Rushdie, Ondaatje, Naipaul, Bakhtin and the Others

by Anthony R. Guneratne

© 1997 by Anthony R. Guneratne

To Robert Stam, Ella Shohat, Hamid Naficy and Trinh Minh-ha, . . .
and to Ken Saro-Wiwa [below] who can no longer walk with us.

picture of Saro-Wiwa

Paper submitted for the Online Conference on Postcolonial Theory

"When," an Indian friend of mine (with a progressive cast of mind and a firm conviction in the idea of technological advancement) asked in exasperation, "does the state of postcoloniality end?"Note Questions of the same order have been plaguing literary scholars for a while, and a number of profound thinkers and theorists have done their best to abolish the term "postcolonial" altogether. In articles first published in 1994 in the journal Social Text, both Ella Shohat and Anne McClintock point out that "postcolonialism" never really existed except as a designation of convenience, and that it is no more, in essence, than colonialism attached to a "post-" (and straining at its tether to reassert its modes of thought).1 In an essay of more than a decade earlier Salman Rushdie made a seemingly parallel argument: he, too, sought to banish an insufficient term, "Commonwealth," which according to him creates an "exclusive ghetto" whose effect is to change the meaning of English literature into "something far narrower, something topographical, nationalistic, possibly even racially segregationist." Rushdie went on to point out that "at best, what is called 'Commonwealth literature' is positioned below English literature proper," placing "Eng. Lit. at the center of the world and the rest of the world at the periphery," a situation which inverts priorities and obscures more fundamental literary issues.2

There is a distinction, however, between Rushdie's denunciation of "Commonwealth" and the no less passionate attacks of recent critics on "postcolonialism." For Shohat and McClintock the thing described by the offending word is no more real than the world mapped by colonialism, while for Rushdie it is not the thing described (to which he permits a tangible existence) but the concept represented by the term itself which is an insidious "chimera." Rushdie's essay is replete with references to writers-Indian, Latin American and African-who do share a certain commonality of experience, and throughout he is a celebrant of what he calls a "transnational, cross-lingual process of pollination"3 (what the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin terms, with no less approbation, "polyglossia").4 Indeed, even in his fictions Rushdie seems to delight in the word "mongrel," a term he associates particularly with the grand melange that is India, but which can be applied more broadly to a polyglot state.

The occasion for my embracing "mongrel," however, is not Rushdie's predilection for it, but its use in 1996 by an Australian politician to describe the offspring of parents of mixed race. As a term which has already won some celebrity in other contexts, and one which would easily encompass such freckled monsters as Joyce and Yeats in the same polyglot potpourri (and those poor creatures could only wish they were postcolonial), it seems to have no less a ring to it than other fortunate pejoritives like "Impressionist" or "Fauve," and surely could be adopted with no less felicity than Aimé Césaire's "négritude." Moreover, the program for a theory of mongrel literature is already present, albeit in a form I do not find entirely acceptable, in Rushdie's essay:

. . . if we were to forget about "Commonwealth Literature," we might see that there is a kind of commonality about much literature, in many languages, emerging from those parts of the world which one could loosely term the less powerful, or the powerless. The magical realism of the Latin Americans influences Indian-language writers in India today. The rich, folk-tale quality of a novel like Sandro of Chegem, by the Muslim Russian Fazil Iskander, finds its parallels in the work-for instance-of the Nigerian, Amos Tutuola, or even Cervantes. It is possible, I think, to begin to theorize common factors between writers from these societies-poor countries, or deprived minorities in powerful countries-and to say that much of what is new in world literature comes from this group. This seems to me to be a "real" theory, bounded by frontiers which are neither political nor linguistic but imaginative.5
Where I think Rushdie falters in his definition is in vacillating in his choice of umbrella under which his writers shelter, at one moment an economic and political one, at another "imaginative." Interestingly, long before Rushdie placed the writers from the margins at the center of "what is new in world literature," Mikhail Bakhtin had made rather similar claims about the distinctive and innovative qualities of novelistic discourse.6 Whereas Rushdie resorts in this instance to a commonality based on powerlessness and penury (effects, surely, rather than causes), Bakhtin believed that novelistic discourse thrived in the periphery of Hellenic culture and continued to thrive in the marginal reaches of societies because it is at those margins that different cultures interact and breed new forms. According to Bakhtin the reason that a writer such as Mario Vargas Llosa would be as receptive to Tagore as Rushdie claims, is that Vargas Llosa's "literary consciousness," like Tagore's and like Rushdie's, "was bilingual," and that the literature of magic realism was born in the "interanimation" of different tongues, which whether native or not, were all experienced as indigenous.7

Of course, as with most of the fashionable theorists of recent times, Bakhtin has already been appropriated by postcolonial criticism, and the nomenclature Bakhtin found necessary to invent-diologism, heteroglossia, and even a term we have come to associate with Homi Bhabha, hybridity-has filtered into a general critical consciouness from "Discourse in the Novel," his most (and, one sometimes gets the impression, only) studied essay.8 Yet the manner in which Bakhtin's terminology has been applied demands precisely the kind of particularization Shohat appears to insist on when she distinguishes between post-colonial, post-coloniality and post-colonialism.9 Bakhtin, the authority cited to lend prestige and weight to a theoretical claim, belongs to the sphere of postcolonialism, a critical practice whose foundations were laid by scholar-immigrants to the West (Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha), but which has since become the province of metropolitan scholars and intended primarily for metropolitan consumption. The Bakhtin who continues to be part of a struggle against authoritarian discourse, the Bakhtin who defended the novel in its darkest hour in Stalin's Soviet union,10 and who like Franz Fanon was scarred by exile and maimed by his history, is-like Fanon-a prophet of postcoloniality, which is that mongrel, polyglot and fantastically polyvalent inheritance felt so acutely by Rushdie, the no-placeness which circumstance has decreed a home to so many of us. And so it is no coincidence that what Bakhtin valued in the novel is what has animated the artistic efflorescence of this century and of many other times, its resistance to the tides of History in giving voice to the fringe-dwellers of societies and civilizations, to the individuals who resist hegemony.

It is with this Bakhtinian sense of the validity of the pétit histoire, sitting in a cafe in Bloomington, Indiana, where, almost ten years to the day previously Michael Holquist had presented me with a copy of his translation of The Dialogic Imagination, that I answered my progressive friend as succinctly as I could: "When we stop putting ropes around the necks of our writers so that their oil pipelines are kept clear." This was shortly after the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was put to death for having led the protests of the Ogoni people against the exploitation of their lands by Western petroleum companies. The means by which colonialism turned "us" against others of us was to make us unsure of who we were, to mess up our pronouns, to fragment our subjectivity in such a way as to divide us from our pre-colonial past and our post-colonial future with demarcations as fictive and as persistent as the maps of Africa and the Middle East. The horror of it, and I refer here to the "horror" of Coppola rather than of Conrad, is that generations after colonists have departed from our shores we are still disputing the imaginary lines they drew on our landscapes, and that we yet remain the grunts who do the dirty work of the oil companies. The idea that colonialism has ended, which is one aspect of the big postcolonial party we have celebrated in recent seasons-quite unjustifiably according to Shohat and Robert Stam11-is to ignore the politics and the economics of surrogacy, and to fail to grasp that the condition of our postcoloniality seems so often to differ little from that of the chess computer which is doomed forever to repeat the mistakes programmed into it. How abysmally little things have changed since the time when, for the promise of a tithe of a tithe of petroleum profits and a spot of military "aid" from a number of Western powers, the once and future Nigerian government blasted and starved the rebellious Biafran people into surrender.12 In the months during which Saro-Wiwa waited to die ordinary people all around the world (though frighteningly few from Asia or Latin America) carried placards and marched in demonstrations to secure his release, but I saw no tidal wave of grief or outrage in academia, only the fashionably muted eddies of discontent among the new elites of postcolonial theory.

We may not be as wretched as we once were, but we are still, to use Fanon's piercing phrase, "hemmed in"13 by a History which is, in Michel de Certeau's memorable description of it, "homogenous to the documents of Western activity."14 The answer I needed to give to my friend is also the reason I take pains to contrast the Bakhtin of postcolonialism with the Bakhtin of postcoloniality, for progress is, amongst other things, an ideology and very often an ideology of dependence, and those of us who, progressively, rush to adopt the innovations of "the West" face the same dangers as "Third World" infants fed on Nestlé's milk powders, becoming dependent to the point of addiction on a mode of institutional practice which may not be particularly healthy for us. Which is not to say that any innovation or technological advancement-such as the internet-need be rejected out of hand because it is still in the hands of the privileged. So were paper and the Latin script once upon a time, according to the great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who is less concerned about the importation of American popular culture and methods of communication into Indonesia through television than about the medium's insidious implantation of consumerist desire.15 On the contrary, the internet, like the codex and typeface, may one day be turned into a counter-hegemonic instrument, providing the virtual space without boundaries where a community whose existence is now no more than a figment of critical idealism can overcome the divisions and the divisiveness that elsewhere keeps us apart.

In our apprehension of the unfamiliar we need not guard against the vessels crossing the sea, only the red tide of prefabricated ideas which for all their beauty may poison. But to set sail with the postcolonialists is also to subscribe to a deep dependence on tenure battles and academic self-promotion, to forget as we have been taught to forget, that the Titanic contained passengers from all walks of life, and that when it collided with the iceberg the passengers given the lifeboats were the privileged ones from the upper decks. Even at the risk of a proliferation of mixed metaphors I must argue that there is no compelling reason why those of us who were once colonized should feel especially flattered by the interest taken in us and our problems; like any marketplace in which innovation, even meaningless innovation, is an end in itself, the fashion houses of academic haute couteur have allowed postcolonialism, just as they have allowed deconstruction or New Historicism, a few gaudy seasons of ascendancy in which to strut its stuff on the critical catwalks, and postcolonialism is a fashion that is decidedly on the way out. If we continue to depend on hand-me-downs, and the laws of supply and demand or the bilge rats mitigate against them arriving whole, then once metropolitan scholarship has rediscovered its leotards the rest of us will be left grasping for fig-leaves. The metropolitan abolition of postcolonialism does not relieve us of our postcoloniality; they may be free, but we would still be hemmed in.

Another danger that postcolonialism poses is the problem of Rushdie's monstrous "Commonwealth" in which ghettoism leads to a parochial and reductive privileging of English over Bengali (or as Shohat points out about the once-programmatic anthology The Empire Writes Back, over any other native language),16 or of French, Spanish, or Portuguese-the languages of colonial dominance-over local or regional languages. In Pramoedya's Child of All Nations, the second novel in his Buru Quartet, the development of the main protagonist's anti-colonial consciousness coincides with his rejection of the foreign tongues on whose mastery he prides himself (until he finds that those languages are the ones used to master him).17 And indeed, one of the most striking renunciations of a colonial inheritance has been the gesture of casting off the colonizing languages, whether it was Tanizaki's return to classical Japanese literature at the tail-end of the post-war American occupation, or of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's abandonment of English as the tongue which continues to hold Kenya in thrall. It is an unfortunate misperception, but a common one, that writers from the former colonies who have mastered the speech of colonists must necessarily be the more talented ones, and that their use of the language of mastery is a matter of preference as it was once of preferment. In his novel Ambiguous Adventure Cheikh Hamidou Kane in fact identifies the acquired colonial language of his protagonist-in this case French-as that which splits his subjectivity, that which sets him apart from his culture and which bears witness like a scar to his inner-exile.18

Whether in the aftermath of colonialism a writer uses her mother tongue or an imposed language, her words are of necessity heteroglossic, part of a "post"-Levi-Straussian transcultural bricolage, and it is precisely the exploration of the heteroglossic plenitude of post-colonizing languages and of post-colonized languages that have drawn together the people whom colonialism had dispersed, dislocated and displaced: Marguerite Duras and Camara Laye; Pablo Neruda and Miguel Asturias; Franz Fanon and George Lamming; Nuruddin Farah and Wole Soyinka; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Nadine Gordimer. And the power of Rushdie's use of English, or of Soyinka's, or of Achebe's, or of Saro-Wiwa's, is not in its effective mimicry but in what the latter dubbed its "rotten" quality, the same decomposition of the tongue in the moribund corpse of Empire whose decay once fertilized the prose of Twain and Joyce.

As long as imperial (or we could call it geographical) colonialism still flourished, the boundaries it established were pseudo-hermetic; with its collapse came a dissolution of nationality as a stable concept, and of language as a teleology. Perhaps the self-consciousness of second-generation postcolonial writers like Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje, whose lives barely intersected with colonial occupation but whose works are suffused with a sense of a damaged past, arises from an awareness that English is, of necessity, a compromised-which is to say mongrel-expression of thought, one that is not merely trans-national but translational as well.19 One of Rushdie's many defective narrators, the "I" of Shame, confidently asserts that: "It is generally believed that something is always lost in translation; I cling to the notion-and use, in evidence, the success of Fitzgerald-Khayyam [Edward Fitzgerald's perfumed translations of Omar Khayyam]-that something can also be gained."20 Perhaps this is what Anita Desai also had in mind in In Custody, when English becomes her only means as an Indian writer of recording the plight of the Indo-Persian language of lyric poetry, Urdu, as it succumbs to the tightening stranglehold of Hindi, a constriction figured as a succession of imprisoning spaces, of maze-like bazaars and decaying mansions. Unlike Desai's secure (if diffident) narrator, Rushdie's is racked by doubts and contradictory impulses. Scarcely ten pages after praising the profits of translation he laments: "This word: 'shame.' No, I must write it in its original form, not in this peculiar language tainted by wrong concepts and accumulated detritus of its owners' unrepented past, this Angrezi in which I am forced to write, and so for ever alter what is written . . . Sharam, that's the word. For which this paltry 'shame' is a wholly inadequate translation."21 "To unlock a society," says this same narrator half-way through his tale, "look at its untranslatable words."22

Less deceptively, but no less persuasively, Ondaatje (a long-time resident of Canada, just as Rushdie is of Britain) begins his semi-autobiography, Running in the Family, with a narrator named "he":

He snaps on the electricity just before daybreak. For twenty five years he has not lived in this country, though up to the age of eleven he slept in rooms like this-with no curtains, just delicate bars across the windows so no one could break in. And the floors of red cement polished smooth, cool against bare feet.

Dawn through a garden. Clarity to leaves, fruit, the dark yellow of King Coconut. This delicate light is allowed only a brief moment of the day. In ten minutes the garden will lie in a blaze of heat, frantic with noise and butterflies.

Half a page-and the morning is already ancient.

A faded photograph and a sentence later the narrator is himself again, and enters the next chapter to announce that "What began it all was the bright bone of a dream I could barely hold onto."23 This dream it turns out is the dream which creates the book, the dream of a lost childhood, the exile's dream of return to a time vaguely-remembered but vividly imagined. And it is this maternal womb of a place left behind, whose loss is like the "wound" which according to Julia Kristeva causes the exile to wander, an exile whose wanderings create a fiction of compacted memories: the fiction, according to Timothy Weiss, of Joyce and Beckett, of Rilke and Grass, of García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, of Aimé Césaire and Wilson Harris.24

The place to which Ondaatje tries desperately to return, a fiction called Sri Lanka, appears to have no present but is built up in sedimentary layers of memories piled on memories. But the layers do not solidify. Ondaatje begins to define the boundaries of his search by prefacing his words with the curvy contours of a map of Sri Lanka, but even before we turn the page we are confronted by a contradiction, two reports about the heart of darkness, one by a medieval precursor of Marco Polo who claimed to have travelled to the island, the other by a contemporary journalist enraptured by foreign wonders. Taken together, the statements defy any attempts to pin realities onto that map. "I saw in this island fowls as big as our country geese having two heads," notes Oderic of Pordenone in his journal, while the columnist of the Ceylon Sunday Times insists that Americans could put men on the moon because they knew English, while the Sinhalese and Tamils whose knowledge of English was poor "thought that the earth was flat." Memories can be sustained as well as eroded by language, and sometimes both at once. At the other end of his book, as the narrator makes his long list of acknowledgements, he seems to have grown closer to an understanding of Sri Lankan laughter even if his Sri Lanka remains a fabrication: "And if those listed above disapprove of the fictional air I apologize and can only say that in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts."25

Ondaatje is most assuredly not alone in finding himself turning to autobiography to negotiate a divided subjectivity. In genres as diverse and seemingly incompatible as the academic essay and the nouveau roman Hamid Naficy and Marguerite Duras have created images of themselves which seem to stand apart from the person (the explicit or implicit "I") who writes. Naficy's "Theorizing 'Third-World' Film Spectatorship" oscillates between a first- and a third-person narration, attempting futilely-but with a conscious and instructive futility-to reconcile the almost irreconcilable "then" and "now" of the immigrant. Duras's sense of a nearly unbridgeable break between past and present is even more acute, for the return of her French narrator to the spaces of her childhood in Vietnam is a return to places and to people without names, to a character so distanced from the author that her "I" is often treated as if it were "she," and which indeed sometimes assumes third person forms; it is the "I" of a perpetual extasis, and of the ectasy of remembrance. When Duras returns more than a decade later to the same space and time to fill some of the empty spaces in The Lover she finds herself writing an entirely new novel, now The North China Lover, whose very process of naming and identifying relinquishes a part of the hypnotic quality of indeterminacy, the truth of exile,26 for the very different truth of reconciliation with the past.

In discussing the autobiographical imperatives of postcolonial exile I have had to refer, repeatedly, to indeterminacies of time and space. What I have underlined, the spatio-temporal functions of literary imagining, are at the center of one of Bakhtin's most important (and least understood) essays, one in which he introduces the term chronotope, which Holquist and Caryl Emerson define as: "A unit of analysis for studying texts according to the ratio and nature of temporal and spatial categories . . . An optic for reading texts as x-rays of the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring."27 We could succumb easily to the extraordinary sensitivity to time and space we find in writers like the Naipauls (Shiva and V.S.), whose descriptions of people and places are a concatenation of minutely observed surfaces, or like Ondaatje, who in The English Patient casts his incantatory spell by weaving together chronotopes, the vast, unmappable and timeless deserts of memory and a present of enclosures, of shell-shattered cloisters and explosive craters, all of which lend themselves readily to the most tedious academic considerations of "spatio-temporal constructions." But I think that the mere borrowing of "chronotope" as a descriptive term belies both the importance of Bakhtin's idea and the validity of mongrel literatures as a means of exploring the substance of chronotopes and in so doing suggest ways of reconstructing Bakhtin's own fragmented subjectivity, of piecing together the rigorous formalist of the chronotope essay and the "baggy monster" of carnival and cultural studies who, significantly, always referred to himself in the outmoded academic "we" and never as "I."

In one of the most important critical studies by a mongrel writer, The Womb of Space, Wilson Harris describes a "philistinism" which causes the exilic Caribbean author to reject his surroundings and erect a defensive shell around himself,28 the kind of thorny carapace that has so irritated V.S. Naipaul's many critics. To get to their fleshy parts, therefore, one has to find them at their least guarded, when they are faced with the imaginative dilemma of having to place their surrogates, the onion-layered "he," "she" or "I," in the imaginary chronotopes of their creation. "The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite," claims the narrator of Shame. "There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exists, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centering to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate. My view is that I am not writing only about Pakistan."29 Here Rushdie's "I" stands outside his fiction, observing a chronotope superimposed over the documentary chronotope of "Pakistan" as invoked, for instance, by V.S. Naipaul's "I" when he goes there to observe the "real" Islam in situ. The space-time which Rushdie thus creates, as transparently allegorical as are the shawls woven with historical scenes by one of the characters, this land he dubs "Peccavistan," allows him not only to record the sins committed therein but also-as seldom happens in the imaginary lands we read about in newspapers-to turn the weak and the helpless into a monster of retribution, a monster which, when Rushdie's narrator claims that he writes not only of Pakistan, we must assume is still on the prowl. And this monster, I imagine, is not too different from the monster of Bakhtin's carnival, a monster lurking in the subterranean caverns of "folk culture" but waiting to spring forth and tear apart the forces of authority.

Rushdie's superimposition of his homeland on the geographical Pakistan insistently points us to another common characteristic of the literary products of postcoloniality; namely, their frequent modification or even abandonment of the generic boundaries inherited from the literatures of colonizing cultures, most strikingly in their erasure of the boundary separating the fictional from the non-fictional. Thus Rushdie's satiric seriousness also has parallels to Carl Muller's comical and scabrous reminiscences of his vanishing ethnic community in Sri Lanka, a hybrid form to which he applies the coinage "faction," defined with a cheekiness worthy of Ondaatje as "more fact than fiction, if you please, but that will always remain, I suppose, a matter of personal opinion."30 More common yet are claims to factuality which disguise fictions, as Wimal Dissenayake and Carmen Wickramagamage have pointed out in the case of V.S. Naipaul's travel writings which, for all their elaborate apparatus of objectivity, borrow preexisting descriptive topi.31 And just as Naipaul's fictions are those of a journalist, and Ondaatje's those of a lyric poet, Rushdie's fictions are narrated by an "I" who cannot forget that he is at heart an essayist, who cannot help lapsing from time to time into non-diegetic commentary and Calvinoesque interactions with a second-person addressee.32

Where in these mongrel works the narrator's "I" is in its purest form as representation of "self," where the onion has been peeled to the point of tears, is probably in the moments of unadulterated emotion: the Rushdie who defends himself against murderous accusations of apostasy,33 the Rushdie who claws at the jugular of the Commonwealth because of the patronizing comments of a lady from the British Council and the no less patronizing comments of a university literature don,34 or the Chinua Achebe who finds himself having to denounce Conrad anew because of a chance encounter in a parking lot.35 What is most extraordinary in these instances are that these post-colonial encounters took place in those bastions of progress, universities, Cambridge in Rushdie's case and Amherst, Massachusetts, in Achebe's.

There already exists a vast literature of encounters-Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra on the Nile, Stanley's Stanley and Livingston in darkest Africa, Bulgakov's Jesus and Pontius Pilate somewhere far from Moscow-but these post-colonial encounters have something very special about them. Read, for instance Kurt Vonnegut's tear-stained eyewitness account of the slaughter of Biafra in the midst of whose death-throes a young Achebe is reduced to writing poetry.36 Or witness Naipaul first setting foot in India and encountering another "faceless" Naipaul who, lacking the distinctiveness of the Naipaul of Trinidad and England, could "sink without trace into that Indian crowd."37 Or consider the Berkeley of R.K. Narayan, where encounters with wonderfully pleasant people leave him so translated by sweetness and light ["I have lived under the illusion that I would never have to leave Berkeley. All the friends I seem to have in the world seem to be gathered there"] that one wonders why in the end he did pack up his bags and return to Mysore or, as Naipaul would have it, to his own imaginary retreat from reality, Malgudi, the chronotope to which Narayan returns in all his fictions, a place even more idealized and even more prone to delicate ironies than the real counterpart Narayan describes with such affection in his autobiography.38

It is through an irony somewhat harsher than those we encounter in Malgudi that I, too, had my most memorable post-colonial encounter at Berkeley where I was briefly in the employ (as a grader of essays) of a fairly well-known literary don, and a Shakespeare pundit at that, in the English department. Literary dons, apparently, are not that far apart whether they reside in the heart of the Olde Empire or in the young Wild West. In addition to his general dissatisfaction with my illiteracy, this don regarded me-the lone darkling thrush in a flock of graders-as the person best qualified to carry his books and to set up his microphone in anticipation of his advent in class. When I objected to the procedure and suggested that The Complete Works of W.S. be kept in a cupboard in the classroom, I was vouchsafed the enigmatic reply, "So we don't plant cotton," a line which he probably felt I would not recognize since it comes from a classic of American musical theater and presumes a certain cultural competence. When, eventually, our falling-out became a matter of departmental concern, my Complete Works were already packed and waiting to go. Uneasy lie the heads that bear the white lie's burden.

Needless to say, my academic derailment was nothing on the scale of Paul's epiphanal collapse on the way to Damascus, or Gandhi's ejection from a train at Bloemfontein, but it did change the direction of my life sufficiently for me to appreciate Naipaul's anger at Narayan's "almost hermetic philosophical system," a system which valorizes a quietistic retreat from harsh realities and from the polyglossic influence of alien ideas.39 Naipaul parodies Narayan viciously, nowhere more so than in In a Free State, in which Santosh, one of a gaggle of character-narrators, retreats into a closet rather than face the terrifying freedom of Washington D.C. (the allegory is applied rather thickly), and who observes rioters setting the city on fire with the grim satisfaction that his "suttee" could expiate the sin of sexual contamination by a black woman. Naipaul's willingness to vilify, willy-nilly, all that he encounters, has not won him many friends, but the facile and near-universal imputations of a consistent heart-felt racism and orientalist misogyny seldom survive close scrutiny. Which is not to say that Naipaul may not be a misogynistic racist, but rather that most criticism of his work is trivial, hopelessly oblivious to the complexity of his tortured negotiations of his own post-coloniality, to his near-permanent alienation as expressed through a series of surprisingly different and surprisingly defective narrators who are placed in an astonishingly similar succession of chronotopes. Santosh's ridiculous claustrophilia and Salim's terrified retreat from the freedoms of London in A Bend in the River, are not only part of an unceasing vendetta against what Naipaul regards as dreams and illusions, but also an admission of his own claustrophobia (however far he travels, he always seems to end up in the same unpleasant, overcrowded place). He has the wanderer's fear of attachment: the things in which his characters place surplus value are chimerical, like Mr. Biswas's eternally mortgaged house, a torture chamber to which he grows attached as do many of Naipaul's characters to their balls and chains.

The great critical difficulty posed by Naipaul is, of course, that there is no real center to his novels, no easily-defined point-of-view. The unnamed "I" of The Mystic Masseur, his first novel, appears only twice, on both occasions to redeem the easily lost truth and to deflate the pretensions of the protagonist, while the omnipresent "I" of a late novel, The Enigma of Arrival, proves again and again to be a poor judge of that which he describes. And those who abhor Naipaul's obsession with India's filth, dirt and decomposition should also observe his treatment in this last novel of the environs of Stonehenge-the mystical geographical epicenter of the dying Empire in Hardy, but a quite unmystical, dung-strewn no-man's-land of firing ranges and rusting machinery, the detritus of a dead Empire, in Naipaul. And that death Naipaul describes as a painful one whose last gasps are a series of humiliations and horrors, not only to the once-colonized but also to the atavistic castaways of Empire, Jane in Guerillas, Yvette in A Bend in the River, Bobby in In a Free State, whose quest for sexual adventure in the "Third World" leads to brutal mistreatment, whose expectations-in a hideous parody of ejaculation-lead to expectorations.

That Naipaul is complex does not mean that we should unreservedly admire him, but it does mean that even at his worst he is a far more interesting a novelist than, for example, the much-praised Julian Barnes. In The History of the World in 101/2 Chapters Barnes manages a rather cunning burlesque of Conrad, while Naipaul's much earlier, ambivalent meditation on Conrad, his grudging admiration for the latter's stodgy, over-patinated (and as Achebe makes clear, artificial) realism, proves little more than a defense of his own insufficiencies of imagination and style.40 But it is Naipaul's essay which in identifying what is central to the reading of Conrad-his inescapable effect even on those who (like Achebe) detest him-is in the end more consequential and less ephemeral than Barnes's Amazonian caprice (whose conclusion, amazingly, is very Naipaulesque). By the same token, Naipaul's importance as a novelist need not be taken as a endorsement of his approach, for as Rushdie points out there are other, equally valid approaches in the creation of mongrel literatures:

El realismo magical, magic realism, at least as practiced by Márquez, is a development out of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely "Third World" consciousness. It deals with what Naipaul has called "half-made" societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called "North," where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what's really going on. In the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun. It would be a mistake to think of Márquez's literary universe as an invented, self-referential, closed system. He is not writing about Middle-earth, but about the one we all inhabit. Macondo exists. That is its magic.41
Again we can discern a writer defending his own chronotopes: Macondo is but another name for Peccavistan. Yet there is also a bold assertion which I find very important, and in its own way very moving, of a faith in a commonality of experience that can bridge the vast oceans between continents and between styles. And it is a faith that, whatever the odds are against us, we must cling to as Bakhtin did in the stygian night of Stalinist monologism, a fervent hope that some day things will cease to be done "in the usual way" and that our collective postcoloniality will indeed be replaced by a universal multicultural polycentrism. Until that time I shall continue to break the inherited rules, and end with a quotation, again from Rushdie, and again about one of those post-colonial encounters at one of those tiresome parties he can no longer attend. The chit-chat left him with the anger that gave birth to one of his greatest novels:
As to Afghanistan: after returning to London, I met a senior British diplomat at a dinner, a career specialist in "my" part of the world. He said it was quite proper, "post-Afghanistan," for the West to support the dictatorship of President Zia ul-Haq. I should not have lost my temper, but I did. It wasn't any use. Then, as we left the table, his wife, a quiet civil lady who had been making pacifying noises, said to me, "Tell me, why don't people in Pakistan get rid of Zia in, you know, the usual way?" Shame, dear reader, is not the exclusive property of the East.42


1 Finding the term not only inadequate (since it describes a range of disparate phenomena) but evocative of a past it claims, lexically, to have shed, Shohat is particularly perturbed by its "neutralization" of historically particular oppositional struggles against colonialisms of various kinds, just as McClintock is by its reinscription of individual histories into a grand récit which grants colonialism the "prestige of a history proper." In The Location of Culture Homi Bhabha finesses the difficulty posed by the term by substituting what it should be for what it is, so that "if the jargon of our times . . . has any meaning at all, it dos not lie in the popular use of 'post' to indicate sequentiality" (4). Describing postcolonial migration, diaspora, and exile as part of the "wider significance of the postmodern condition," Bhabha takes the term as an historical given, an acknowledgement of a persistent "contra-modernity" that is "a salutary reminder of the persistent 'neo-colonial' relations within the 'new' world order and the multi-national division of labour" (4-6).

2 I am paraphrasing Rushdie's angry essay, "'Commonwealth Literature' Does Not Exist" (see Imaginary Homelands 61-70).

3 Ibid. 69.

4 Bakhtin introduces the concept of polyglossia in his early essay "Epic and Novel" (see The Dialogic Imagination 12), although he elaborates on its import only in his longer works (see, for instance, The Dialogic Imagination 61-67).

5 See Imaginary Homelands 69-69.

6 As for instance, in "Epic and Novel" (see The Dialogic Imagination 11-12).

7 Ibid. 61-63.

8 Perhaps the most interesting recent acknowledgement of Bakhtin's influence can be found in Robert Young's Colonial Desire (see, for instance, 22-23). But Bakhtin's migration into the center of postcolonial discourse was ensured by Timothy Brennan's contribution to Bhabha's Nation and Narration (see 50-55, 60) and by Bhabha's own writings both in this work and in the similarly influential The Location of Culture (see 142-144 and 188-192).

9 Shohat, in fact, points very succinctly to the disciplinary problems that the ambiguity and even willfully ungrammatical use of such terms must entail (see 100-101), although my own use of the terms here differs considerably from hers.

10 I am not aware of any English translation of the debates which took place in Moscow in December of 1934 and January 1935, but the various interventions of the disputants and the bloodcurdling attacks on writers and critics by their fellows, as well as György Lukács's long condemnation of the novel as the vehicle of bourgeois ideology (to which Bakhtin replied in "Epic and Novel") are all reproduced in Vittorio Strada's important book Problemi di teoria del romanzo (see, especially, 5-132, to see how much was at stake in the debate about the novel). Bakhtin was responding to Lukács's opportunism in the wake of the purge of the arts that was just beginning, and he was defending not only his fellow critics, many already stigmatized by the newly-derogatory epithet "Formalist," but also the banned Zamyatin (long dead in exile), the silenced Bulgakov, the soon-to-be arrested, tortured and executed Babel.

11 While sensing the inadequacy of the persistent term "Third World," even citing Aijaz Ahmad's denunciation of its totalizing generalism and Arjun Appadurai's argument for the emergence of dispersed hegemonies, Shohat and Stam choose to retain "Third World" as a point of resistance and unity, a shared struggle against neocolonial dominance ignored (or even erased) by the term post-colonial (see Unthinking Eurocentrism 25-49). Note that in these pages Shohat and Stam are sufficiently conversant with the problems of "Third World" to insist on its retention only until the center of resistance can be shifted to the far more defensible terrain of "multicultural polycentrism."

12 Our postcoloniality, which is not a thing to celebrate but to mourn can, I think, be demonstrated by yet another means: a consideration of the fundamental asymmetry placed on the value of human life, an asymmetry recapitulated daily on television news and in the media. Would the Shell Oil Company or British Petroleum have dreamed of contributing to the armed suppression of Scottish protests about North Sea oil? Would Her Majesty the Queen have ordered the execution of her Poet Laureate if he had objected to the toxic destruction of some native habitat? (Or rather, why is it that Ken Saro-Wiwa, who wrote good poetry and had strong political feelings, was hanged, when John Betjeman, who wrote bad poetry and had no political views to speak of, was let off scott free?).

13 The phrase, which is here more paraphrase, is taken from The Wretched of the Earth, in which Fanon describes the colonized native as "a being hemmed in" (29).

14 See The Writing of History 210.

15 Personal communication by Sebastian Tong.

16 See "Notes on the 'Post-Colonial'" 102.

17 See, especially, Chapters 3 and 4 (308-345).

18 Note, especially, the two conversations of the main protagonist, Samba Diallo, in which he discusses his "hybrid" state (see 112-113 and 158-161).

19 And certainly it is this flamboyant self-consciousness which, in the bibliographical indexes devoted to the writers, leads to the coupling of "Rushdie" and "Ondaatje" with "post-modern" just as often as with "post-colonial," and which has uncoupled them from "Indian/Pakistani" and "Sri Lankan" much more effectively than, for instance, "Naipaul" and "Narayan" from "Trinidad" and "India."

20 See 24.

21 Ibid. 34.

22 Ibid. 111.

23 See Running in the Family 17-21.

24 See Weiss 6-10.

25 See Running in the Family 206.

26 It is this same hypnotic indeterminacy, incidentally, which is captured so poignantly in a number of other exilic masterpieces, Jonas Mekas's autobiographical Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), Fernando Solanas's Tangos: Exiles of Gardel (1983) and Marilu Mallet's Canadian film of memories of Chile, Journal inachève (1983).

27 See the glossary in The Dialogic Imagination 425-426. In contrast to the understandable neglect of the "chronotope" concepts such as "carnival" have played an important role in the study of postcolonial literature (see, for instance, the books by Stam and Weiss, both of which treat "carnival" extensively).

28 See Harris 120-121.

29 See 24.

30 Muller, Yakada Yaka ii. 31 Dissanayake and Wickramagamage give perhaps the subtlest and most carefully reasoned of all analyses of Naipual, recognizing not only his debt to Western epistemologies and pathologies of representation (see the general statement on travel writing in 1-20), but also some of the complexity of his attempt to achieve a "fuller comprehension of his own self-identity" (73), something that critics like Rob Nixon fail to see.

32 Nowhere more so than in Rushdie's most recent novel, The Moor's Last Sigh, where the character-narrator steps out of his fiction to play the role of movie critic (see 168-169), a role which a certain Salman Rushdie once played for the newspapers.

33 I refer not only to Rushdie's eloquent and remarkably Bakhtinian defense of his novel, The Satanic Verses, in Imaginary Homelands (see 393-414), but also to his concessions to terror as recorded in a number of places (in chronological detail, in fact, in The Index on Censorship 18.5 [May/June 1989]: 14-15) and his defense by such writers as Soyinka (see the same issue in The Index on Censorship, 20-21, 30). Note that The Moor's Last Sigh is an extended attack on anti-Muslim Hindu fundamentalism, and that Rushdie appears to be genuinely apologetic for having caused offense to some individual Muslims (see his "My Decision" in The Index on Censorship 20.1 [Jan. 1991]: 34) if not for his attacks on hypocrisy and intolerance.

34 Rushdie tells us that the incidents occurred weeks apart, but they are sandwiched in his memory as almost simultaneous and cumulative (see Imaginary Homelands 61).

35 See Hopes and Impediments 1-2.

36 I refer, of course, to one of Vonnegut's marvelously mongrel essays, "Biafra: A People Betrayed," in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (see, especially, 149-151).

37 See An Area of Darkness 43.

38 Narayan's Berkeley is confined to pages 164-167 of his autobiography, the only section which quotes journal entries, while Naipaul's deconstruction of Malgudi takes around nine pages of classical close-reading (see India: A Wounded Civilization, 18-27).

39 See India: A Wounded Civilization 27.

40 See Barnes 191-220 and Naipaul's "Conrad's Darkness" in The Return of Eva Perón 223-245.

41 See Imaginary Homelands 301-302.

42 See Shame 24.

Organiser's note: I have myself discussed this problem in relation to the Southeast Asian context in my forthcoming study, Ismail S. Talib, “After the (Unwritten) ‘Postcolonial’ in Southeast Asia: What Happens Next?” in “The Silent Word”: The Role of the Unwritten in the Production of Meaning, edited by Robert Young et al. (Singapore: Singapore University Press). Back to the original position in the text.


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