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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Eugene L. Arva: Jay Rajiva. Postcolonial Parabola: Literature, Tactility, and the Ethics of Representing Trauma. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 208. ISBN: 9781501325342.

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Jay Rajiva. Postcolonial Parabola: Literature, Tactility, and the Ethics of Representing Trauma. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 208. ISBN: 9781501325342.

As part of the comprehensive field of postcolonial studies, postcolonial trauma studies have recently moved to the forefront of scholarly interests formerly anchored more or less exclusively in trauma and affect theory, Holocaust studies, cultural studies, memory studies, and/or historiography. A theoretical milestone in the fusion of trauma theory with memory and cultural studies, Michael Rothberg’s study Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009) has laid out new ways to think about the relationship between different communities’ histories of victimization, starting with the premise that “memories are not owned by groups – nor are groups ‘owned’ by memories.” In Rothberg’s view, “[m];emory’s anachronistic quality – its bringing together of now and then, here and there – is actually the source of its powerful creativity, its ability to build new worlds out of the material of older ones” (5) – hence the newfound relevance of trauma literature, or, rather, trauma narratives (including cinema and other media of communication) in today’s critical landscape. Other testimonies to this general trend are Stef Crap’s Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (2013) and Abigail Ward’s collection of essays Postcolonial Traumas: Memory, Narrative, Resistance (2015), which includes exegeses of Indian, Australian, Palestinian, Caribbean, African-American, South-African, and other global trauma narratives. It is in this theoretical environment that readers will receive Jay Rajiva’s recent book Postcolonial Parabola: Literature, Tactility, and the Ethics of Representing Trauma (2017), an ample, philosophy-laced, and at the same time original analysis of postcolonial trauma literature, based on the juxtaposition of two distinct postcolonial histories: Indian Partition and South African apartheid. Rajiva aligns his approach to trauma narratives with Craps’s critique of Western trauma theory and ethical argument that colonial traumata should be acknowledged on their own terms, in the spirit of a genuine cross-cultural engagement, as opposed ←313 | 314→to a universalizing Eurocentric point of view (Craps also signs one of the blurbs on the back-cover of Rajiva’s book).

In his introduction, entitled “Postcolonial Comparison,” Rajiva provides an overview of (1) the book’s subjects: postcolonial trauma literature representing the 1947 Partition of India and the South-African apartheid and post-apartheid eras (the 1996–1998 period of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission); the ethics of representing trauma; the nature of the reader’s encounter with a trauma text and his or her response to literary trauma; (2) the book’s underlying theoretical apparatus: trauma theory, affect theory, postcolonial studies, phenomenology, post-structuralism, and reader response theory; and (3) the main topic of each of the four chapters and the conclusion. The author builds a complex and intriguing argument by connecting the ethics of representing trauma – a creative process – with the encounter between reader and trauma text – a re-creative process reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s author/scriptor (reader) dichotomy. The Other, Rajiva suggests, is not just the postcolonial subject, but also the literary narrative itself, “the corpus of the text, the body, if you will, of the literature, which leads to the reader’s encounter with the text as a mass” (9). This point of view leads the author to a demonstration of the other main topic of the book, the “tactility of the reader’s encounter with literary trauma”: it is the narrative structure of the postcolonial texts discussed in the following chapters that engages their reader “in a relationship that is at once aesthetic and ethical” (9). Rajiva deliberately distances himself from those who expect theory to be objectively accurate, and underscores the uniqueness of his use of theoretical concepts to analyze literature; in his argument, “all theoretical application is metaphorical – built on a set of literary tropes and figurations that provide coherence and intelligibility” (13). He self-identifies his book as a “cross-pollination” of trauma theory, poetics, and phenomenology, meant to “generate an ethical engagement with postcolonial trauma literature” (14).

The first chapter, “Excess and Tactility: Toward Interpretation as Vexed Contact,” sets up the theoretical framework (trauma theory, affect theory, and phenomenology) for analyzing postcolonial trauma narratives in connection with reader response to trauma fiction. The chapter focuses on the work’s most relevant and probably most intriguing topic, the reading of postcolonial trauma as parabolic contact. Rajiva proposes a critical examination of tactility as the basis for reading postcolonial trauma. By questioning the core concepts of trauma theory, ←314 | 315→he describes postcolonial trauma literature as the “potential site of […] productive excess: a uniquely tactile encounter between reader and text that contains both visceral and interpretive dimensions” (20). In the section dedicated to the nexus between metaphor and phenomenology, the chapter engages in lengthy, albeit useful, philosophical considerations on contact and tactility. The author starts his argument by proposing a reevaluation of the ethics of reading as contingent because “when we ‘touch’ a text, we do not acquire mastery over it by the purity of a tactile encounter. The encounter is a touch, but it is also a contentious touch” (33). What follows are discussions of Edmund Husserl’s thoughts on tactile experience; Jacques Derrida’s critique of Husserl’s definition of touch; and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theoretical framework that “opens up the possibility of ethics as predicated on visual substitution” (38), which is relevant to our understanding of empathy: “my awareness of the world is now predicated on co-perception, the double act of perceiving the other and perceiving the other as a perceiving subject” (38). The chapter concludes this meticulously corroborated philosophical journey with one of the book’s core ethical stances: awareness of the danger of reducing the experience of the Other to one’s perception of the Other; this is how “postcolonial literature makes the figurative limit of trauma’s representation ethical…” (41).

A brief interpretation of Emmanuel Levinas’s ideas on the hegemony of Western thought – particularly the reductive quality of the security of knowledge inherent in “I think,” where unity of expression and utterance resides – is complemented with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s reading of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment in order to emphasize the moral danger “in positing an untroubled cognition that emanates from a unified, rational subject […] not burdened by the Other that he excludes…” (45). Rajiva concludes this ample theoretical chapter by stating his goal to “frame the experience of reading postcolonial trauma as vexed contact, a continual imbrication of sight and touch” (46). While the novels discussed in the following chapters contain representations of traumatized bodies, these texts, the critic points out, “are also bodies, shaped by their respective narrative structures” (46). This combination of texts representing bodies and texts as bodies ultimately shapes the ethical concerns of postcolonial trauma. Clarifying the work’s title (and including the graphic of a parabola with two asymptotes), the author explains the parabolic quality of postcolonial literary trauma as an essentially asymptotic movement, “always approaching a limit without ←315 | 316→arriving.” In postcolonial trauma narratives, “contact is continuously deferred, but movement is continuously open” (47).

The following chapter, “Transfixion and Subversion: The Unexpected Endings of J. Devi and Coetzee,” lays out the historical contexts of the Partition of India and South-African apartheid, and showcases two novels, The River Churning (2005), by Jyotirmayee Devi, and Age of Iron (1990), by J. M. Coetzee, which, by employing multiple layers of narrative structure, offer what Rajiva considers “tactile encounters” with literary trauma. Devi’s text offers an example of pre-Partition violence, rape, perpetrated on the main character when she was a young girl. Her trauma, however, resides not only in that initial experience, but also in her “subsequent encounters with the narrative structure of the community discourse on rape” (61). Coetzee’s novel makes narrative complexity contingent on the introduction of the literary text as body, “the ethical posture of both the body of the text and the body of its narrator [who is dying of cancer]” (77). Subversion of the state’s attempt to control the representation of trauma is present in both texts.

Chapter 3, “Seduction and Substitution: Behr, Sidhwa, and the Child Narrator,” addresses the issue of “vexed contact” by analyzing the child narrators of two novels, The Smell of Apples (1993), Mark Behr’s debut work, and Cracking India (1992), by Bapsi Sidhwa, originally published as Ice Candy Man (1988). Both works present the reader with a strangely euphoric experience of reading trauma. Rajiva discusses both texts’ reliance on the innocence of child narration “as a deferral of the full presence of trauma, in which an initial narrative caress [a sign of misdirection, false euphoria, and delusion] leads to the seduction of the reader” (89). The children’s candor and omission of details of violence become methods of concealment unquestioned by the reader. In the context of fantasy literature, John Timmerman referred to the child character and/or narrator as someone who “senses what is good and evil with a capacity which does not have to analyze good and evil into categories but instead makes instinctive, intuitive judgments about them,” all the while maintaining his imaginative ability (37) – a description that also applies to Behr’s and Sidhwa’s narrators, who frame the literary experience of postcolonial trauma “in terms of innocence lost” (92).

Sidhwa’s use of English shows its ambivalence as the language of colonial legacy, “both betrayer and liberator”; therefore, Rajiva opines, “[v];iolence inhabits English as the untold Other of the text” (114). This ←316 | 317→remark echoes the German-language poet Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel (1920–1970) in a Jewish family in Czernowitz (today’s Ukraine), according to whom German was the only language which “gives back no words for that which happened, no justification; history is made under the name of one language and it is strange that people suffering the consequences of different historical segments start hating the language provoking the trauma, the disrupter…” (in Maftei, “The Exile Literature”). Rajiva ends the chapter with the conclusion that, if Western trauma theory is an inadequate means of understanding postcolonial collective and historical trauma, “it also falls short by way of a disavowed kinship with postcolonial literature across two distinct regions and traumatic eras, the apartheid of South Africa and the Partition of India” (130).

The fourth chapter, “Motion and Stillness: Surface as Depth in Dangor and Ondaatje,” focuses on the study’s central concept of “postcolonial parabola” in order to suggest the possibility of narrative surface as depth in Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit (2001) and Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000). “The body moves, a point on a map, toward a destination it will never reach. This is postcolonial trauma as parabolic movement, concentrated energy transmitted in wide beam” (133), Rajiva explains. Traumatic experience as surface is the central idea of the book’s penultimate chapter, which also questions the idea of a stable relationship between reader and text. The critic’s main argument is that both novels place the reader in a confrontation with a “surface of traumatic representation that resolutely refuses to provide closure, or ‘depth’ ” (133); the two works thus share the space of postcolonial parabola, “[d];eferring the traumatic encounter in order to present it, approaching but not arriving” (178).

In the conclusion, entitled “Postcolonial Relation,” Rajiva projects the future of his book’s conceptual framework by discussing nexuses between hybridity, psychic opacity, and postcolonial trauma. Breaking away from the previous chapters, the conclusion shifts focus onto the postcolonial space of the Caribbean, specifically Haiti and its violence-marred history. Rajiva discusses Edwidge Danticat’s novel The Dew Breaker (2004) and connects her representation of Haitian trauma to concepts developed by the Martiniquan philosopher Édouard Glissant in Poetics of Relation (1990): métissage, creolization, and Relation. Métissage is not only an encounter between different cultures, but also a “shock, a kind of cognitive jolt that allows for the possibility of creolization” (182); both processes are embodied in Glissant’s central concept of Relation ←317 | 318→(which is fundamentally incompatible with chain and filiation), and tie in seamlessly with Rajiva’s emphasis on the diversity and uniqueness of the postcolonial experience.

Postcolonial Parabola is built on solid theoretical grounds leading to a complex and intriguing argument. Settling for a synecdochic “Reader,” however, instead of discussing specific categories of readers from different geo-cultural spaces, seems guilty of the same fallacy as that of universalizing postcolonial trauma by using culturally reductive Western trauma theory concepts. Such a relevant premise that apparently begs the question does not diminish the scholarly value and methodological originality of Rajiva’s work; if anything, it might even constitute an axiological starting point in future arguments underscoring the uniqueness of postcolonial trauma literature and the encounter with it by various readers.


Eugene L. Arva

Independent Scholar (Germany)

Works Cited

Craps, Stef. Postcolonial Witnessing. Trauma out of Bounds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Maftei, Mara Magda. “The Exile Literature – A New Perspective: Hoffman, Celan, Cioran.” The Guardian, April 28, 2001. Accessed August 13, 2018.

Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Timmerman, John H. Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Press, 1983.

Ward, Abigail, ed. Postcolonial Traumas: Memory, Narrative, Resistance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.