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Figuring the East: Segalen, Malraux, Duras, and Barthes
Theory And Cultural Studies
Marie-Paule Ha. Figuring the East: Segalen, Malraux, Duras, and Barthes. New York: SUNY P, 2000. xiv + 160 pp.
Marie-Paule Ha's study is situated within postcolonial studies and is especially invested in the incorporation of the Other as it is spoken for and about in Orientalist discourse. She focuses on Victor Segalen, André Malraux, Marguerite Duras, and Roland Barthes because of their complex relationship with the "oriental" colonial world. By proposing an "off-center reading" of texts usually placed within the metropolitan canon, she engages in a dialogue between East and West.
The first chapter, "Reading of the Asian Other," lays out the theoretical framework of her subsequent chapters and redefines East and West. This highly informative chapter reminds the reader that these two ever-shifting categories are not limited to literature.
The "Quexotic" Quest is both a study of Victor Segalen's unfinished Essai sur l'exotisme and an inquiry into the novel René Leys, written after his encounter with China. Despite his rejection of colonialism, Segalen was fascinated with "mythic" China. This trope recalls a common impulse in Orientalist practices to transform a society into an object of fascination, preferably in its fossilized form. Ha confronts Segalen's theory on exoticism and its "application" to China by exposing some of the contradictions inherent to his theory on colonial exotic literature and its applications.
The chapter on Malraux scrutinizes novels such as La Voie Royale, La Tentation de l'Occident, and a little-known 1926 essay, "L'Orient et Malraux." As few critics have interrogated Malraux's "colonial" perspective, Ha questions his reasons for venturing into Asia, contextualizing the crisis of the (male) intellectual in postwar years France. She criticizes what she sees as an apathetic, passive Asia in his novels, especially given that "he always claimed to have taken an intense interest in the activities of the Vietnamese and Chinese anticolonialist and nationalist movements during his Indochinese stay." In spite of his purported interest, Malraux's East is a world of degenerate natives, a place where Europeans gather for their own moral and physical regeneration.
This thought-provoking section moves too quickly between all the Malrucian "Asian novels," navigating between Indochina and China and eventually settling on his last unfinished novel Le Règne du Malin, now published in the Pléiade edition. Malraux's complex position vis-à-vis the colonial and colonized world is sketched out, but his well-known [End Page 1041] political involvement (considered radical at the time) with nationalist Vietnamese people is left out.
While effectively dealing with a predominantly masculine world in fiction, a discussion of Clara Malraux's (Malraux's wife) writing could have provided the reader with a feminine perspective on this Oriental fascination, a perspective Malraux, like Ha, does not consider. Instead, Marguerite Duras is the only woman writer discussed. Her unfortunate contribution to Philippe Roques's L'Empire français (1940) has been recently excavated, and Ha's identification of Duras as a white Indochinese is indicative of recent Duras criticism.
This "off-center" reading excels at underlining the contradictions at the core of the Durassian system. Ha appropriately insists on issues of race and class but does not interrogate the fact that L'Amant, a 1985 rewrite of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950) includes a Chinese lover who in the earlier text was not Chinese. The chapter closes with an interesting critical discussion of the Indian beggar woman--a character who has been embraced by feminist critics.
The last chapter is devoted to Barthes's seminal essay on Japan, L'Empire des Signes, and his essay on Aziyadé. According to Ha, his desire to write about Japan is a reaction against the European world and his culture. Kristeva's contemporary observations on China and Chinese women are not discussed here. Barthes affirms that Japan has no center and is permeated by the feminine and erotic. Ha's articulate critical examination might be tainted...