Book Review: Seeing through the Past: Postmodern Histories and the Maritime Metaphor in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction

Seeing through the Past: Postmodern Histories and the Maritime Metaphor in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction, Amsterdam/New York, NY: Rodopi, 2011
Joanna Rostek
Reviewed by Stephen Gapps, Australian National Maritime Museum 

According to some critics the days of the sea as a literary metaphor are over. The end of the age of sail, the automation of ports and even the containerisation of shipping goods have apparently turned the sea into an ‘old sailor’s tale,’ shunted aside into maritime museums, novels and sentimental films. Rostek sets out to prove this wrong – arguing these obituary notices about the sea are somewhat premature, and that it has remained “firmly rooted in the Anglophone cultural imagination” (11). Rostek goes a step further in fact, and claims that in a notable proportion of contemporary Anglophone fiction the past and history are metaphorically conceived of in terms of the sea. Rostek notes how the meanings of these metaphors relate to a postmodern perspective on the past. Indeed she argues that viewing history through the maritime imagination actually gained momentum not only in Anglophone literature but in the broader culture during the 1990s and 2000s.

Rostek sets the scene for her analysis of contemporary sea fiction with an explanation of her selection of novels and an examination of postmodern theorists’ treatments of the relations between fiction and history. She then moves to the long history of the maritime metaphor; from authors such as Homer to Daniel Defoe, from Herman Melville to Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemmingway, the sea has been a powerful symbol deployed as a site of narrative journeying.

Rostek analyses fourteen important novels published over the last thirty years and finds some interesting common threads in a quite diverse selection of works. The novels are grouped into general themes. The section on biographies, or ‘remembering individual histories’, looks at Iris Murdoch’ 1978 The Sea, the Sea; Candia McWilliam’s 1994 Debatable Land; Graham Swift’s 1996 Last Orders and Ian McEwan’s 2007 On Chesil Beach. Rostek makes an interesting interrogation of these works in terms of how the sea figures in the personal narrative.

In section four, she moves to narratives of personal trauma. Yann Martel’s 2002 Life of Pi and John Banville’s 2003 The Sea are wonderful examples of the use of the sea as a site of trauma. Importantly, Rostek looks at how the sea can provide a metaphor for salvaging history from personal memory. The resonance here for recent stories of refugees arriving – or being lost at sea – on Australian shores is significant.

The following sections explore discourses of origin and politics of power as well as post/colonial histories via works such as Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthouse-keeping (2004) and Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (2000). Here the sea is prominent as part of discourses of global history as a journey of dominance over others and as a site of imperial history.

Rostek tackles the relationship between postmodernism and historical knowledge and memory through the metaphor of the sea in recent fiction. There are some important insights into this troubled relationship in Seaing the past. Why is the sea generally seen as imbued with history – a site of the past rather than the future? Unfortunately, Rostek overuses nautical terms and maritime analogies. The book is liberally peppered with them, such as where she writes that “the novels behave quite like the sea: they leak through the structural dams meant to contain them” (19) or when she notes “the selected theoretical aspects (of the texts) form islands in a sea of postmodern histories” (20).

Seaing through the past is not an accessible work for a broad audience. It is however a welcome addition to the 47 volumes of the Postmodern Studies series. It highlights the often forgotten yet undying strength of the maritime metaphor in literature and reminds us that while the sea may have lost the dominance it had during earlier periods of maritimebased global colonisation, it lingers in our cultural memory.

Indeed, Rostek rightly argues it remains quite prominent – perhaps even growing to a point where we may potentially be “seaing through the present.” As the oceans now become our unexplored ‘final frontiers’ and are increasingly regarded as critical sites in climate change, it is important to analyse how the sea, nostalgia, and history have been embedded in postmodernity, and just how the sea figures in how we view the past – and the present. As climate change knows no borders, Rostek’s conclusions that the maritime metaphor is prevalent in contemporary fiction dealing with history and the past gains importance. The marginal spaces that are the sea are increasingly sites of contestation and deserve such interrogation, rather than a nostalgic “museumification.”

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