[(essay date October 1992) In the following essay, Aizenberg addresses the differences between actual history and common beliefs, and discusses the concept of embellished history in historical novels by Gabriel García Márquez and Ouologuem.]
The rediscovery of history--a recent literary-critical event associated with new historicism, the engagement of the text with the world, and the postmodernist presence of the past--marks a negative response to the older ahistorical, if not antihistorical, bias of literature and criticism, in which formalisms of various kinds ruled the intellectual roost.1 Of course, the response to the response has been swift and loud; the "rediscovery" of history has given small comfort to the previous roost rulers, who have seen their hallowed objectivities and unities shattered in the name of a mixed multitude of ex-centrics: women, minorities, Third Worlders (I realize the term Third World is problematic). Reinstating history, it seems, threatens to unmask how the West (was) won or, at the very least, to unsettle considerably the smooth surface of the master narratives that generations have imbibed.
The previous paragraph reflects a Western bias. Why assume that the story of the West's "rediscovery" of history is everyone else's story? Indeed, even as Euro-North American literature and criticism reconnect with the historical-political context in which works are embedded, largely by acknowledging ex-centric discourses and vindicating the wronged, that move's rehegemonizing potential has been interrogated (see Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 162-63, 172-73; Jan-Mohammed and Lloyd 182-86). The West is still explicating the West, more critically and globally to be sure, but nonetheless parting from Western conditions ("late capitalist, bourgeois, informational, postindustrial society") and answering Western needs (resisting the "totalizing forces" of "mass culture") (Hutcheon, Poetics 7, 6). This unchanged focus could renew the subsumption of the non-Euro--North American into the Western, as well as continue the distortion of non-Western cultural experiences. Linda Hutcheon's important Poetics of Postmodernism both subsumes and distorts when it cites works such as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Carlos Fuentes's El gringo viejo (The Old Gringo), and Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) as examples of a "new desire to think historically" (88; emphasis added). The comment fails to recognize that these novels were not produced under normative Western circumstances, primarily as responses to metropolitan exigencies, and also that their desire to think historically is nothing new, since history has never gone out of style in the Third World.
The use of these works to explicate Western developments is therefore dubious, the emphasis on "margins" and "edges" notwithstanding.2 In fact, a more basic question arises when the historical specificity of postcolonial novels is flattened out to illustrate the center's renewed desire to engage history: To what extent has ahistoricism truly been banished? In the metropolis, arguments over this question have revolved around postmodern "simulacra of history" (Jameson, "Postmodernism" 71). The past is present in contemporary writing; but, as Jameson asks, is its presence "direct," hence historical? Or are we receiving a historical ersatz, "some reconstruction...