Few works go beyond the obvious and remain entrenched in the history of a people

Does it ever happen that a single book defines an entire nation? In its sweep, in its expanse, in its narration or its intent? Maybe only rarely. The ancients had a vision which, simply put, was epic. Nations merged into narrations and narrations defined nations. IliadAeneidMahabharataDivine Comedy – literary coliseums – in front of which generations stood, dwarfed and awestruck.

But not anymore. The idea of a nation has become too complicated to let a single work brand its skin like a signature. But some works in contemporary literature come close.

No other Indian English novel has fitter claim to the tag than Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Stretching from early days of the last century through the day India was parted like a page, to the time of the Emergency, Salim Sinai, whose “poor body, singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history,” has a life that is also a clockwork history of the young, postcolonial nation; its expansive chaos bettered only by Sinai’s petulant eccentricity.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart evoked pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria in a way that shattered many of the Conradian visualisations of the dark continent. Okonkwo, the young leader of the Ibo tribe is typically African: sturdy, ruthless and proud. He manages his people with a strong simplicity that mixes violence with compassion. And he is both trapped and energised by a mix of archaic regulations and contemporary practices. Much like most of Africa itself.

When Jaroslav Hašek wrote The Good Soldier Švejk, nobody took the novel seriously. Švejk is a comic saga of a simpleton who lets history flow through him without quite knowing that innocence is often his only guard against the state and the world which exploit him. Švejk remains the irreverent classic that chronicles how the Continent’s undiscerning population came to terms with its tensions.

Leopold Bloom is the alter-ego of Švejk. He struggles to maintain his sombre dignity even in the face of a life crumbling in front of him. Despite its verbosity, James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses is the bible of Modernism and embodies the wasteland of post-Christian, early twentieth-century Europe – without belief, clueless, self-deluding and tragic.

In the States, realism-worshippers dominated literature, until Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 happened. Catch-22 gave American literature a continental, existential edge that had eluded it for long. America’s counterculture long celebrated the echoes of Captain Yossarian, the smart bombardier who survived suicidal insanity but failed to claim his propriety over sanity.     

 “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” These undying words from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s mercurial One Hundred Years of Solitude have remained frozen in the Columbian imagination. Set in the fictional Macondo, Solitude is both a family saga and the history of Colombia. Epical and minimalist, mixing realism with fantasy, Solitude – in a narrative laced with subversive energy – chronicles the decay of a town and the irony of human existence caught in it. And remains perhaps the most valuable example of a work of fiction that has defined a nation.