Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction
Nicholas Harrison's wonderfully subtle, engaging and theoretically engaged reflection on many of the most resonant questions of postcolonial literature and criticism is a refreshing departure from the tendency within postcolonial studies to continually seek out undiscovered voices in the name of expanding diversity. Harrison's approach is, instead, to select a small number of well-known 'classic' texts and authors — principally Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Camus's L'Étranger, Chraïbi's Le Passé simple, and Djebar's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement — and to subject them to sustained close reading, in order to tease out and force us to reconsider the critical assumptions underlying the use of such terms as 'representative', 'identification', 'racism', 'realism', 'universality' and 'historical context'. A significant part of his strategy is to guide us more attentively through the history of the critical reception of these texts, and to broaden his discussion to encompass larger questions of interpretation and readerly expectation. The result is always enlightening, and often stunningly effective: Achebe's charge of racism in Conrad opens out onto a rethinking of the relationship between fiction and the historical circumstances of its composition; Harrison's reading of L'Étranger (as good an account as any of the status of the 'realism' of Camus's text when read in the context of its highly problematic racialism) is in itself an important intervention in Camus criticism; and his reading of Djebar is constantly alive to the complex textuality of her autobiographical writing. There is a restless intelligence at work throughout, as well as a refusal to settle for easy resolutions of theoretical tensions and aporias, and I would recommend this text emphatically to anyone wanting not just to understand what is at stake in postcolonial theory today, but to see a fine example of fluent, attentive reading in action. Harrison rightly questions the 'conscience-salving' aspect of the appeal of postcolonial studies, and indeed the very status of postcolonial criticism as a viable independent field of scholarship, insofar as it can be seen in fact to deal somewhat inadequately with broader questions of literary interpretation that have been more powerfully theorized by apparently non-postcolonial writers such as Barthes, Genette and Blanchot. To my mind, the truly interesting moments of Harrison's text are those points at which it hesitates, as it were, on its own theoretical threshold, such that at the far end of his readings we often find him straining to push the discussion towards larger, quasi-philosophical concerns (literature, or criticism, or theory 'as such'), although never quite wanting to abandon his own postcolonial 'interest'. I was left wondering as I put this book down whether something called 'postcolonial criticism' is even possible; but the fact that this is perhaps the [End Page 418] most resonant question of the book is a measure of its significance, and also of its intellectual strength and honesty.