TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 6.7. The travel: knowledge, communication and / or power
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Carmen Andras („Gheorghe Sincai Institute for Social Sciences and the Humanities, Târgu-Mureş, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Fictional worlds, political borders:

exilic identities in postcolonial and post-communist literature

Anca Baicoianu (University of Bucharest, Romania) [BIO]



The migrant suspects reality: having experienced several ways of being,
he understands their illusory nature. To see things plainly,
you have to cross a frontier.

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: 124–25


The troubled history of the 20th century had it that it had been given many names – one of which was "the century of migrations". Exile, therefore, which is largely understood as an existential and epistemological condition, as a spatial and temporal state of being, belonging, and becoming, embedded in its own material and metaphorical contexts, became one of the most fascinating subjects of (post)modern literature. A good reason for that is perhaps the fact that an astonishing amount of the century's greatest literature has been written by emigres, either voluntary exiles like Joyce, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Salman Rushdie, or political refugees banished by the authorities or fleeing personal danger - Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Czeslaw Milosz, Hannah Arendt, Milan Kundera, Joseph Brodsky, and, more recently, Dubravka Ugrešić and Slavenka Drakulić, among others.

In what follows, I will provide an intertwined reading of both fictional and non-fictional accounts of the exilic experience as lived and described by two writers: Salman Rushdie and Dubravka Ugrešić. In doing so, my aim is to show that literature is at the same time knowledge-producing and practice-shaping, in the sense that it provides not only metaphors, but also models for understanding - and dealing with - the traumatic experience of migration. The writer's position is such that it allows him/her to be at the same time the subject and master of his/her experience, living simultaneously inside and outside History, and the histories it provides the matter for. The writer is the migrant par excellence, for he/she belongs to no place other than the space between the world and the words. The writer has an extensive knowledge of borders of any kind: he/she is a perpetual trespasser. What distinguishes the writer from the rest of us, who also live and tell, is the fact that his/her telling could be described not only as a mere representation - the reenactment of experience by means of words, the narration of what once was, or was not - but also, and firstly, as a presentification, the making present of something that is not here, neither could it be, since it exists only when - and because – it is told.

If we humans have the ability of putting the world into words, the writer takes another step forward, completing the loop: he/she presents us the word made "world". The role of the inverted commas I'm using here is to point out, if need be, that there is a radical difference between these two kinds of worlds, the real and the fictional. In a certain sense, the worlds of literature are always, and by their very nature, utopias, because they are trying to respond to the profound and profuse desire of making sense not by explaining things, but by giving them a form: they are to reality what the rhyme is for the riddle.

As Gyorgy Konrad once put it,

a novelist does not need a minister of foreign affairs: if he is not prevented from expressing himself, he is capable of doing so. He does not need an army either, he has been occupied for as long as he can remember. [Writing] is not the discourse of a politician, nor of a political scientist, nor of a technocrat, but the opposite: of a cynical and dilettante utopian. (from The Antipolitics of a Novelist) (1)

From this point of view, literature is also an antipolitics, in the sense that it does not provide pragmatic means of dealing with facts, but an alternative to the factual itself; instead of describing and handling the actually existing world, it produces non-existent variants of it from the very same materials. In literature, unlike in real life, truth equals non-correspondence, and thus its definition of reality is the exact opposite of the Aristotelian understanding of the term - not a tautology, but a contradiction: A is non-A, the world is fiction.

It is precisely this detachment from the facts that imbues literature with a critical function. Just as you can't grasp the functioning of a mechanism from in-between its idlers and gears, you can't get a privileged insight on the construction of reality - a fictionalization of sorts in itself – but from, among others, the eccentric interiority which is the realm of fiction. If literature has an epistemological and heuristic function – and indeed it does – it comes from its capacity of producing not copies or replica of "the real", but rather projections, or formalizations, of it.

But apart from form, literature is also movement: an incessant move from things to words and back again. The construction it entails is at the same time a reconstruction, an invention that restores the other, the distant, the foreign, the lost. Speaking about the primum movens of his acclaimed novel Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie underlines the force of this desire:

The photograph [of his childhood home in Bombay] had naturally been taken in black and white; and my memory, feeding on such images as this, had begun to see my childhood in the same way, monochromatically. The colors of my history had seeped out of my mind's eye; now my other two eyes were assaulted by colors, by the vividness of the red tiles, the yellow-edged green of cactus-leaves, the brilliance of the bougainvillaea creeper. It is probably not too romantic to say that that was when my novel Midnight's Children was really born; when I realized how much I wanted to restore the past to myself, not in the faded grey of family-album snapshots, but whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor. (Rushdie 1991: 9-10)

In this short fragment, there are two major aspects that claim our attention. Firstly, the subtle dialectic between the world and its image/our imagining it: the evanescent quality of the past is contrasted with the (relative) permanence of the snapshot that captured in its continuous present/presence a lieu de memoire. But this same lieu de memoire proves to be in fact a shifter of memories: it is an essentialized, simplified version of the childhood home which, by its metonymic force, turns the whole of the writer's childhood into a black and white film. The role of the photograph adds up to the working of memory itself - we all know there is no way of retaining things past other than reducing and compressing them, just like that apple in the fairytales, with a castle hidden in its core. Reality, by contrast, is considerably richer and vaster; Rushdie speaks of colors, but there are shapes as well, sounds and odors the memory did not preserve, nor could the old photograph account for. It is precisely this complexity of the real place in Bombay that challenges the writer to produce another, more adequate, version of his childhood - a universe instead of a picture. And this desire is enhanced by the fact that the childhood, just like the house in Bombay, is inaccessible - the homeland, just as the past, has become a foreign country.

This sense of loss is another factor that triggers the desire to write, and in doing so to place a symbolic claim on the vanishing reality.

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge - which gives rise to profound uncertainties - that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. (Rushdie 1991: 10)

This situation is by no means different from that of any other emigre or refugee, be it a writer or not. Regardless of the reasons that determined the exile, leaving a country means losing a country - at least partially and/or temporary -, and this loss requires a symbolic compensation which can take various forms. And the "country" I'm talking about here is also a symbol, for it has nothing to do with the place on the map having been assigned conventional borders and passport series, but with a certain sense of belonging, of rootedness. The "urge to... look back" should be read, and this is the second major aspect of the fragment quoted before, as a need to reclaim ownership over oneself. The restoration of the past is not a gratuitous, value-free act, and it is not only the universe, but his/her own self that the one engaged in such a process wants to see whole again.

But, in Rushdie's case, as soon as he sets to the task he becomes aware of unforeseen problems and previously ignored dangers:

Writing my book in North London, looking out through my window on to a city scene totally unlike the ones I was imagining on to paper, I was constantly plagued by this problem, until I felt obliged to face it in the text, to make clear that (in spite of my original and I suppose somewhat Proustian ambition to unlock the gates of lost time so that the past reappeared as it actually had been, unaffected by the distortions of memory) what I was actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that my India was just that: "my" India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions. I tried to make it as imaginatively true as I could, but imaginative truth is simultaneously honorable and suspect, and I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let I say, willing to admit I belonged. (Rushdie 1991: 10)

Displacement disrupts identity and its reassuring continuum, forcing us all to face the fact that this continuum too is in fact constructed, that it is no more substantial than the trace left in the air by our hand waving goodbye. Confronted with the partiality of his own memory and with the specific requirements of the text (Proust's Remembrance of things past had already been written, so Rushdie had to devise another form for his narrative of recollection), he accepted the challenge and turned it into a literary device: his fictional universe is a world of broken mirrors which calls into question the illusion of historical and psychological continuity. But, in his own words,

there is a paradox here. The broken mirror may actually be as valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed [...], and it was precisely the partial nature of these memories, their fragmentation, that made them so evocative for me. The shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities. There is an obvious parallel here with archeology. The broken pots of antiquity, from which the past can sometimes, but always provisionally, be reconstructed, are exciting to discover, even if they are pieces of the most quotidian objects. (Rushdie 1991: 11–12)

While the past is "a country from which we have all emigrated", and the loss of it is subsequently an experience that all of us share, the exile - by force of the circumstances he/she is subjected to - can be said to live it in an intensified form, and greater still is the pressure of such an experience on the displaced writer, who, as shown at the very beginning of this presentation, finds him/herself already torn between two worlds. For the migrant, temporal disruption is echoed by spatial displacement, which gives the phrase "past is elsewhere" a concrete and painful meaning.

Interesting enough, what starts as an existential problem - the impossibility of going back, in space as well as in time - turns into a textual problem the writer is bound to confront. The knowledge of the fact that memory is inevitably partial and flawed, that it is subjected to distortions which in fact lead to the rewriting of the past from the present's perspective needs another, more appropriate discourse than the ones that were in use before. For a writer, to speak properly about things experienced or imagined is, first and foremost, a question of form, in the broadest possible sense, which accounts for the choice of genre, but also for the construction of characters and their relationship, the setting and course of the action, and so on and so forth.

Rarely do common people enjoy such narrative freedom; when speaking about their individual experience, the authenticity of what they say is usually content-based. It so happens that a false continuity or causality is imposed upon the fable by a discourse devised for a completely different purpose; or, in such cases when they adapt their use of language to the disruptive experience of, say, migration, they are unaware of doing so. This limited capacity of dealing with words, which is in fact a consequence of the widespread view of language as being merely instrumental, the carrier of a worldview, is what makes literature so appealing, since it offers not only a recognizable content, but also an appropriate expression to go with. And, in doing so, literature re-enters the world: it gives a voice to what in real life remains unaccounted for, and by its way of presenting things opens up new perspectives.

Read from this angle, Rushdie's broken mirror of a novel is not only an image, but also a voice of the broken self. A voice which speaks primarily to - and about - himself: "a member of an Indian Muslim family in Bombay, then of a 'mohajir' - migrant - family in Pakistan, and now as a British Asian". The way it articulates this position, though, allows it to become a voice speaking to - and about - the migrant at large, and by means of that about the inevitable partiality and discontinuity of our world-knowledge:

[...] human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all the senses of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death. [...] Writers are no longer sages, dispensing the wisdom of the centuries. And those of us who have been forced by cultural displacement to accept the provisional nature of all truths, all certainties, have perhaps had modernism forced upon us. We can't lay claim to Olympus, and are thus released to describe our worlds in the way in which all of us, whether writers or not, perceive it from day to day. (Rushdie 1991: 12-13)

From the fragments cited above, the writers reveals himself as a nostalgic ironist, a lucid utopian of the past, but also as a thorough analyst of the present as well as a projectionist of the future. His unreliable, fractured narration is an analogy of the way in which we attempt to "read" the world, and a warning against the alleged innocence of such readings. Antipolitical - and, at times, even counter-political - as it is, it can change our policy-making by calling into question long established notions of "truth", "nationhood", "validity", "belonging". By the very nature of his/her job, the writer is critical of the world - all the more so the one who, crossing a frontier, sets him/herself free. For freedom, as Kris Kristofferson has taught us long ago through the voice of Janice Joplin, "is just another word for nothing left to lose". And with nothing to lose you have nothing to fear.





1 Quoted in Dubravka Ugrešić, The Culture of Lies. London: Phoenix House, 1998, p. xi

6.7. The travel: knowledge, communication and / or power

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For quotation purposes:
Anca Baicoianu: Fictional worlds, political borders: exilic identities in postcolonial and post-communist literature - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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