Bakhtin's Chronotope, Hypnotic Indeterminacy, and Postcolonial Exile

© 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 Six 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 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]

The same hypnotic indeterminacy one encounters in Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje, incidentally, is captured 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).

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. [Dialogic Imagination 425-426]

Although other Bakhtinian concepts such as "carnival" have played an important role in the study of postcolonial literature (see, for instance, Stam and Weiss), the "chronotope" has been neglected.

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 (120-121), 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." 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.

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