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Reviewed by:
  • Barbara Eckstein
Sam Durrant. Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning: J. M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris, and Toni Morrison. Albany: State U of New York P, 2004. 142 pp.

In a taut 117 pages of text, Sam Durrant argues that in our collective postcolonial present, narrative is necessarily a work of mourning, and mourning is without closure. Thus, in this context, the distinction between mourning and melancholia that Freud attempted to make early in his career cannot hold. To explicate this process of postcolonial mourning, Durrant reads J. M. Coetzee's novels The Life and Times of Michael K , Foe, and Waiting for the Barbarians ; Wilson Harris's novella Palace of the Peacock ; and Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. Although these literary authors provide Durrant the means to organize his chapters, Walter Benjamin's angel of history and Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx also haunt these pages and become themselves objects as well as tools of interpretation. They are only the most salient figures from the rich philosophical, psychoanalytic, and literary critical context that inform Durrant's thinking.

In the interest of summary, I present his argument as one for mourning without closure, but summary should not be allowed to blunt the subtlety that Durrant brings to these poststructuralist insights nor flatten the peaks of his prose. He begins by defining the features that draw the work of Coetzee, Harris, and Morrison into one study under the rubric of postcolonial narratives. While they memorialize colonial histories, he asserts, they also "share a common horizon of emancipation, one that exceeds specific historical instances of liberation," such as laws and elections. Their work is "literary witnessing [that hopes to] bring into being a truly post colonial form of community" (2). The hopeful leap from literary witnessing to just community is always difficult, even for the most athletic mind, but the metaphor of the "common horizon of emancipation," exceeding specific history, is one that serves his deconstructive argument well, especially when reread retrospectively. For he means to "contest [what he considers] the mainstream understanding of postcolonialism as a recuperative, historicizing project and argue for the centrality of a deconstructive, anti-historicist ethics of remembrance" (7). Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, as well as Derrida, Benjamin, and others have established this ethical tradition over time. Durrant adds to it a nuanced reading of three modes of postcolonial mourning exhibited by the three authors under discussion and following from the recognition that "psychoanalysis, with its commitment to the well-being of the subject, encourages us to exorcise our ghosts, to come to terms with loss and move on. Deconstruction, [End Page 714] with its commitment to the other, to that which 'unhinges' the subject, urges us to learn to live with ghosts" (9).

In chapter one, "Speechless before Apartheid," Durrant begins the balancing act that is deconstructive thought. He writes, "in Coetzee's fiction, it is only in the breakdown of historicizing narrative that we are able to glimpse the materiality of history" (31). He explains that the bodies of the native young woman in Waiting for the Barbarians ; of Michael K, in the novel that bears his name(lessness); and of Friday, in Foe, on the one hand, are the material site of history and, on the other, are the site of "'a story with a hole in it' (Michael K 110), through which the subject seems to disappear" (32). Those colonizing subjects who try to narrate these stories—the magistrate, the doctor, and Susan—are rendered speechless before history, just as Adorno saw the limitations on post-Auschwitz art.

To read Coetzee as he does, Durrant lays a foundation that gains its strength from a combination of negative dialectics and deconstruction. This theoretical admixture is one of several places in his reading of Coetzee's three novels where his interpretation and my earlier work on these same novels have much in common. Although he cites one of my essays, he does not engage it. I would have welcomed more dialogue with my work as I welcome Durrant's addition of psychoanalysis and later Derrida to the interpretive mix.

"Speechless before Apartheid" begins and ends with one of the book's...


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