After Rushdie‘s “The Moor’s Last Sigh” I could only expect that another family saga will end up in my hands: “Waterland” by Graham Swift. It was my first plunge into Swift’s waters, and I hope that it won’t be the last one. I only regret reading “Waterland” in Lithuanian instead of its original language, and I will not know until I pick up the next book by Swift if my four stars instead of five should be attributed to my not fully identifying with the author’s voice or the translator’s.
“Waterland” is a story about storytelling, a narrative about narration that analyses the meaning and the necessity of history.
“Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man – let me offer you a definition – is the storytelling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right. Even in his last moments, it’s said, in the split second of a fatal fall – or when he’s about to drown – he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.”
And so the protagonist of the book, Tom, a history teacher in a high school, tells us a story. About the “waterland”, the low-lying fens somewhere in east England. About drainage and beer brewing, madness and murder, coming of age, incest, abortion and childlessness.
Swift suggests that history is cyclical, that any revolution for a better future is always based on a vision or an adapted reflection of a period of prosperity and well-being in the past. That a change leads to another change, which does not always mean progress. That there is also regression and repetition. The Fens, where the biggest part of the story is based, serve Swift as the main metaphor of this cyclicality. Despite centuries of efforts to drain and improve the land in the fens, the water had always found the way to return through rains and floods, bringing disasters to the inhabitants.
Do we all live in the fens of history, I dare to ask? And is there more to it than trying to keep our heads above the water of its recurring floods?
I may or I may not find the answer, but I will keep wondering.
“Your “Why?” gives the answer. Your demand for explanation provides an explanation. Isn’t the seeking of reasons itself inevitably an historical process, since it must always work backwards from what came after to what came before? And so long as we have this itch for explanations, must we not always carry round with us this cumbersome but precious bag of clues called history? Another definition, children: Man, the animal which demands an explanation, the animal which asks Why.”