Counterfact and Truth: Re-imagining History in a Postcolonial Subgenre

Craig Smith


Les écrits historiographiques présupposent que les vérités historiques dépendent de l’interprétation narrative de l’information factuelle et que les récits historiques s’engagent nécessairement dans des contextes interprétatifs les uns avec les autres au sujet du sens propre de ces faits. En revanche, les écrits contrefactuels remettent en cause la suprématie du fait dans les récits historiographiques. Tant dans les méthodes qu’elle utilise que dans les conclusions qu’elle apporte, l’imagination contrefactuelle défie et subvertit la base épistémologique conventionnelle de l’historiographie. En même temps, l’écriture contrefactuelle est irréductible au simple statut de la fiction : en écrivant ce qui ne s’est pas passé dans l’être textuel, les récits contrefactuels cherchent paradoxalement à accomplir le travail habituel de l’historiographie en expliquant le passé tel qu’il s’est déroulé en réalité. En dépit des incongruités apparentes qui surgissent de telles pratiques, l’imagination contrefactuelle devient endémique au sein de la culture contemporaine, donnant naissance à des genres très différents d’écriture fictionnelle et non fictionnelle.


Bien que de nombreuses critiques axées sur l’imagination contrefactuelle exposent un penchant occidental, la liberté des récits dominants, qui est implicite dans l’imagination contrefactuelle, a une résonance évidente dans la littérature postcoloniale. Des interprétations contrefactuelles de l’histoire peuvent être trouvées dans des textes variés en sujet et en genre.  En effet, les histoires contrefactuelles constituent sans doute un sous-genre en voie de développement dans le domaine des littératures postcoloniales. Contemporains à l’épanouissement d’une littérature contrefactuelle, , des romans tels que The Calcutta Chromosome d’Amitav Ghosh, True History of the Kelly Gang de Peter Carey et Summertime de J.M. Coetzee prennent de nouvelles significations lorsqu’ils ne sont pas seulement lus comme des manifestations des littératures locales (nationales ou régionales), mais aussi comme des textes qui illustrent la politique conflictuelle de la postcolonialité contrefactuelle dans un marché mondial postmoderne.


Mots-clés : littérature postcoloniale, imagination contrefactuelle, J.M. Coetzee, Amitav Ghosh, Peter Carey


Historiographic writings presuppose that historical truths rely on the narrative rendering of factual information and that historical narratives necessarily engage in interpretive contests with each other over the proper meaning of those facts. In contrast, counterfactual writings challenge the primacy of fact in historiographic narratives. Both in the methods it uses and in the conclusions it renders, the counterfactual imagination challenges and subverts the conventional epistemological basis of historiography. At the same time, counterfactual writing is irreducible to the straightforward status of fiction: by writing that which did not happen into textual being, counterfactual narratives paradoxically seek to perform the usual work of historiography by explaining the past as it actually unfolded. Despite the apparent incongruities that emerge from such practices, the counterfactual imagination has become endemic within contemporary culture, proliferating in very different genres of fictional and non-fictional writing.


Although much criticism focusing on the counterfactual imagination exhibits a Western bias, the freedom from dominant narratives implicit within the counterfactual imagination has obvious resonance with postcolonial literature. Counterfactual renderings of history can be found in texts diverse in subject and genre. Indeed, counterfactual histories arguably constitute a developing subgenre within the field of postcolonial literatures. Published amidst the contemporary moment of counterfactual flourishing, novels such as Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime take on new meanings when read not simply as manifestations of local (national or regional) literatures but also as texts that exemplify the conflicted politics of counterfactual postcoloniality in a global postmodern marketplace.


Keywords: postcolonial literature, counterfactual imagination, J.M. Coetzee, Amitav Ghosh, Peter Carey


If “history is essentially concerned with facts” (Widmann 2011, 171), then it follows that conventional historiography typically works by transforming those bedrock facts into narrative form and that historical narratives necessarily engage in interpretive contests with each other over facts’ proper meaning. In contrast, counterfactual writings challenge the primacy of fact in history precisely by leaving behind the factual bedrock of history or, in other words, by telling it like it wasn’t[1]. The counterfactual imagination thus subverts, both in the methods it uses and in the conclusions it reaches, historiography’s conventional epistemological basis. Yet, counterfactual does not mean anti-factual, and, regardless of whatever fictionalizing liberties it takes with historical events and personalities, counterfactual writing ultimately is irreducible to “mere” fiction.


Despite the obvious contrasts between the world that was and the world that wasn’t, counterfactual historiography “differs only in degrees, not in substance from its […] factual twin brother (or sister), and thus from the normal business of historians” (Waldenegy 2011, 148). This is because, to achieve their desired effects, “counterfactual versions of historical events require facts” (Widmann 2011, 171). In other words, counterfactual writing depends primarily on its readers possessing some awareness of the facts, to register what facts are kept and to recognize departures as departures, before the work of counterfactual imagination can come into being. It thus becomes apparent that writing that which did not happen into textual being is a profoundly paradoxical exercise. The tension readers perceive between the virtual world that never came into being and the actual world that existed typically places the creation of the former in service of the elucidation of the latter. If explanation is historiography’s “fundamental goal” (Waldenegy 2011, 140), counterfactual writing similarly seeks to better explain the past as it actually was.


In terms of their explanatory legitimacy, counterfactuals have recently enjoyed scholarly legitimization. For professional historians, “The question of what might have happened” was once “nothing more than an entertaining parlor game” (Evans 2013, 1); however, there have been “[m]any times more books and essays” on counterfactual history published since 1990 “than in the whole of real history before then” (Ibid., 31). Today, “more scholars than ever seem to acknowledge the potential value of more or less detailed counterfactual reasoning” (Waldenegy 2011, 132). The contemporary boom in counterfactual imaginings reveals how extensively counterfactuals have undergone an institutional rehabilitation, “becom[ing] one of the most fertile fields of historical inquiry” (Rosenfeld 2002, 90) within the academy[2]. Rosenfeld accounts for this mainstreaming of counterfactual reasoning, noting that “an antideterministic, relativistic turn has taken hold in Western culture and encouraged scholars to think more speculatively about the past” (2015, 124). Combined with a late 20th-century linguistic turn, which “helped to shape a [postmodern] zeitgeist” (Widmann 2011, 171), this antideterminist relativism has contributed directly, according to Rosenfeld, to the “heightened prominence of counterfactual reasoning in Western intellectual life” (2015, 123). For Evans, who fundamentally agrees on contemporary counterfactualism’s enabling condition, “[p]ostmodern scepticism has freed up writers of all kinds to imagine what might have been and to tie their imaginings in one way or another to real historical events and real historical personages” (2013, 112).


Rosenfeld’s and Evans’s explanations reflect the primarily Western, even Anglo-American, focus of most critical treatments of counterfactuals. However, the freedom from dominant narratives implicit within the counterfactual imagination has obvious resonance with postcolonial literature, especially given postcolonialism’s ingrained resistance of Western epistemic authority and its “inevitable tendency towards subversion” (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 2003, 32). Moreover, while colonialist historiography, which “enabled European domination of the world in the nineteenth century” (Chakrabarty 2000, 7), trumpets its own factual basis, postcolonial literature’s tendency to critique “the assumptions and representations on which colonialism is based” (Ramone 2011, 1) reveals how official history typically exhibits a prominent, if rarely acknowledged, counterfactual strain of its own.


Because that which is always already counterfactual within colonial histories lends itself to postcolonial mimicry and parodic appropriation, it is perhaps predictable, especially during the post-1990 boom, that counterfactual histories have begun to appear in a range of postcolonial texts that are diverse in geographic origin, subject matter, and genre. As such, I contend that counterfactual histories constitute an underexamined, if peculiar, subgenre within the broader field of postcolonial literature, and that this is particularly the case among authors whose mode of postcoloniality is bound up with the (Western) postmodern elements underwriting the counterfactual imagination’s global rise. The emergence of postcolonial variations on counterfactual history writing, taking place alongside and within this global development, does not come without ambivalence, precisely because of how uneasily the postmodern and the postcolonial intersect. According to Graham Huggan, “postcolonialism and its rhetoric of resistance […] have themselves become consumer products” (2001, 6) within “the neo-colonial context of global commodity culture” (Ibid., 7). Accordingly, postcolonial texts that concern themselves with history are subject to “powerful forces of metropolitan mediation” (Ibid., 26) that have the potential to co-opt what would otherwise be subversive in them.


If postcoloniality itself might best be understood as an ambivalently commodified postmodern condition, then, it follows that postcolonial counterfactuals both contribute to the broader counterfactual turn, especially within the Western academy, and subvert those elements of the counterfactual imagination that would incorporate postcolonial variants within a non-threatening Western episteme. My argument here, then, is not simply that postcolonial authors have become increasingly willing to tell colonial (and sometimes personal) history like it wasn’t, but also—and more importantly—that counterfactuals take on unique and particular contours in their postcolonial manifestations. Published amidst the contemporary moment of counterfactual flourishing, novels such as Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime take on new meanings when read not simply as manifestations of local (national or regional) literatures but also as texts that exemplify the conflicted politics of counterfactual postcoloniality in a global postmodern marketplace.


Making sense of a mode

Scholars of the counterfactual imagination differ on how best to define it. Widmann, for instance, suggests that “such representations of history can be understood as ‘counterfactual’ that deviate from the version that is commonly known and accepted in at least one aspect of great significance” (2011, 171). Given counterfactual writing’s current ubiquity, however, deviations from what is commonly known and accepted take many forms. Pinning down what does and does not constitute genuine counterfactual history can be quite difficult, particularly as “critical discourse” on the topic “remains superficial and fraught with disagreements” (Singles 2011, 182). For his part, Evans distinguishes between “true counterfactual scenarios” (2013, 94), which “foreground […] the effects of a single change in an existing causal chain” (Ibid., 91), and alternative history, which simply gives us “a world parallel to our own without enquiring too deeply into how it came into being” (Ibid.). In a similar vein, Waldenegy notes that “one might criticise the equation of counterfactual history […] with virtual history” (2011, 135). Whether or not one accepts such categorical hair-splitting, it is undeniable that “counterfactual reasoning involves the proposing and answering of hypothetical ‘what if’ questions” (Rosenfeld 2015, 123). As extended forays into subjunctive hypothesizing, the ‘what ifs’ that animate the counterfactual imagination are what allow the mode to present its audience with uncanny visions of a world that never was, but could have been.


The three novels I concern myself with here are all, at least in part, historical novels that depart from what is commonly known and accepted about the people, periods, and places that take center stage in them. They, like counterfactual historical novels generally, resemble the broader historical novel genre by “includ[ing] numerous references to historical figures, place names, events, and social or political circumstances” (Widmann 2011, 188). For instance, in both Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the Indian and Australian locales in which medical science takes a large step forward and in which a famous outlaw resists and is defeated by the forces of colonial law and order, respectively, are part of the known historical record. Similarly, in J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, an underlying bedrock of fact is evident when Julia, a former lover of John Coetzee who is being interviewed by a would-be literary biographer, corrects his false understanding that his subject had lived in the vicinity of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela in the 1970s, telling him “Mandela wasn’t moved to Pollsmoor until later. In 1975 he was still on Robben Island” (Coetzee 2009, 19). It is thus the known and accepted histories that provide the grounds from which each novel noticeably (and sometimes subtly) departs. While the effects of exploring historical ‘What ifs’ vary greatly between the novels, the pattern Rosenfeld identifies is ultimately detectable in all three, despite their ostensible differences in style, setting, and subject.


Ghosh’s Calcutta Chromosome combines science fiction, detective fiction, and Bengali supernatural horror with a presentation of colonial medical history in a way that “resists any easy summary” (Chambers 2003, 57). At its complex core, however, the novel poses a very simple hypothetical: what if Sir Ronald Ross, the British officer awarded the Nobel Prize for his breakthrough in malarial research, received help from a secretive subaltern cabal, without whose involvement he never could have discovered the process by which malaria is transmitted to humans? Like Ghosh’s novel, Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang turns its counterfactual speculations to a well-known historical figure: the highly mythologized 19th-century outlaw Ned Kelly. The counterfactual question driving Carey’s narrative is more personal and perhaps more poignant than in Ghosh’s case, as Carey’s counterfactual hypothesis centers on a parent-child dynamic. What if, Carey’s novel wonders, the childless Ned Kelly actually had a daughter for whose benefit he would want to explain and justify his actions as Australia’s iconic bushranger? Coetzee’s Summertime is the third and final installment in his ­autre-biographical trilogy but the only part of it published after Coetzee received the Nobel Prize for literature. It resembles the novels of Ghosh and Carey in that it deals with an individual—Coetzee himself—who, as a reluctant public figure, has become woven into the fabric of literary and cultural history. The counterfactual conceit around which Summertime organizes itself is that the book is a collection of unpublished fragments written in the 1970s by the now-dead Coetzee and interviews conducted by a 21st-century would-be literary biographer interested in Coetzee’s life in South Africa during the same period. Given the illusion about its authorship, Summertime explores the most obviously counterfactual hypothetical: what if Coetzee were dead and we were to gain insights into the private life of the notoriously guarded author?


Though other postcolonial novels may present themselves as examples of the counterfactual subgenre—Widmann, for instance, sees Rushdie’s hypercanonical Midnight’s Children as a text that “deal[s] with history in a way that qualifies as counterfactual” (2011, 174)—these novels by Ghosh, Carey, and Coetzee warrant special attention here because of common approach they share, with each positing a singular counterfactual substitution from which any other temporal and structural deviations flow. It is this feature, more than any shared subject matter or outlook, that yokes the works together. Indeed, at first glance, it is likely the differences that will stand out, as each text reflects its author’s unique habitual practices and thematic concerns. The Calcutta Chromosome replicates Ghosh’s typical parodic undermining of Orientalist tropes that depict India as, in Said’s words, “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (1994, 1). The Ned Kelly who narrates events in Carey’s True History is an anachronistic 19th-century member of the coterie of novelist-liars who came to dominate Australian fiction at the end of 20th century[3]. For this reason, Ned’s testimony fits seamlessly into a broader trajectory in Carey’s writings wherein the author plays with notions of authenticity and fakery. Finally, Summertime is consistent both with Coetzee’s later development of a “complex form of confessional writing” (Head 2009, 1) and with Coetzee’s perennial preference for positioning his fictions as rivals to history rather than supplements of it[4]. Yet, despite the continuities the novels have with their authors’ wider oeuvres, each is uniquely counterfactual. This is not simply because the texts present virtual worlds that readers know to be departures from the actual world. The novels are properly classified as counterfactual because the departures are so flagrant that they exceed mere inaccuracy, and it is in this deliberate excess—what emerges to fill the space between what was and what only could have been—that the essence of counterfactuality, postcolonial or otherwise, can be found.


Counterscience and Counterfactual Forms of Knowledge

While The Calcutta Chromosome is partially a historical novel—more specifically, a novel concerned with medical history—both its generic categorization and its internal chronology are complicated affairs. The novel divides itself between three timelines, the first of which, its frame story (Lee 2013, 2), comprises the novel’s narrative present, focusing on a New York-based systems analyst named Antar in an unspecified near future of vaguely dystopian dimensions. The second temporal setting is Calcutta over two days in August 1995. This is a setting contemporaneous with Ghosh’s writing of the novel but functioning within the novel as its near past. It focuses on Antar’s former co-worker, Murugan, a “dapper, pot-bellied man, in a dark three-piece suit and a felt hat” (Ghosh 2002, 48) with a “loud […] self-satisfied voice” (Ibid., 21), whose bearing and manner call to mind a South Asian Hercule Poirot. Murugan proclaims himself a leading expert on Ronald Ross, and it is his reconstructive detective work of sorts that underwrites the novel’s third narrative and properly historical strand, which centers on Ross in late 1890s India, the time and place of his malaria breakthrough. The historical Ross’s own letters and Memoirs provide the non-fictional grounding of Ghosh’s novel, and direct quotations from the scientist pepper the text; however, Murugan’s contrapuntal reading of what he sees as “Discrepancies in Ronald Ross’s Account” (Ibid., 36) leads him to a more sinister reading of what the historical Ross referred to as the “‘Angel of Fate’” (Ibid., 78) guiding him fortuitously to his improbable success.


Of the three texts, it is The Calcutta Chromosome that contains the greatest temporal scope for showing the tertiary effects of the primary counterfactual substitution. In it, a shadowy group aids Ross in his research. Lacking a proper name for this group, Murugan claims it is motivated by the potential for interpersonal consciousness transference—a scientifically achieved transmigration of souls “that lets you improve on yourself in the next incarnation” (Ibid., 109)—that Ross’s breakthrough in malarial research eventually leads to. With its focus on this cast of “fringe people, marginal types” (Ibid., 106) whose contributions to science leave no mark in Western historiography or epistemology, The Calcutta Chromosome replaces standard Western-authored non-fiction narratives of scientific achievement, such as the historical Ronald Ross’s Memoirs, with a work of counterfactual imagination that locates Eastern agency within the gaps in the historical record.


Indeed, though medical history Romantically credits Ross with being the “lone genius” who “beat the Laverans and the Kochs” at their own game, not to mention “the governments of the US and France and Germany and Russia” (Ibid., 58) who were determined to make the breakthrough in the “cold fusion of [Ross’s] day” (Ibid., 55), those same facts on which this narrative depends imply that the historical Ross was a man uniquely and profoundly unlikely to have managed this feat. In Murugan’s estimation, based on Ross’s own writings, the scientist spent “about five hundred days altogether working on malaria” (Ibid., 52), which Murugan notes is a very short time compared to the scientific “heavy hitters […] who [had] been waltzing with this bug since […] young Ronald was shitting himself in his crib” (Ibid., 57). Ross, who “wasn’t a Pasteur” (Ibid., 51), lacking the “variety to his [scientific] game” (Ibid.) possessed by the Frenchman, also had to overcome a British Empire that “did everything it could to get in his way” (Ibid., 57). A “real huntin’, fishin’, shootin’ colonial type” (Ibid., 53), albeit with “Real talent” for microscopy (Ibid., 245), Ross wasn’t “exactly a front runner” in malarial research (Ibid., 69), perhaps unsurprising given Ross’s lack of awareness that the species of mosquito that would lead to his breakthrough, which he called “‘dappled-wing mosquitoes’” (Ibid., 78), already had the name anopheles.


If the facts of Ross’s time in India raise doubts concerning his well-known achievement, Ghosh’s novel also makes clear that Ross’s life prior to coming to India similarly had not provided any early signs of the success to come either. Murugan explains that Ross’s younger attempts at writing medieval romances, and later poetry, “didn’t pan out” (Ghosh 2002, 53). Moreover, despite medicine being “the last thing on [Ross’s] mind” (Ibid., 53), he is the consummate failson, one whose father, “a big general in the British army in India” (Ibid.), gets him into the “dinky little outfit” (Ibid., 57) known as the Indian Medical Service. Though Ghosh undoubtedly can expect his readers to share the skepticism of the “scholarly community” that ostracizes Murugan for his increasingly conspiratorial “notion of the so-called ‘Other Mind’” (Ibid., 37) guiding Ross in his scientific efforts, The Calcutta Chromosome shares some of Murugan’s incredulity that Ross could have made such an enormous breakthrough at the “outer edge of the [scientific] paradigm” (Ibid., 54), at least independently. It is thus the tensions and contradictions generated by the factual record itself that not only invites an alternative explanation for Ross’s success but also confers an air of counterfactuality on the known and accepted history.


Yet the notion that against all odds Ronald Ross made just such a breakthrough is not just the “official story” (Ibid., 58) inscribed in the annals of medical history; it is also literally inscribed in the streets of Calcutta. Near the city’s Presidency General Hospital, itself not far from the Victoria Memorial, Murugan finds an arch decorated with “Ronald Ross’s bearded head in profile” (Ibid., 41). Nearby is a plaque commemorating the site where Ross discovered “the manner in which malaria is conveyed by mosquitos” (41, italics in original). Carved in marble in the memorial space, Murugan finds “verses of Ross’s poem, ‘In Exile’”:

This day relenting God

Hath placed within my hand

A wondrous thing; and God

Be praised. At His command,

Seeking His secret deeds

With tears and toiling breath,

I find thy cunning seeds,

O million-murdering Death (Ibid., 41, italics in original).

Materially inscribed into the city of Calcutta, then, is not just Ronald Ross’s individual achievement, but an Orientalist narrative that makes India a silent backdrop to Western scientific triumph. Murugan emphasizes this point when he recites, from memory, lines from “In Exile” not etched in the marble:

Half-stunned I look around

And see a land of death—

Dead bones that walk the ground

And dead bones beneath.

A race of wretches caught,

Between the palms of need

And rubbed to utter naught,

The chaff of human seed (Ibid., 42, italics in original).

The textual effacement of Eastern contributions to Ross’s work in Calcutta’s public space takes place despite the fact that the historical Ross’s South Asian assistant, dubbed “‘my faithful Lutchman’” by the scientist (Ibid., 77), “planted a crucially important idea in [Ross’s] head: that the malaria vector might be one particular species of mosquito” (Ibid.). Without this intervention—which the historical Ross included in his Memoirs, but which the conventions of colonialist historiography downplay in service of a triumphalist narrative of Western accomplishment—Ross’s attention may never have been drawn to the anopheles. Subaltern insights thus explain and make possible colonialist breakthroughs; however, the role they likely played in Ross’s discovery is written out of existence in Ross’s poem and in the putatively factual documents that rely on and emulate it.


If “one could even argue that all indirect causal statements enclose counterfactuals” (Waldenegy 2011, 143), it becomes imminently clear that, for Ghosh, conventional medical histories assume, counterfactually as it turns out, that Western scientific breakthroughs owe nothing to the Eastern sites on which they occur. In rebuttal, The Calcutta Chromosome offers a counterfactual account wherein Ross’s improbable success is attributed to a mysterious “counter-science” (Ghosh 2002, 104) group, led by a syphilitic sweeper woman who possesses an “intuitive understanding of the fundamentals of the malaria problem” (Ibid., 245) despite being “completely out of the loop, scientifically speaking” (Ibid., 250). Yet, within Ghosh’s novel, this overt and undeniable counterfactuality functions primarily as a form of mimicry of the ideologically determined factual narrative that is typically deemed to be true and accurate. If, for Bhabha, mimicry results from a colonialist desire for a subject of history and difference that is “almost the same, but not quite” (2004, 124), it is not in the novel’s fantastic conclusions about the role of subaltern difference in colonial history that “menaces the discourse of colonialism” (McLeod 2012, 66); rather, it is in the novel’s imitation of colonial history’s mixture of fact and counterfact that “exposes the ambivalence at [colonial discourse’s] heart” (Ibid.). As Ghosh has it, then, The Calcutta Chromosome does not replace real history with virtual history; instead, it replaces one kind of counterfact that denies its counterfactual tendencies with another that openly flaunts them and asserts the paradoxically greater explanatory value of its own narrative.


A Liar’s Paradox in Australian Idiom: Counterfactuality and Ned Kelly

Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang resembles The Calcutta Chromosome, both because it also creatively re-deploys a primary document written by the real historical figure at its center—Ned Kelly’s famous “Jerilderie Letter” performs a similar function for Carey as Ross’s Memoirs do for Ghosh—and, more importantly, because it resolutely insists on the greater explanatory power of its own openly counterfactual narration. Taking the form of an epistolary novel, True History begins with Carey’s Ned assuring his “dear daughter” that “this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in hell if I speak false” (Carey 2002, 7). However, the very premise of Ned writing to a daughter who never existed, born to an equally fictitious woman invented by Carey, is itself the novel’s guiding and persistent counterfactual conceit. In a novel about an Australian icon with an ironic surfeit of American references—from the Faulkner epigraph that begins the novel to the Civil War inspiration for Ned’s famous armor—it is clear that Carey learned an important lesson from American authors such as Melville, Poe, and Twain, who “all understood that in America […] hoaxing was a paradoxically honest way to tell the truth” (Brantlinger 2011, 362).


This hoaxing narrative allows Carey to weigh in on the public debate in Australia over how best to remember Ned Kelly. Near the end of True History, Thomas Curnow, the last in a long series of people in the novel who betray Ned, bemoans the need for the “government protection [that] was provided him and his wife […] curious treatment for a hero, and he was called a hero more than once, although less frequently and less enthusiastically than he might have reasonably expected” (Carey 2002, 364). It is against this waning adulation that Curnow apprehends the “ever-growing adoration of the Kelly Gang,” which causes his lament: “What is it about we Australians, eh? […] What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might not we find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer? Must we always make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?” (Ibid., 364). The binary to which Curnow alludes reminds readers that the public view of the historical Ned Kelly has always positioned him, in terms equally moral and political, as either a hero of the downtrodden or as a wrongly glamourized criminal.


This binary is, as True History makes abundantly clear, the effect of the historical Ned Kelly’s status as an always already textualized figure. Immediately before he is captured, Ned dreams that his childhood teacher Mr. Irving “has finally made [Ned] monitor […] Looking down at myself I seen the ink on my hands & up my arms it were bleeding down my shirt & moleskins” (Ibid., 349). Ned’s subconscious awareness of his perennially textualized existence highlights the urgency of Ned’s writing project, as it is his most fervent desire to tell his own story in his own voice. To this end, Ned pens “58 pages to the government” that he keeps “secured around [his] body by a sash so even if [he] w[as] shot dead nobody could be confused as to what [his] corpse would say if it could speak” (Ibid., 323). In this counterfactual novel, Ned’s words highlight and replicate the linguistic turn in historiography that gave opened the door for increased counterfactual speculation in the first place: Ned’s body is his text, and his text is his body. The challenge, for Carey, is to allow the historical Kelly to speak, truly speak, in his own voice, albeit paradoxically via Carey’s counterfactual ventriloquism of him. Indeed, while the counterfactual premise animating True History is that the book is a series of found documents comprised primarily of Ned’s letters to his daughter, its counterfactual assertion is that it is through Ned’s lying voice that we arrive closer to the truth of Kelly’s lived perspective.


It is the historical Kelly’s problem of always already having been spoken for—his problem of being subaltern, in Spivak’s sense of the term—that Carey’s novel aims to solve. As a historical figure whose story has been told in various media almost relentlessly from his own day until the present[5], Kelly himself has become a historical fact central to Australian memory and identity. But, like all facts, this means precisely that Kelly’s meaning has been a site of ideological contestation. In this way, Kelly resembles what appears to be a very different kind of fact, the kind of fact central to The Calcutta Chromosome: the scientific fact. Murugan explains,

Biologists are under so much pressure to bring their findings into line with politics: right-wing politicians sit on them to find genes for everything, from poverty to terrorism, so they’ll have an alibi for castrating the poor or nuking the Middle East. The left goes ballistic if you say anything at all about the biological expression of human traits: it’s all consciousness and soul at that end of the spectrum (Ghosh 2002, 251).

Like Ghosh, then, Carey orients his novel not around amassing facts to counter the prevailing accepted understanding of the past, but, rather, by highlighting how facts are recognized as facts only to the extent that they are marketable to the audiences who wish to consume and mobilize them.


If Kelly is viewed as a hero or as a criminal, Carey suggests, it is because the facts of his story lend themselves to the same kind of ideological marketability that led to the “wholesale souveniring of armour and guns and hair and cartridges that occurred at Glenrowan on June 28th 1880” (Carey 2002, 4)[6]. The (body of) facts comprising Ned Kelly’s story sell in Australia and sell an idea of Australia. Indeed, that Carey’s is but one of many contemporary versions of Ned Kelly is indicative of how “One might […] speculate […] that the multiple revivals of Kelly at the beginning of the 21st century reflect an anxiety in the face of increasingly diverse Australian culture, and perhaps to hearken back to older and less complex narratives of national self-fashioning” (Innes 2003, 86). That Carey’s novel so blatantly revels in its own counterfactuality, framed as a true history no less, speaks to its author’s fundamental privileging of honest counterfactual imaginings over dishonest fact-based accounts.


When Obvious Falsehood Rings True: Summertime and the Desire for Intimate Insight

While True History of the Kelly Gang may trick some readers into believing that its central counterfacts are indeed factual, readers of Summertime are unlikely to be confused by its counterfactual premise, namely, that its named living author is actually dead. Other counterfactual elements included in Summertime may not be as easy to spot without more detailed or even specialized knowledge of Coetzee’s life, but they add to the novel’s overall counterfactuality. For instance, when Julia, one of the interviewees for the unauthorized biography of Coetzee that both is and is not Summertime, describes John’s life in South Africa in the 1970s, she recalls her first impression of the not-yet-famous author: “He and his father together in that mean little cottage on Tokai Road, a widower and his celibate son, two incompetents, two of life’s failures” (Coetzee 2009, 37). This statement contains two elements that are historically untrue: in the mid-1970s, Coetzee’s mother was still alive, and the author, recently returned from a period spent studying and teaching in the United States, had a wife and two children.


While this kind of information about Coetzee’s life is readily available, some elements of Summertime so overtly blur the boundary separating what is factual from what is not that readers will potentially need to read widely to determine which is which. Martin, one of the novel’s interviewees, is “broadly recognizable as [Jonathan] Crewe” (Kannemeyer 2012, 226) partly because, like Crewe, he “left South Africa in the 1970s and never returned” (Coetzee 2009, 209). In the novel, he interviews for the same university position as John and is “the successful candidate, the one who was awarded the lectureship, while Coetzee was passed over” (Coetzee Ibid., 208). Despite what Summertime tells its readers about John’s failure to land a job, Kannemeyer reports that “[i]n fact, both of them were appointed” (2012, 226). What is less certain, however, is whether “the other details about the interview accord with the facts […] but they at least give some indication of how the interview might have run” (Ibid., emphasis added). While not all scholars share Demandt’s belief that “counterfactual history describes reflections on likely events in the past which didn’t take place” (Demandt 2002, 190, quoted in Waldenegy 2011, 136), the issue of likelihood is absolutely essential to the counterfactualism of Summertime. Readers’ potential acceptance of the probability of the interview process playing out more or less as Coetzee represents it in a novel whose central conceit is an impossibility speaks to how Summertime foregrounds the question of counterfactual truthfulness.


In large part, it is the readerly desire for a clear demarcation separating the likely from the unlikely, the counterfactually honest from the simply fictional, that Coetzee plays with in Summertime. In the midst of recounting her extramarital affair with John, Julia tells Vincent, “as far as the dialogue is concerned, I am making it up as I go along. Which I presume is permitted, since we are talking about a writer. What I am telling you may not be true to the letter, but it is true to the spirit, be assured of that” (Coetzee 2009, 32). Counterfactualism in Coetzee—as in Ghosh and Carey—lives on its ability to persuade its audience that whatever its inconsistency in being true to the historical letter, it nevertheless remains truthful in another, arguably more important way. John’s cousin Margot recalls a moment when, as a boy, John had captured a locust:

John took the insect and, while she watched, pulled steadily at a long rear leg until it came off the body, dryly, without blood or whatever counts as blood among locusts. Then he released it and they watched. Each time it tried to launch itself into flight it toppled to one side, its wings scrabbling in the dust, the remaining rear leg jerking ineffectually. Kill it! she screamed at him. But he did not kill it, just walked away, looking disgusted (Ibid., 96).

If the factual basis of this disturbing episode is virtually impossible for a reader to assess, this difficulty increases when, as an adult, John tells Margot, “I remember it every day of my life […] Every day I ask the poor thing’s forgiveness. I was just a child, I say to it, just an ignorant child who did not know better […] forgive me” (Ibid.). John’s remorse, recalled in an indeterminate form by Margot and “recast […] as a narrative” (Ibid., 91) by the unauthorized biographer Vincent, asks on the one hand to be seen as Coetzee’s exercising of his artistic license to fictionalize his past; on the other hand, given that Coetzee is a known vegetarian with a perpetual concern in his writing with animal otherness, it is virtually impossible for a reader not to wonder how much of this counterfactual interview is, in essence, truthful but unverifiable.


Ultimately, finding the truth in Coetzee’s counterfact is, of course, a futile and endless, if diverting, “intellectual game” (Waldenegy 2011, 131). That there is some truth in Summertime is almost certain; that it can be gleaned from the text is much less so. In a different context and in a different kind of fiction, a South African police officer tells Mrs. Curren, the protagonist of Age of Iron, that in late apartheid South Africa “[n]othing is private anymore” (Coetzee 2010, 173); from at least Age of Iron on, the defense of the private, even and perhaps especially within a novelistic genre whose typical business is the uncovering of its protagonist’s private world, has been a central concern of Coetzee’s. For a Nobel Laureate like Coetzee, subject of an ever-expanding number of scholarly articles, monographs, and biographical writings, both authorized and not, it is precisely that which is private that remains guarded within Summertime’s counterfactual pages. If there is one verifiable truth that Summertime conveys, then, it may be that the readerly desire to truly know the successful authors we read is persistent but unfulfillable.


Postcolonial Variations on Counterfactualism

If, as Rosenfeld maintains, counterfactuals are “fundamentally presentist” (2002, 90) despite their ostensible rootedness in the past, then The Calcutta Chromosome, True History of the Kelly Gang, and Summertime are profoundly conventional virtual worlds: Summertime, for instance, would be unthinkable in its current form were it not for its author’s post-Nobel ascension to the position of a celebrity author. Similarly, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to separate True History from Carey’s contemporary writing context, in which urgent questions of subaltern voice and of Australian national identity circulated amidst Australia’s fractious “History Wars” of the 1990s, while Ghosh’s counterfactualism speaks to ongoing medical and scientific debates about Occidental and Oriental forms of knowledge.


Though the books I’ve been considering share characteristics with Western-authored counterfactuals, they also depart in significant ways. According to Evans, there are “[f]ew […] counterfactuals written from a left-wing point of view,” meaning that “counterfactuals have been more or less a monopoly of the Right” (2013, 33), a monopoly challenged by these novels. Perhaps this monopoly exists in the first place because, as Rosenfeld explains, “counterfactuals lend themselves easily to moral judgments” (2015, 140). Counterfactuals routinely view the past not simply otherwise from what was, but also as how it should have been; the flip side of this in counterfactuals involves a dystopian fantasy—the Confederacy or the Nazis win their respective wars, for instance—and the implicit message carried is that actual history turned out as it should. Yet conventional colonialist historiography tends to exhibit a similar ideological inclination to code the world in overtly moralizing terms—Europe’s civilizing mission, the White Man’s Burden, and so on—so postcolonial authors are understandably wary about simply replicating moral binarism, even if only to invert it. In True History, for instance, Ned’s ink-covered arms on the eve of his capture by the Victorian state police (Carey 2002, 349) are reflective of the historical Kelly’s inescapable textualization. Conceived in his own day and in Carey’s as both a “feared & famous” (Ibid., 335) “horse-thief and […] murderer” (Ibid., 364) and as a hero of the downtrodden “convict blood” (Ibid., 337) of Australia, Ned emerges in Carey’s telling as neither hero nor criminal, but, rather, as a victim of historic “UNFAIRNESS” (Ibid., 312) and a man more sinned against than sinning.


For all their ostensible freedom to reinvent the past, counterfactuals are remarkably old-fashioned in how the conceive of history. Evans writes that “rare indeed are the contributions to the genre that stray beyond the realm of high politics and warfare” (2013, 107) as counterfactual history “not only assumes but implicitly preaches a history where politics and warfare are the most important subjects to be studied” (Ibid., 108). As a mark of their constitutive conservatism, counterfactual writings reject historical determinism, which they associate with a Marxist dialectical view of history, and thus enshrine a vision of history characterized by contingency, chance, and the power of the individual to shape history, as counterfactuals “often accentuate personal factors (human agency) instead of, in particular, structures” (Waldenegy 2011, 145). Consequently, counterfactuals revive the “great men” view of history that has largely faded away in contemporary historiography.


Again, postcolonial variations on the genre reveal themselves to be at odds with its conventional ideological orientation. Though Ghosh’s novel is about one of the great minds of Western medical science, Ronald Ross never actually appears in a novel far more concerned with “fringe people, marginal types” (Ghosh 2002, 106) in late-19th-century Calcutta and with “Other Mind” obsessed scholars “ostracis[ed] from the scholarly community” (Ibid., 37) in late-20th-century New York. Summertime is about a purportedly great author, but the people whom the would-be biographer questions about Coetzee repeatedly refer to him in terms that undercut and pillory him. While Evans may claim that “true counterfactuals […] involve drawing historical consequences, often far-reaching in nature, from altered historical causes” (2013, 94), altered historical facts in the novels by Ghosh, Carey, and Coetzee neither reveal the contingency of the past nor result in meaningful consequences: Ross, regardless of his being guided to the breakthrough rather than coming to it independently, still discovers how malaria is transmitted to humans; Ned Kelly, however effectively his loving epistles may remove him from a false hero-criminal binary, still kills police officers at Stringybark Creek and is captured after a standoff with police at Glenrowan; and J.M. Coetzee, despite his exposure in Summertime as an unsavoury son and unsatisfactory lover, still begins down a path to authorship that results in his becoming a writer significant enough to be written about. Thus, where counterfactuals generally dwell in worlds where history turns out otherwise than it did in fact, postcolonial variations on the mode result not so much in an ultimate emphasis on a difference in outcome as in unexpected and sometimes troubling sameness.



The reluctance of the postcolonial novels I discuss here to envision far-reaching consequences from the historical changes they posit raises several questions about the source of this reluctance. To what extent, for instance, does it reflect broader postcolonial disillusionment and pessimism? In an implicit rebuttal of the anti-determinism hardwired into the Western counterfactual, do postcolonial variants have recourse only to a depressingly deterministic view of colonial history? Given that, read in national terms, Carey’s, Ghosh’s, and Coetzee’s novels are variations on colonial post-ness—post-independence, post-Partition, and post-apartheid, respectively—how much of their unwillingness to imagine profoundly different possible worlds is bound up with each author’s sense that historical change may be illusory?


While such contextual explanations do present themselves, my sense is that postcolonial counterfactuals are resistant to imagining wildly divergent possible worlds primarily because of the global routes of transmission that engender their existence and success. After all, postcolonial counterfactualism—as represented by The Calcutta Chromosome, True History, and Summertime—must be seen at some level as being bound up with and contributing to a greater global openness to counterfactual thinking, both generally and in the Western academy. As Chakrabarty observes, “the globality of academia is not independent of the globality that the European modern has created” (2000, 46), nor, I would add, is it any more independent of the globality that the European postmodern has created. The authors considered here are very much at home in the postmodern academy—Ghosh and Coetzee both hold PhDs, and all three authors figure prominently in university course syllabi and in academic papers and monographs; they, and the counterfactual historical fictions they produce are thus open to consumption within the “mechanisms of incorporation” (Ibid., 98) that the academy produces. Ultimately, postcolonial counterfactualism of the variety produced by Ghosh, Carey, and Coetzee reveals itself to be riven by ideological and formal tensions that both bring it into opposition with globalized Western counterfactualism and, at the same time, render postcolonial variants open to absorption within the broader phenomenon.

[1] The phrase “telling it like it wasn’t” so perfectly encapsulates the act of writing counterfactually that Catherine Gallagher uses it for the title of her monograph.

[2] It is more than just professional historians whose interest in counterfactuals has been piqued, especially in recent years: Kathleen Singles, referencing novels such as Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle and Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, notes that “[s]uch works have become a veritable pop-cultural phenomena” even “outside a specialized fan base” (2011, 180). Counterfactual imaginings have, in fact, become such a “familiar feature” of contemporary culture that “the forms of its propagation continue to proliferate” in very different genres of fictional and non-fictional writing (Gallagher 2018, 1-2).

[3] If the general association of fiction with falsehood goes back at least as far as the emergence of the English novel in the eighteenth century, the specific designation of a group of Australian authors as postmodernist liars is the brainchild of Helen Daniel. Her seminal survey of a range of Australian new novelists, Liars, discusses the fictions of Peter Carey and others as a distinctively Australian iteration of a global trend.

[4] In “The Novel Today,” Coetzee explains that a novel that rivals history “operates in terms of its own procedures and issues its own conclusions,” rather than operating “in the terms of the procedures of history and eventuat[ing] in conclusions that are checkable by history” (Coetzee 1988, 3). While the details of any counterfactual novel, including Summertime, are certainly checkable, it is utterly unclear how one might check, for instance, the claim by a fictional (or fictionalized?) character named Julia “John Coetzee was not my prince…if you have been listening carefully you will see by now how very unlikely it was that he could have been a prince, a satisfactory prince, to any maiden on earth” (Coetzee, 2009, 80).

[5] One reviewer of Carey’s novel laments “Hasn’t Kelly country been worn almost to death?” (Clancy 2004, 53).

[6] Glenrowan was the site of the historical Kelly’s capture by colonial police forces.


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Brantlinger, Patrick. “Notes on the Postmodernity of Fake(?) Aboriginal Literature”. Postcolonial Studies Vol. 14, No. 4 (2011): 355-71.

Carey, Peter. True History of the Kelly Gang. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Chambers, Claire. “Postcolonial Science Fiction: Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome”. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2003): 57-72.

Clancy, Laurie. “Selective History of the Kelly Gang: Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly”. Review of True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, Overland No. 175 (Winter 2004): 53-8.

Coetzee, J.M. Age of Iron. London: Penguin, 2010.

Coetzee, J.M. “The Novel Today”.  Upstream Vol. 6, No. 1 (1988): 2-5,

Coetzee, J.M. Summertime. London: Harvill Secker, 2009.

Demandt, Alexander. “Kontrafaktische Geschichte”. In Lexikon Geschichtswissenschaft: Hundert Grundbegriffe, edited by Stefan Jordan, 190-93. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2002.

Evans, Richard J. Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. Waltham, MA.:  Brandeis UP, 2013.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Calcutta Chromosome. New York: Perennial, 2001.

Gallagher, Catherine. Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2018.

Head, Dominic. The Cambridge Introduction to J.M. Coetzee. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Innes, Lynn. “Resurrecting Ned Kelly”. Sydney Studies in English, Vol. 29 (2003): 83-94.

Kannemeyer, J.C. J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing. Translated by Michiel Heyns. Melbourne, Scribe 2012.

Lee, Rachel C. “Parasexual Generativity and Chimeracological Entanglements in Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome”. The Scholar & Feminist Online, Vol. 11, No.3 (2013): 1-15.

McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. 2nd edition. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2012.

Ramone, Jenni. Postcolonial Theories. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

Rosenfeld, Gavriel D. Hi Hitler!:How the Nazi Past Is Being Normalized in Contemporary

Culture. Cambridge UP, 2015.

Rosenfeld, Gavriel D. “Why Do We Ask “What If?”: Reflections on the Function of Alternate History.” History and Theory, Vol. 41, No. 4 (2002) pp. 90-103.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Vintage, 1994.

Singles, Kathleen. “‘What If?’ and Beyond: Counterfactual History in Literature.” Review of

Kontrafaktische Geschichtsdarstellung Untersuchungen an Romanen von Günter Grass,

Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Brussig, Michael Kleeberg, Philip Roth und Christoph

Ransmayr. Studien zur historischen Poetik 4 by Andreas Martin Widmann, The

Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 2 (June 2011): 180-8.

Waldenegy, Georg Christoph. “What-If? Counterfactuals and History”. In Counterfactual Thinking – Counterfactual Writing, edited by Dorothee Birke, Michael Butler, and Tilmann Köppe, 130-49. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011.

Widmann, Andreas Martin. “Plot vs. Story: Towards a Typology of Counterfactual Historical Novels”. In Counterfactual Thinking – Counterfactual Writing, edited by Dorothee Birke, Michael Butler, and Tilmann Köppe, 170-89. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011.