Rushdie, Naipaul, and Blurring Postcolonial Borders

© 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 Seven 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 the original paper for the First Conference on Postcolonial Theory. [External Link]  = linked materials not in the original print version.GPL]

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." (Yakada Yaka ii). 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. 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.

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 -- 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.

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, 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, or the Chinua Achebe who finds himself having to denounce Conrad anew because of a chance encounter in a parking lot (see Hopes and Impediments 1-2). Rushdie tells us that he experienced these incidents occurred weeks apart, but they are sandwiched in his memory as almost simultaneous and cumulative (Imaginary Homelands 61). 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 ("Biafra: A People Betrayed," in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons 149-151). 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." (see An Area of Darkness 43). 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. (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 (India: A Wounded Civilization, 18-27).

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 (see India: A Wounded Civilization 27). 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; see Barnes 191-220 and Naipaul's "Conrad's Darkness" in The Return of Eva Perón 223-245. 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. [Imaginary Homelands 301-302]

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 (Shame 24).

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