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  • Postcolonial Nations: Political or Poetic Allegories? (On Tahar Djaout’s L’invention du désert)
  • Réda Bensmaïa (bio)
    Translated by Denise Davis (bio)

Elsewhere, history crumbled in its course; it arrives to us in scraps.

—Tahar Djaout, L’invention du désert (82)

At a time when studies termed “postcolonial” were still in their first stages of theoretical elaboration, the article published by Fredric Jameson in Social Text on “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” immediately sparked an outcry perfectly indicative of what the future would hold for the project of postcolonial theory. 1 Jameson’s thesis formulated the relationship of the literary text to political and historical reality in what could not have been more pointed terms: “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel” (69; emphasis added).

A little farther down on the same page, Jameson lays out his thesis even more exactly. He writes: “Third-World texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic—necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (69; emphasis in original). As Ahmad Aïjaz pointed out in his own essay in Social Text, the generalization made by Jameson in formulating his thesis could easily lead to confusion and, what is more, imply a process of essentializing and/or “reduction to the one” that could not but provoke a rebuttal on the part of the reader who had a specific cultural and historical register in mind. From this reader’s point of view, for example, which is to say, that of a postcolonial Algerian, the attempt to inscribe “all third-world texts” under the same regime or Genre of signification can only raise doubt and suspicion: doubt as to the meaning of the totality aimed at (“all texts”); but also suspicion as to the texts’ nature and place of origin or transmission: is it principally a matter of works of fiction, and consequently of novels, or should poetic texts, dramatic plays, critical essays, and more generally all texts understood as “literary” be included in this undetermined “totality”? And if this were the case, what would the “limits” of the literary in question be? Knowing the importance both of writing called “poetic” to the Maghreb, as well as of the diversity of literary genres mobilized in the production of literary works in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, such an assertion kindles even greater reservations and confusion. 2 If it is true that an “allegorical” dimension 3 persists in most [End Page 151] so called postcolonial, this is clearly never the primary or singular “ambition” of the writers in question. When such is the case, experience shows that we often find ourselves before texts that could be called “didactic,” the artistic or literary value of which is slight or nil. This is true of literature proper—as in novels and poetry—but also of cinematic production: films. Legion are the novels and films produced by postcolonial writers and filmmakers “read” as “allegories,” though not so much as “allegories of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” as self-righteous and predetermined discourses on good and evil, on the pure and the impure, on true and false identity, on the glorious past scorned by colonialism, and so on. In short, as Roland Barthes would say of the pensum: the message can be made out from the first sentences, postures, and sequences!

With this in view, it becomes clear that when speaking of literatures called postcolonial, Jameson’s thesis is rendered problematic less by the idea that the allegorical is in postcolonial texts, 4 than by the absence of any reference to or problematization of the matter of the languages concerned. Indeed, one of the conditions that enables the critic to inscribe...

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pp. 151-163
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