- Literature, Partition, and the Nation State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel, and Palestine.
Why is it, opines Joe Cleary in his book, that colonial partitions inherited from the British Empire—Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, as well as India/Pakistan—have remained irresolvable? This is a timely question that deserves investigation. Literature, Partition, and the Nation State explores how “partition is constructed and contested in cultural and historiographical narrative” among Israelis, Palestinians, Irish, and Irish Unionists (2). The aim is to look at the cultural legacies of partition, and how its different trauma, hopes, fears, and truths were represented in literary works.
Cleary begins with an introduction that makes the convincing case for focusing on Ireland and Palestine, two cases in which the break up of British rule led to longstanding partition followed by violence based on religious and/or national beliefs. His analysis is at times mechanical—as when he gives too much historical agency to the colonial superpower—and at times uncomplicated—as when he views partition as a result of a clash between a minority community affiliated with colonialism (Unionists and Zionists) and anti-colonial, more emancipatory movements (Irish and Palestinians) (32, 38). But he is on the mark when he looks for common denominators by exploring the nexus between partition, literature, and nation. The analysis could have been enriched by referring to Meron Benvenisti, a distinguished writer and former vice-mayor of Jerusalem, who noted the analogy between Ireland and Palestine long ago and attempted to draw lessons from it.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I gives an overview of the Irish and the Israeli-Palestinian historical and literary cases. Chapter One questions the theoretical and practical justification of partition, and argues that while it ensured the self determination of one group (Unionists and Jews) it did so at the expense of the self-determination of another (Irish and Palestinians). Chapter Two argues that a “dialectic of tradition and modernity” (11) explains how the partitioned states legitimize themselves by successfully appropriating a self-representation that reconciled tradition and modernity, while their rivals were characterized as the worst aspects of both. As a whole, Part I is half way between background information and theoretical foundations.
Part II explores more specifically the topic of the book about literature and partition. Chapter Three analyzes two literary genres that have emerged in Northern Ireland: the romance-across-the-divide and the “Troubles thrillers.” Chapter Four focuses on the Israeli writer Amos Oz, arguing that although Oz has been an opponent of Israeli occupation, his criticism moves within “narrow and conservative” limits. Some of Cleary’s analysis describes the difficulty of Israelis, even from the left, to fully internalize the Palestinian tragedy. “What is missing from Oz’s fiction,” argues Cleary, “are fully realized Palestinian or Arab characters with their own interior lives and consciences, with their own voices…” (182). Finally, in the best chapter of the book, Cleary offers a sensitive and empathetic analysis of Ghassan Kanafani’s novel Men in the Sun, which was written in response to the Palestinian dispossession of 1948. His thesis is that Palestinians novels are formed by narrative realism mixed with (following Theodor Adorno) “modernist sensibility” (196). Here Cleary is at his best, and one can see where his political and scholarly heart lies.
The idea behind the book is excellent, but the execution is less successful. The three literary test cases only rarely shed light on each other. Over long stretches of text Cleary’s engagement with the literary texts seem too familiar. Perhaps this is a problem of tone and of voice. The book reads half way between a political essay on literature and an essay on the politics of literature. Every historical writing is, of course, political. The true art is to make the political analysis emerge from the engagement with the source material. But in this book the theoretical and political declarations in Part I (about colonialism and partition, for example) are not necessarily born by the interpretations...