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  • Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction
  • Clarisse Zimra
Nicholas Harrison. Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction. Cambridge: Polity, 2003. 221 pp.

In dealing with authors at the core of the current culture tussles, Postcolonial Criticism aims to teach us how to read or, rather, to re-read ourselves reading. Leery of the abstractions that have accompanied the semantic slippage of the postcolonial, Harrison intends, as he tells us with his first sentence, to shake loose from an academic canon in thrall to "colonialism and its wake" (1). To this end, he offers "case studies" on such key figures as Joseph Conrad by way of Chinua Achebe (chapters 1, "Colonialism and Colonial Discourse," and 2, "Racism, Realism and the Question of Historical Context"); Albert Camus (chapter 3, "'Race,' Reading and Identification"); Driss Chraibi (chapter 4, "Representation, Representativity and 'Minor' Literatures"); and Assia Djebar (chapter 5, "Writing and Voice: Women, Nationalism and the Literary Self"). Chapter 6, the conclusion, is devoted to "Literature and the Work of Criticism," whereas chapter 7, the afterword, is given to Frantz Fanon, whose oppositional grid undergirds the project.

From Jameson to Ahmad, from Parry to Hutcheon, from Appiah to Spivak and Ashcroft and Griffith and Tiffin by way of Rushdie, we've all heard that the Empire might write/strike back; but how? Harrison proposes an interactive reading grounded in common sense and a meticulous attention to the dialectics of text and context: "I do not wish to assume anything much about the value or nature of literature—or of literary studies. . . . Rather, I want to raise questions about those issues" (1). And, however diffidently, he raises plenty of them. The devil is in the details.

Conrad and Achebe excepted, the writers selected belong in the Francophone area of international studies: Chraibi of Morocco, [End Page 798] Djebar and Camus of Algeria, and Fanon of Martinique and Algeria. The critical response to their work has largely focused on their national appurtenances: are they critical of or complicit in the center? Given the tight straitjacket of the author-function vis-à-vis the reader- function, Harrison's choice of a foursome results in brilliant cognitive mapping: as Camus is to Conrad, so Chraibi to Djebar. He pairs them off in order to "explore diverse strategies and examples of reading and historicization in response to particular texts" (1). Although Harrison does not use Jameson's work, one hears echoes of the US critic's famous first line of The Political Unconscious (1981), "Always historicize." To oppose Achebe's prescriptive reading, Harrison moves from the world in the text (imaginary Africa) to the text in the world (documents on Africa's partition) and back, a model of sensible and elegant transactive counter-reading that stands for the achievement of Postcolonial Criticism as a whole.

One can't help wondering why, in defending Conrad against Achebe, Harrison does not make use of Wilson Harris, another subject of Empire who is not shy about "writing back." Still, to rehistoricize the 1890s reception of Heart of Darkness at the very moment that it was published, the critic places the novella in clear and compelling dialectical relationship with other contemporary, nonfictional documents on Leopold's Free Congo State, documents that were circulating in Britain and the West at the time. Likewise, his patient detailing of how the narrative voice in Camus's Outsider would self-identify with Meursault, and thus challenge our constant vigilance as readers, demonstrates the imperceptible yet powerful undertow of a normative Eurocentric reader. Conversely, no amount of recontextualization can get Chraibi out from under the testimonial mode that pins him down as native informant. Luckier, perhaps, Djebar is able, in subverting the representation of representation, to move fictional autobiography into a mode of self-reading rather than self-writing.

Thus, what came across in the first chapter as critical diffidence of him/self as reader and him/self as critic turns into refreshing self-confidence by the time we read, in the concluding chapter, that "Readers' responses cannot be extrapolated solely from texts; consequently, to consider the subversiveness or indeed conservatism of the literary text as such or in itself may not...


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