Virtual Spaces of Postcoloniality: Rushdie and Ondaatje

© 1997 Anthony R. Guneratne, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

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

[The following essay, which is Part Five of "Anthony R. Guneratne's Virtual Spaces of Postcoloniality: Rushdie, Ondaatje, Naipaul, Bakhtin and the Others," has been adapted, with kind permission of the author, from the NUS site on which the original paper for the First Conference on Postcolonial Theory appears. = linked materials not in the original print version.GPL]

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." 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." (34). "To unlock a society," says this same narrator half-way through his tale, "look at its untranslatable words." (111).

Less deceptively, but no less persuasively, Michael 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." (Running in the Family 17-21). 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 (See Weiss 6-10).

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." (Running in the Family 206).

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, for the very different truth of reconciliation with the past.

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