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As teachers of postcolonial literary studies in English departments around the world are aware, much of the suspicion that greeted the advent of this new field of study stems from the perception that its chief energies seem devoted to theoretical exploration; the field itself seemed curiously the product of theory, without an equivalently glamorous corpus of literary texts and readings to act as its empirical ballast. Further, most of the texts featured as literary evidence by postcolonial critics seemed too “foreign,” too noncanonical, and (this is a fear shared by teachers in New Delhi as much as by those in New Haven) too recalcitrant to older forms of critical exegesis. Historically, after all, those who taught English literature, even in the ex-colonies, always ended up teaching the value(s) of “Englishness,” while most postcolonial literature either ignored or attacked these values. But if Englishness seemed to be under siege, it was not only because, in the fifties and sixties, Britain shrank into a shadow of its earlier colonial pretension. Englishness was, above all else, a racist code of cultural and behavioral practices that had been forged in the service of empire, and it was in part its colonial success that elevated it into the hegemonic culture of Britain. All this was called into further crisis once Britain itself became home to a large, non-white, culturally distinctive, immigrant population from the Caribbean and South Asia, whose very presence questioned the supposed racial and cultural homogeneity of the nation and its official culture.
In Michael Gorra’s After Empire, this is the crisis that is diagnosed (and indeed exemplified) by the work of each of the three novelists he examines: Paul Scott, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. Gorra’s lucid and sensitive analysis argues that Scott’s decision to write about “the end of the Raj” allowed him to “define both Britain’s relegation to the historical margin of the late twentieth century and the concomitant emergence of those lands that were once its margin, the cultures that produced Rushdie and Naipaul.” This is of course not an argument that says that Scott begat Naipaul and Rushdie, but one that sees his novels as an acute examination of the cultural neuroses and pathologies engendered by colonialism, an examination [End Page 1038] that finds echoes in the writing of the later authors. If Scott writes of the empire in retreat, Naipaul is the itinerant cataloguer of the shambles it leaves behind, a writer in search of a home that he finds not in his native Trinidad, nor in his ancestral India, but, in a symptomatic irony, only (and uneasily) in England. Gorra is alert to Naipaul’s “hysteria” and sympathetic to his “rage” (a “rage that in other men and women brought independence into being, that made the postcolonial world”) and makes a compelling case that the only way to come to terms with Naipaul is to see him as part of the aftermath of empire. Rushdie is for Gorra the prime instance of the postcolonial writer so at ease in the language and culture of the colonizer that he can rewrite its most cherished shibboleths, transform its very sense of self.
Gorra is clear that he does not want to “assimilate [Naipaul and Rushdie] to England but rather to suggest how England, and English, might assimilate itself to them.” In this nice reworking of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” argument, Gorra points out that it is not only Englishness that has been redefined: “But what has also come to an end as it was is English literature itself.” If Naipaul and Rushdie are to be thought of as British writers (and Gorra is clear that that is a very limiting question), it is only if we recognize that they have transformed the literary culture of that postimperial nation into a special arena for postcolonial creativity and inquiry. In doing so, they have also created a body of prose weighty enough to demand attention, though it is clear that Naipaul and Rushdie represent very different, and...