History and Fiction: A Conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Chris Clark

Every book is an adventure in which I am finding out about the world. (Amitav Ghosh, 23rd March 2015)

The Sheldonian Theatre played host on Monday evening to the renowned author Amitav Ghosh, who addressed the audience at the Chancellor’s Lecture.  This event was held as part of the Oxford Literary Festival, which annually attracts widely-recognised authors to debate and discuss their works.  Amitav Ghosh, the celebrated Indian author of historical novels set around the Indian Ocean, has garnered much critical acclaim for his postcolonial and postmodern works.  His fiction has won several major literary awards, including the ‘Prix Médicis Étrangerfor The Circle of Reason, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Calcutta Chromosome in 1996.  Ghosh’s fiction centres on narratives of dispersion, and displays a profound interest in the voices usually forgotten by history.  The hour-long discussion between Ghosh and Chris Clark, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, focused specifically on this interplay between fiction and history.

The driving force behind the conversation was the publication of Ghosh’s upcoming novel Flood of Fire, which is the final novel in his celebrated Ibis trilogy, and which will be released in May 2015.  The Ibis trilogy is set during the time of the Opium Trade, prior to the first Opium War (1839-1842).  Ghosh discussed his interest in the Opium Wars, and particularly the part played by the Indian nation in the conflict.  The matter of finding historical sources for the Indian role in that war was, however, a difficult one for Ghosh.  First-hand accounts are scarce, which he suggests is linked to the widespread problem of neglected voices in history; that is, the voices of those communities whose stories do not appear frequently in historical documentation.  These are the voices which Ghosh strives to accommodate in his fiction.  The role of language in creating these voices is, Ghosh stated, of the utmost importance; and it is through various ‘linguistic textures’ that he creates the rich tapestry of characters and settings in his novels.  Language, he argues, forms history, rather than just describing it. The author emphasized his love of writing in dialects, and the way in which the history of language, as well as social and anthropological histories, informs his work.  Ghosh discussed the use of pidgin variations as a means of accommodating the neglected voices, and expressed the joy which he felt at creating characters with idiosyncratic linguistic traits.

Ghosh and Clark considered the way in which historical novels fill the gaps exposed by academic history.   Ghosh commented extensively on the notion that history is concerned with larger historical forces, whereas novels are able to examine particular events, and the way in which these affect people(s).  The transformative power of small events in broader histories was considered, with the decisive six final minutes of the Battle of Waterloo described as an example of this great power of small incidents.  Ghosh explained that this type focus on historical detail formed the backbone of his fiction. The importance of the historical novel, Ghosh further concluded, was to ‘let the reader enter the past,’ to inhabit these great events through his characters.  The historical novel moreover offers a multiplicity of voices, whereas history usually cannot.  This polyphony allows the novelist to play with voices, and to create a multi-layered interpretation of particular events, which Ghosh certainly uses to great effect.

The witty repartee between Ghosh, a historical novelist, and Clark, an academic historian, was abundant, and it was clear from their friendly and informal approach to the discussion that both speakers are acquainted.  The tangents of the discussion, ranging from Bismarck’s preferred breakfast to masturbation during the Enlightenment, added a very humorous atmosphere to the proceedings.  The amicable relationship between the speakers made the evening not only fascinating and informative, but also extremely enjoyable. 

S. Mitchell

For more information about future events in the Oxford Literary Festival, please visit their website.

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