- Imperial Topographies: the Spaces of History in Waterland
Waterland begins with a reference to geography at once provocatively vague and physically precise: “we lived in a fairy-tale place,” observes the narrator/protagonist Tom Crick, “In a lock-keeper’s cottage, by a river, in the middle of the Fens” (Swift 1). Tersely resonant, these words configure the novel’s setting as both the story-teller’s realm of free imaginative play (“a fairy-tale place”) and the site of the historian’s exact, disciplined investigations. Through a geographical image, Swift not only establishes the two stylistic modes—lyrical myth-making and brisk documentation—which dominate Tom’s story; he also suggests the dialectical opposition, elaborated throughout the text, between the discursive practices of narrative and historiography, between the conjuring up of fictions and the setting down of facts. In Waterland this thematically central but infinitely migrating binary is not so much identified as located; the interplay of fiction and fact as intellectual and linguistic constructs is deeply imbricated in a specific landscape: “the Fens . . . [w]hich are a low-lying region of eastern England, over 1,200 square miles in area, bounded to the west by the limestone hills of the Midlands, to the south and east by the chalk hills of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk” (8). A liquid terrain, a featureless but [End Page 371] fecund wasteland both seductive and devastating to the imagination, the Fens become an occasion for allegory in the novel, a catchment zone for its various epistemological riddles. Endlessly distributing water in their rotations of absorption and discharge, the marshes project and orchestrate the problems of representation which obsess Tom: “There are times,” he ruminates, “when good dry textbook history takes a plunge into the old swamps of myth and has to be retrieved with empirical fishing lines” (86).
The paradoxes of history—its conceptual overlap with narrative, its tendency both to install and subvert human notions of chronology and development—are the obvious focus of Waterland’s intellectual endeavor. Suggestively disposed through a landscape of cross-currents and mobile interchange, these paradoxes are also positioned, from the start of the novel, within the figurative perspective of the maternal body and the oedipal narrative of differentiation and quest which it propels: “‘And don’t forget,’” Tom recalls his father saying “as if he expected me at any moment to up and leave to seek my fortune in the wide world, ‘whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk . . . ‘“ (1). If the Fenlands mediate the contradictions of history in Waterland, they do so with metonymic reference to woman’s body as ambiguous terrain, where myths of origin and individuation circulate with counter-myths of duplication and the evacuation of subjectivity. At once spatializing anatomy and anatomizing space, Waterland constellates the history/narrative problematic under the sign of gender, rephrasing in this way postmodernism’s concern with women’s historical agency and with representations of female sexuality within discourse.
Furthermore, by composing simultaneously a feminized geography and a geography of femininity, the novel refers the alternating binaries of history to a trajectory figured precisely through disseverance from the mother. Written in the aftermath of empire and self-consciously enmeshed with its legacies, Waterland engages the colonialist motifs of propulsion and escape with the aggrieved, derisive passion of a postcoloniality enthralled by the imperialism it critiques. In Waterland, as so frequently in postcolonial literature, the processes of psychic individuation effectively model the trajectory of imperialist [End Page 372] enterprise—with its dynamic of conquest, its imagery of borders and migration, its hallucinatory anxiety about contact and separation. Henry Crick’s suspicion that his son will “up and leave to seek [his] fortune in the wide world” expresses imperialist ardor as a fulfillment of the family romance: the energies of differentiation move outwards, towards fortune and power, while the body of the mother is mythologized as the idyllic ground of primal emergence. In this way historical indeterminacy, inflected through the aggrandizing and centrifugal drives of imperialist endeavor, expresses itself as a...