The use and abuse of history

Agitation and mourning in Sri Lanka

28 February 2023
Illustration by Akila Weerasinghe
Illustration by Akila Weerasinghe

HOWEVER WE JUDGE the Aragalaya that ended in Sri Lanka last year—not with a bang but with a whimper—it offered an occasion to watch and think about the possibilities and the limits of a politics reliant on historical consciousness. Whether the more liberal part of the majority demanding the island’s true diversity be recognised or Tamil critics reminding us that the Rajapaksas had been criminals of the worst sort for decades before the Sinhala public took notice, the movement fomented a political discourse that called for a truer recognition of history, truth or record, blaming the denial (or ignorance) of history for the country’s, and the movement’s, ills. 

Since the birth of the modern nation state in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, history has been made to assume the role of translating us from more essential forms of identification to a selfhood grounded in the abstractions of citizenship or class. This involved a shift from the circular or eschatological timelines offered by religions and the social systems they sanctioned, in which fate and divine right rule, to the linear, progressive time in which we make our own fates and orders. This transformation is enacted most famously in the work of Marx and Hegel, but also drives the work of BR Ambedkar and Periyar. 

The historical novel, born coeval with the secular nation, has been an important tool whereby the instincts requisite to the latter have been instilled in a public whose formation—and status as citizenry—remains nascent and partial. In the words of the Hungarian Marxist literary critic György Lukács, “what in Morgan, Marx and Engels was worked out and proved with theoretical and historical clarity, lives, moves and has its being poetically in the best historical novels.” That is, to demonstrate in abstract terms, important as it may be, will never transform human beings. But the novel can. 

In his monumental work of criticism The Historical Novel, Lukács lays out the essential tendencies of such a novel. Unlike in the epic, the historical novel’s antecedent as nation-story, the protagonist will not be a king or a general but an ordinary citizen, not someone who effects historical events but one who gets caught up in them. This citizen-hero will possess a certain ambiguity, not identifying too wholly with any of the factions involved in the narrative’s conflict. Real historical figures appear but are peripheral to the plot. The novel must seek to represent the whole of a society rather than a fragment. The most paradigmatic historical novels—Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example—are so considered because they take up the subject of the epic, the crystallisation of national identity through battle between good and evil, but replace its allegory and drama of essence with the uncertainties of psychological realism. 

The historical novel, in its long evolution, has grown distant from Lukács’s criteria. The last century saw few narratives of progress, many of decline. Still, novels that look to quicken a sense of history in readers keep appearing, believing that the violence of our times comes from amnesia, from a vacuum that history and truth should rightfully occupy. 

Ashik Kahina is a writer. He divides his time between Chennai and Jaffna.

Keywords: Sri Lankan war Sri Lanka Sri Lankan Civil War Tamil literature