly detached are able or are forced to examine their own connections to the rest of the world during times that are "out of joint," works from or about post-colonial nations appropriately address the events of the war. Egypt, Nigeria and India (Pakistan) all had some connection with England at the time, and Patagonian exiles do now; because England played a direct role in the war, how each colony or protectorate reacted to the war relates closely to how that colony interacted with England.

But in addition to the idea that each country's level and nature of involvement in the war reflects the level and nature of its ties with its colonizer during the war era, it is also true that the war, for many colonies, marked a great turning or breaking point in those ties. The devastation that the war brought to Egypt because of England's interest in the Suez Canal led, by most accounts, and contrary to Claudia Hampton's impression, to high levels of resentment, to many unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the British forces, and eventually to a mounting tension that would result in the 1956 nationalization of the canal by President Nasser. Britain's interest in having India's cooperation to fight Japan during the war gave Indians leverage in their quest for independence, and the Congress Party's anti-war demonstrations gave the Muslim League an advantage in requesting the eventual establishment of the separate, Muslim nation of Pakistan. And although Nigeria was not granted independence until 1960 and Argentina (Patagonia) was much more interested in domestic affairs and the deeds of its new dictator, Juan Peron, at the time, WWII confronted the entire world, especially Hitler's enemies, with the necessity of reflection on the righteousness of one nation's treatment of another nation or race.

On a purely practical level, the post-colonial body of works is necessarily by a group of authors the majority of whom have grown up in the cold war era. World War II is a phenomenon that has shaped deeply the world in which they, along with the relatively newly independent countries about which they write, have developed. Concern with the WWII era is a logical phenomenon in any literature that examines the strange ways of history; thus, it is a logical preoccupation of post-colonial works.

Penelope United Kingdom

Last Modified: 25 March, 2002