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Fiction and the Incompleteness of History

Toni Morrison, V. S. Naipaul, and Ben Okri

Ying Zhu

With reference to Paul Ricoeur’s conception of the interconnectedness of history and fiction, this comparative literary study examines narrative strategies that three contemporary writers of fiction – Toni Morrison, V. S. Naipaul, and Ben Okri – have devised to counteract the incompleteness of historical representation. In her novel Beloved Morrison redefines the slave-narrative tradition and reveals an alternative history of slavery by unveiling the interior lives of her characters. Through a hybrid prose that mixes fiction with history in the novels The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World, Naipaul illuminates «areas of darkness» in the diasporic world of East Indian Trinidadians and provides new ways of transforming English literary and cultural history. Focusing on West African identity and community, Okri brings a mythic and fantastic dimension to postcolonial fiction as a way of giving a voice to people who are generally without power and almost without any place in a world of inequality and injustice. Probing into historical incompleteness, this study underscores the indispensable role of fiction in representing life, rectifying history, and enlarging reality.


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Chapter One - Introduction: imagining and repatterning the incompleteness of history 11


Chapter One Introduction: imagining and repatterning the incompleteness of history Under history, memory and forgetting. Under memory and forgetting, life. But writing a life is another story. Incompletion.1 (Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p.506). Epigrammatic and melodious, this little poem by Paul Ricoeur reveals deep insights on the entangled relations among history, memory, life and story writing. That is, the interrelatedness of history and memory, the dichotomy of remembering and forgetting, and the dialectic of life writing and story writing. In particular, the final word ‘inachèvement’ (incompletely) underscores the fragmented and unfinished aspect of history, memory, narrative, and life itself. However, at least in English the negative prefix ‘in’ has another dimension of connotation; ‘incom- pletely’ also suggests dynamism or flux and potentiality or something in the making. In other words, the awareness of incompleteness not only augments knowledge of the reality but also calls upon an un- ending project to reinterpret the historical past and re-envision the world. Besides, it is precisely this sense of incompleteness that catalyzes the effort generation after generation to further explore unnoticed places in self and community, as well as in the past, present and future. In their imaginative literature, especially in their historical novels, Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, and Ben Okri have delineated and also 1 The original poem reads: ‘Sous l’histoire, la mémoire et l’oubli. Sous la mémoire et l’oubli, la vie. Mais écrire la vie est une autre histoire. Inachèvement.’ (Paul Ricoeur, La Mémoire, L’Histoire, L’Oubli,...

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