Rushdie's monstrous "Commonwealth" and the Privileging of English

© 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 Four 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 no-longer extant NUS site on which the original paper for the First Conference on Postcolonial Theory appeared. [External Link]  = linked materials not in the original print version.GPL]

Postcolonialism also poses 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 in "Notes on the 'Post-Colonial'" about the once-programmatic anthology The Empire Writes Back (102), over any other native language), 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) (see, especially, Chapters 3 and 4; pp. 308-345). 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. Note, especially, the two conversations of the main protagonist, Samba Diallo, in which he discusses his "hybrid" state (112-113 and 158-161).

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; [External Link] Franz Fanon and George Lamming; Nuruddin Farah and [External Link] 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 [External Link] 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. 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."

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