- Postcolonial Gothic:Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the Sobhraj Case
Gothic motifs are Exceptionally Prevalent in postcolonial fiction, even from very different locations. Classic postcolonial transformations of Gothic emanate from the Caribbean (Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea), Africa (Bessie Head's A Question of Power) and India (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust). In Canada, Gothic is almost the norm, whether in Margaret Atwood's comic Lady Oracle, or Anne Hébert's Héloise (the Québecois tale of a vampire who haunts the Paris Metro), or Bharati Mukherjee's Asian-Canadian Jasmine. Not surprisingly, when the heroine of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women thinks of writing about Jubilee, Ontario, she promptly chooses to begin a Gothic novel. Nearer home, ghosts wander the pages of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, and J. G. Farrell begins his Empire Trilogy in a decaying Great House, complete with mysteriously fading heroine, demonic cats, and an ever-widening crack in the external wall. Further afield, what is Isak Dinesen doing on a coffee farm in Kenya in 1931 but writing Seven Gothic Tales?
It is Dinesen's activity which first raises the question of the ideological consequences of the transfer of a European genre to a colonial environment. Gothic does not always travel well. As Eric O. Johannesson was swift to note, Dinesen creates a fictional Africa [End Page 85] which is the counterpart of the eighteenth-century European feudal world of her tales (129). Setting out into an African forest, she writes: "You ride out into the depths of an old tapestry, in places faded and in others darkened with age, but marvelously rich in green shades" (Blixen 64). One suspects the Kikuyu did not share her view of a leopard as "a tapestry animal" (Blixen 65). Dinesen exemplifies here the tendency of the West to textualize the colonial, to transform the Other into a set of codes and discourses which can be recuperated into its own system of recognition, as hegemonic discourse accomplishes its project of endlessly replicating itself. The consequences of generic transfer suggest, then, the difficulty implicit in any counter-discourse—the danger of reinserting the norms of the dominant discourse within its own apparent contestation, as (to quote Richard Terdiman), "the contesters discover that the authority they sought to undermine is reinforced by the very fact of its having been chosen, as dominant discourse, for opposition" (65).
Rewritings, counter-texts, run the risk of slippage from oppositional to surreptitiously collusive positions. Postcolonial Gothic is therefore Janus-faced. At its heart lies the unresolved conflict between the imperial power and the former colony, which the mystery at the center of its plot both figures and conceals. Its discourse therefore establishes a dynamic between the unspoken and the "spoken for"-on the one hand the silenced colonial subject rendered inadmissible to discourse, on the other that discourse itself which keeps telling the story again and again on its own terms. As a European genre, Gothic cannot unbind all its historical ties to the West. Conversely, its ability to retrace the unseen and unsaid of culture renders it peculiarly well-adapted to articulating the untold stories of the colonial experience. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has analyzed the Gothic emphasis on the "unspeakable," both in the intensificatory sense of "nameless horrors," and in the play of the narrative structure itself, with its illegible manuscripts, stories within stories, secret confessions, and general difficulty in getting the story told at all. As Sedgwick puts it, Gothic novels are "like Watergate transcripts. The story does get through, but in a muffled form, with a distorted time sense, and accompanied by a kind of despair about any direct use of language" (Sedgwick 13).
In her analysis a central privation of Gothic is that of language. When the linguistic safety valve between inside and outside is closed off, all knowledge becomes solitary, furtive and explosive. As a result dire knowledge may be shared, but it cannot be acknowledged to be shared, and is therefore "shared separately," as the barrier of [End Page 86] unspeakableness separates those who know the same thing. This Gothic apartheid is almost a classic definition of Imperialism...