|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||15. Nr.||August 2005|
2.8. Central Asia and the Modern
World: confrontation, dialogue or interactivity?
David Clark (Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Universite de Montreal, Canada) [BIO]
Bakhtiyor Khudoinazarov's film 'Luna Papa' is an extraordinary demonstration of the artistic capacity to achieve a marriage between regional particularities and global concerns. The narrative events are very much situated in local mores and traditions (an unmarried woman's pregnancy causes her to be shunned in her village), but the response of her father (who helps and protects her in defiance of local customs), as well as the resolution of the story, point towards a universal response. This universal approach to narrative is also signified by the use of metaphor and magic realism - impossible occurrences, miraculous coincidences, mystic events - which are elements contained in literature globally. The fact that the story is situated in Tajikistan gives strength, depth, and plausibility to the central conflict of the story; however, the resolution of the conflict is independent of its nationalism.
Note that although this film is very much an Eastern film as far as location, filming, production, etc. are concerned, it has actors from Germany and Russia as well as from Tajikistan - an indication that cultural events are strengthened by cultural diversity, rather than weakened. This may sound like something of a platitude, but even a cursory examination of some modern trends in Western literature demonstrates that the question is begged.
To explain: from writers of disparate backgrounds come disparate novels, to be sure. Graham Greene's literary credentials are impeccable and irrevocable, and his novel The Comedians has all the authority of a fully established writer. Barbara Kingsolver has written some very good books (most notably The Poisonwood Bible), and some not-so-good books, while Childhood is André Alexis' first novel. What these books have in common, however, is their area of focus, which is the experience of the 'other' in new cultures.
I have chosen to talk about Graham Greene partly because his position in the canon of modern Western literature generally goes unchallenged (and his writing therefore constitutes a useful point of reference), but also because he writes from a position of barely-cloaked cultural superiority and subjectivity.
Greene had an incurable habit of writing reportages - he was very much the ironic journalist sending dispatches to the readers 'back home', whether writing of moral ambiguity, of the limits of love and faith, or of Haiti, the setting for The Comedians. This book, which is among his bleakest and darkest novels, is the narrative of a man who both loves and hates his adopted country, but who never crosses the cultural line that divides 'us' and 'them' (nor does he ever make the attempt).
Kingsolver's novel, on the other hand, concerns overt cultural aggression: the Prices, a missionary family, come to the Belgian Congo and attempt to convert the inhabitants of a small village to Christianity.
Alexis' novel speaks of the experience of cultural otherness through the accident of birth - Thomas MacMillan, an adult of Trinidadian decent, tries to come to an understanding of himself through the lens of his Canadian childhood.
In these novels of intercultural expression, can we say that there is a basis for suggesting that there is some comfort with the notion of interculturality, or is it still a myth, 35 years after The Comedians?
Of course there are many other Western writers I will not touch on, and who also explore interculturality (Doris Lessing, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Walker, Amy Tan...), but I believe the choice of these three works is apposite, given constraints of space as well as the broad spectrum of Western society and experience represented by them.
Graham Greene is so quintessentially British that he's almost a caricature. Schooled at Oxford, employed by The Times as well as the British Foreign Office, renowned for his literary gloom, pessimism, and understatement, it is impossible to think of him as having come from anywhere else.
So he must have had a particular resonance in mind when, early in The Comedians, his narrator Henry Brown describes one of the crew: "the black steward... took the first opportunity as he added water to my gin to whisper in my ear, 'I'm a British subject, sah.'"
Why this detail? It immediately establishes the presence of the 'other', the something which is most decidedly not British, and which hovers over the novel as a menace to Brown, the Smiths (his innocent American companions), and his not so innocent British acquaintance. Greene heightens the distinction by implying that there are no links between the two cultural groups: "However much [Smith] loved the blacks, it was in a white world he lived..."
Greene's first mention of the republic of Haiti is as a bleak island, which is "no longer an attraction for tourists." Again, this is very much the perspective of the outsider - a statement that suggests that Haiti is characterized by its visitors rather than by its inhabitants.
This is reinforced by the rather absurd claim that "history in Haiti is a matter of a few centuries..." True, this is a claim made by one of the characters in the novel, and not by Greene himself, but since the statement goes unchallenged (and Greene was not one to let a possibility for irony slip away from him), there is a basis for believing he subscribed to this point of view.
There are other, more overtly colonial overtones to his writing: "Haitian women are the most beautiful in the world, I think, and there were faces and figures there which would have made a fortune for their owners in a Western capital."
This is a rather appalling passage - Greene's famous cynicism at its worst - and is another manifestation of his inability to see other cultures through anything but Western eyes.
In his description of a traditional Voodoo ceremony, he exposes a similar chauvinism: "Between us stood the pole of the temple, stuck up like an aerial, to catch the passage of the gods." This is a classic example of European interpretation, using European logic, of a non-European phenomenon. Well-written, perhaps, but also condescending in a most Western way.
This is one of the aspects of a legacy that Western literature has to contend with, when it comes to representations of interculturality. To be fair, Western literature is not uniformly colonial, but Greene's position of eminence gives his thinking an undeniable weight.
After Greene, The Poisonwood Bible reads like an antidote, and like Greene's anti-hero Brown, the Prices come to a new culture with notions of Western supremacy intact: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle." However, it is the extent to which they are changed by a new (and incomprehensible) culture, which provides the backbone of the story.
Their Western beliefs and truisms are horribly distorted by their African experience. When the father, a Baptist preacher, tries to plant American seeds in his garden (to recreate Eden, so to speak) a native plant called the poisonwood tree afflicts him with terrible rashes. His attempts to speak the language similarly underscore his fatal inability to impose Western ideas on Africa:
"'...Jesus is Bangala!' declares the Reverend every Sunday at the end of his sermon... Bangala means something precious and dear. But the way he pronounces it, it means the poisonwood tree."
One of the Reverend's own daughters reads her (Western) books backwards, as though to emphasize the idea that the West's perception of Africa is topsy-turvy. In fact, the whole of his family, struggling to comprehend the Congo with a Western mentality, is essentially destroyed by their experience: "...I was afflicted with Africa like a bout of a rare disease, from which I have not managed a full recovery."
All this stems from an inability to cross the cultural divide, an inability to properly translate the experience into terms that are meaningful to anyone whose cultural vocabulary is exclusively Western: "...Africa shifts under my hands... refusing to be any place at all, or any thing but itself."
Thematically, the search for identity is what underlies Alexis' novel Childhood, and although the book portrays a fully intercultural experience, it is pessimistic in its own way. The book's narrator, Thomas MacMillan, is a second-generation Canadian whose reflections on his psychological, emotional, and cultural roots help him to put his mother's death in perspective.
However, from the narrator's point of view, the first certainty is that there is no certainty, culturally speaking. His grandmother's last words to him are "Thomas, is that you?" and this question reverberates throughout the novel. In his attempt to discover who he is, he observes that even his ties to his ancestral homeland cannot be taken for granted: "No sleep, no rest, no blindness, no stasis can keep home home, so you might as well [leave]."
And: "What a dire thing travel becomes when home won't persist."
Cultural dislocation brings on a heightened self-awareness, as well as corresponding uncertainties:
"Darren McGuinness said, in his usual friendly way, 'here nigger nigger nigger...' And for whatever reason, Margaret chose to defend me: 'He's not a nigger', she said. This brought such mirth from those around us, I wasn't sure if I should laugh or no."
His description of his grandmother's relationship with her adopted culture is characterized by a subdued kind of violence: "Her life, but for the years in Trinidad, was lived in Petrolia, and Petrolia crushed everything else from her so thoroughly that I could not have guessed her origins were anything but Canadian."
This violence is yet another variation on an intercultural theme, another indication that the first consequence of cultural displacement is a brutal kind of dislocation - both literal and metaphorical. It is no surprise that MacMillan's closest friend, also Trinidadian, should turn out to share his sense of displacement - although he is displaced in time, as opposed to culture. A twentieth-century chemist living in a Victorian home and setting, "his home was somewhere in time, one in which Lampman and Scott might have taken tea." Note that Lampman's and Scott's temporal compatriotism outweighs all cultural considerations, as though interculturality really were a lost cause.
Underlying the expressions of interculturality in these three novels - which are as disparate as they are distinct - is a profound pessimism. Alexis, Kingsolver and Greene arrive independently at the same point of view, which is that interculturality implies a fundamental loss of identity. Of course, if interculturalism were always an easy and forgiving experience, it would probably not make its way into literature. Nobody writes, for example, about how to tie shoes, or about the mechanics of drinking water (not very compellingly, anyway).
But is the contemporary Western novel better placed to come to terms with this theme than its predecessors? Certainly the postmodern novel, which jumps at the chance to refer to itself, and to subvert traditional expectations of narrative, has ample tools at its disposition to talk of questions of identity. This is particularly true now that there is an established tradition of novels that narrate from shifting (even mutually contradictory) points of view.
Perhaps Western novelists took Oscar Wilde too seriously when he wrote: "To get to know oneself is the beginning of a life-long love affair." But it is also fair to say that getting to know other cultures is an increasingly well-documented concern of the Western novel. In any event, the evidence is quite clear: interculturality is no longer the myth it was in Greene's day, but in this respect even the most modern of novels adopts something of the quality of a cautionary tale.
The experience of cultural otherness is a relevant theme precisely because it is a fundamental human challenge, and because it is itself a metaphor for growth of consciousness. Ironically enough, the Western response - the equation of growth of consciousness with loss of identity - is a proposition that has been present in some Eastern theologies for many hundreds of years.
In fact the novel's weakness, as well as its strength, is that with rare exceptions it generally plays a documentary role rather than a prophetic role. This being the case, there may be some cause for celebration with respect to novels such as The Poisonwood Bible and Childhood, since although they point towards the end of Wilde's life-long love affair, they may also point towards the beginning of another.
© David Clark (Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Universite de Montreal, Canada)
Alexis, André, Childhood. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998.
Greene, Graham, The Comedians. The Bodley Head, London, 1966.Kingsolver, Barbara, The Poisonwood Bible. Faber and Faber, London, 1999.
2.8. Central Asia and the Modern World: confrontation, dialogue or interactivity?
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